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Costa Rica Is Now Running on 100% Renewable Electricity (fastcoexist.com)
404 points by prostoalex on Apr 1, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 158 comments



When a country accomplishes something really great, it’s not because they are small and the US is big. It’s because they are smart and we are dumb.

We hear this all the time. Portugal legalized drugs and it worked, but they’re small. Iceland forged their own path after the banking collapse, but they’re small. The Nordic countries have great education systems that cost less, but they’re small.

Always a great excuse when you really don’t want to learn from others.


Actually, if USAians used as many watts per person as Costa Rica(8x fewer - 1683 wpp vs 207 wpp[1]), our renewable infrastructure would be able to support us entirely(currently 13% of total generation)[2], and infact we would have power to spare.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_electricit...

[2] http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=427&t=3


Yes, but here in Costa Rica we do not need to spend energy warming our buildings in winter. Many businesses use air conditioner in the warmer zones, though. For example, in Guanacaste and Puntarenas.


Maybe we're dumb because we're big. More people = more odds of an ignoramus group having critical mass.


More people = greater diversity of opinions and interest groups, thus greater difficulty achieving consensus (or even majority).


If that were true China would be the most diverse nation on the planet, and the hardest to manage.

The problem in the US is the opposite - national policy is almost exclusively influenced by interest groups with very limited intellectual and cultural diversity.

There could easily have been a crash space-race type of program of renewables development at any time from the mid-70s onwards.

If that had happened, it's likely there would have been astounding developments in collection efficiency and energy storage.

But the Jurassic energy cos were never going the loss of face, I mean loss of profits, that would have led to.

So - here we are now.


You start out implying that China _isn't_ diverse, an dthen seem to argue that the US's problem is that we're more diverse. But you got it right the first time: China, especially in terms of leadership, doesn't listen to a bunch of diverse groups. They centrally control it without much concern for the whining of the luggage industry, or the furniture industry, or the cotton farmers. In the US, we listen to special interests because 1. we listen to those who talk and 2. special interests are very interested in a small thing that the general public doesn't care about.

A very small luggage industry can demand absurd luggage protectionism because people in that industry care a lot, and people outside of it are barely even aware that it's a thing. I won't change my vote based on whether you put massive tariffs on foreign-made suitcases, but people whose jobs depend on it will.

China avoids this by not caring about what people say.


More people ALSO means more odds of a genius group having critical mass.

Just saying it works both ways.


This always drives me nuts. It shows up often in all sorts of arguments. Socialized health care is a prominent one. Yeah, the US may have ten times the population, but we also have ten times the resources to put into it. There certainly exist problems that don't scale, but there are very few problems that can scale to, say, 30 million people but not 300 million people.

I wouldn't even phrase it as smart versus dumb. They accomplished it because they wanted to, and we don't because we don't. Maybe we don't want to because we're dumb, but I think it's good to frame it as "We could if we wanted to. Do we want to? Maybe we should want to."


The problem is less population and more population density.

It would be a small problem to provide socialized health care in Boston or San Francisco relative to West Virginia, for example. It would be a bigger problem to provide equivalent care. It is a bigger problem still to handle the bureaucracy to provide optimal care based on the problems each see.

I want socialized health care, but I don't pretend it is merely an issue of will.


There are places with low population density and socialized health care. Like large parts of Canada, for example.

You can always find something that's different, of course. Scale shouldn't matter, but the US is less densely populated than all those European countries. Canada doesn't count because 90% of the population is crammed against the southern border.

In one respect, these are very difficult problems, so you're right that it's not just an issue of will. In another respect, they have been solved, so we know it can be done. In that sense, is it not just an issue of will? If you decide to do it, and you put sufficient resources behind it, you know it can be done. If you're not doing it, it's because you ultimately don't want to.


> Scale shouldn't matter

And yet it does. Try administering all the various socialized healthcare systems in Europe strictly from Brussels. Get back to me when the whole thing has become a shambles.

> If you decide to do it, and you put sufficient resources behind it, you know it can be done.

The point isn't "can it be done" but rather "can it be done efficiently" because right now the spending in the US is only about 2x as bad as anywhere else. Shameful and embarrassing for sure! But the problem is largely one of economics, not will. Maybe we socialized and costs go down 50%, or maybe they only go down 20%, or maybe they go up 30%. There's no way to know until we try it.

As far as I can tell there's been no country thus far that's done socialized healthcare with the kind of genetic diversity that the US has. The US has sizable populations of people from all over the earth, so we have the "good fortune" to have to specialize in basically every genetic condition, predisposition, etc. That absolutely does increase costs.

I'm not saying that the healthcare model that the US has is optimal, or even good. But to suggest that it can't get any worse is to show a prodigious lack of imagination.


I guess there's no point in continuing the conversation, then, since I lack the capacity to even consider your point.


You really can't imagine a world where healthcare is worse than it already is in the US? I don't think it's really that hard.

Imagine that everything is the same as it is right now, but that insurance companies manage to get the various 80-90% payout laws overturned and start paying out at only a 50% rate. That means premiums nearly double in very short order.

Or maybe a new law that really makes the electronic records requirements stick gets passed, but it's done in such a poor fashion that all of our records end up getting sold to bankers, who then figure out a way to make bets on people (ala Walmart's life insurance "scandal") and then the insurance companies get wind of this and start dropping people once their bank calculated risk profile gets too high.

See, look! It's that easy.


You're the one who said I lack imagination. I'm not agreeing with you. I'm just saying that if you're going to state that I'm inherently incapable of even comprehending your argument, then the conversation is over. There's no point in attempting to have a discussion who thinks that my opinion is a result of some inherent flaw in me.


Suggesting that "it can't get any worse" is basically always a losing battle because it can always get worse.

I was trying to preempt the inevitable "but things are so bad here in the US, surely making any change would be an improvement!" argument that always seems to get trotted out the second healthcare gets discussed.

And you seemed to be making that argument, in the very beginning.

> They accomplished it because they wanted to, and we don't because we don't.

If you truly can't imagine any possible way in which healthcare in American could get worse, then I really do stand by my statement. Further, I would suggest that you actually can imagine how it could be worse, but you're pretending that you can't to make a point. And if we're going to do that, then point willfully ignored.


Where did I say it can't get any worse? Where am I pretending I can't imagine it could get worse? I'm looking through my previous comments in this thread and I can't find anything even remotely close to that. Please, enlighten me.


Well, there are pockets of America that are as good as all the examples that you state. There are states and school districts that perform as well or better than Nordic states (e.g. Massachusetts). There are states and cities that have recovered better than Iceland after economic collapses (e.g. Pittsburgh). A few things:

1. With size comes disparity and diversity. Iceland, Portugal, Nordic countries are definitely ideals to work towards. But failure to reach the ideals as a monolithic country doesn't mean things are bad.

2. Federal policies are much harder to change because it is like steering a ship that is also not a rigid body! Size plays a role here because it brings with it diversity. In smaller countries, you do not have equivalents for under-performing components of the whole, such as Mississippi, tea party, and inner-city neighborhoods, that are often out of reach of federal policies / majority opinions.


> The Nordic countries have great education systems that cost less, but they’re small.

While there may be much to learn from Nordic schools, they do have the advantages (in education) of a smaller scale. Studies show that larger school sizes are less effective[0][1].

[0]: (PDF) http://economics.mit.edu/files/9158

[1]: (PDF) http://www.uaedreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Egalite...


I feel like there's a confusion between school size, scale, and country size.

Imagine a Norway with a single high school, which is a boarding school for all of the high school students in the country. In that case Norway is small, compared to the US, and the school system is small, with a single very large high school.

Or the other way around, if the average school in Sweden has 20 students per grade, while the "small" schools for NYC have ~80 students per grade (both papers use ~100 as the threshold between small and not-small), then since the population of Sweden and NYC are about the same, this would mean that Sweden would have more schools, and so work on a larger scale than NYC.

Without knowing what the school sizes for the Nordic countries, I don't think you can make a conclusion from the information you presented.

I found the information which closes that loop, for Denmark, at http://ftp.iza.org/dp8032.pdf :

> The average school size in our sample was about 450 in 1986, decreasing to about 400 students in the middle of the 1990s (mainly due to small birth cohorts born in the 1980s) and then increasing to 450 again in 2004,

The schools in that Danish study cover grades 0-9, so fall well into the "small" category. They conclude (emphasis is mine)

> With these reservations in mind, we find that for students attending grade 9 in Danish public schools, school size tends to have no effect or even a positive effect on educational outcomes and earnings later in life, at the age of 30. This result is different from the results found in a number of studies from mainly the UK and the US. However, Danish schools are on average much smaller than schools in the US and the UK. The average school size in this study which covers almost all public schools with grade 9 in Denmark was about 460 students. Another interesting result is that the positive effects of school size tend to be larger for boys when we consider educational outcomes like the probability of completing high school or a vocational education and training program, and for children who have fathers with a low education level. Thus, students who are traditionally considered more vulnerable seem to benefit from larger schools. Finally, part of the non-negative or positive school size effect seems to be driven by schools in urban areas contrary to rural areas.


In Nordics, the authorities attempt to create larger schools because they think they are more effective. (I'm suspicious, though, and your references are interesting).

I think that the reason for better results in Nordic schools is that they have not as many students who are unable to understand teaching language. The population is ethnically rather uniform and there is relatively strong social cohesion.


Sweden has taken in a lot of immigrants. 15.9% of the population are immigrants, compared to 14.3% in the US. Most of these immigrants don't know Swedish.

http://ftp.iza.org/dp8032.pdf has commentary on school sizes in Denmark. They are much smaller than in the US and UK. It describes some of the reasons that people think larger schools are better:

> Policymakers often appear to prefer large schools due to scale economies associated with administrative costs. In addition large schools are generally able to offer a broader curriculum and better career prospects for teachers. This may attract more experienced and more qualified teachers. The students (and teachers) in larger schools typically come from larger geographical areas and may have a more diverse social background. To the extent that diversity and being exposed to students and teachers with different social and demographic background is a positive production factor in the human capital production function, this may be an argument for large schools. Further, in large schools it may be easier for students and teachers to change classrooms or peer groups if, for example, a match between a teacher and the students in a given class is not optimal.


The problem is likely not so much the size of the schools, but the size of the classes.

Never mind that at least in Norway there have over the years developed a perverse incentive to transport kids for hours to centralized schools because the transport costs are covered by a different administrative tier than the schools themselves.

Thus a few large schools supposedly save on administration and maintenance costs by punting the transport costs onto a different office.


School size has nothing to do with the scale of the overall system country-sized, though. A small education system can use a small number of large schools, and a large education can use a large number of small schools.


For such big countries, a divide-and-conquer approach to argument would place responsibility at the state level rather than at the country level (i.e. think globally, act locally kind-of-argument).


And healthcare


It is worth noting that "Running on 100% Renewable Electricity" most likely only addresses grid electricity, not other form of fossil fuel use, such as cars, truck, boats and trains. 100% Renewable Electricity in the grid is a great milestone, but it's not 100% of energy use as the title might suggest.


Then it is also worth noting that electricity generation is the biggest single source of carbon emissions globally :-). And that transport is actually a relatively tiny part of global carbon emissions: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/global.html

In other words, this is a bigger deal than your post seems to suggest.


I did a summer internship project with our national electricity supplier here in Ireland when I was a student - the aim was to asses he environmental impact of their fleet of vehicles.

The management weren't terribly happy with the presentation I gave at the end of the summer where using a few simple models I showed that even their smallest power station was polluting on a scale that was orders of magnitude greater than the impact of their entire fleet.

We have mostly coal and peat powered plants here. Nuclear is completely off the table for political reasons, but there is a huge untapped wind energy resource.

This really is great news for Costa Rica. I think we should also be exploring Nuclear energy more to bridge the gap in most other countries though.


We're getting offtopic, but peat powered plants? In this day and age? What the hell? I do hope that is not being sold as sustainable or renewable?

But yeah, automobile emissions in general are relatively limited in comparison to other sources.


Peat accounts for close to 10% of the energy sources in Ireland. It's mostly coal and gas, but the damage done to the environment by mining peat is downplayed a lot here.

People don't realise we're destroying a natural resource.


Thats... madness. The Icelanders destroyed their soil in a single generation. You have perhaps the most fertile island at your latitude. I wish I thought you were pranking us.

ps Flann O'Brien fan, or Robert Anton Wilson fan?


Flann O'Brien! The 3rd Policeman specifically :)

Should I check Robert Anton Wilson out?


Yes! He was a Joyce scholar, among many other things. One, perhaps several of his books and plays reference Flann O'Brien's work, which is how I came to know about it.


Don't be mistaken. In many developing nations there is a thirst for power. Renewables aren't up to it when it comes to the scale and speed required (even though the countries involved are on the equator).

I don't advocate for the use of coal in generating power but this is what seems to be going on.

The largest (MW/GW wise) expansion projects in terms of power generation are all coal projects as far as I'm aware on the entire African continent.

Typically each unit/turbine generates close to 1 GW. It's hard to find something with the equivalent cost (including the use of a small amount of space) with renewable energy.

Even the best geothermal well in Kenya, on the rift valley geothermal reservoir, only gives out near 5 MW.

The renewable scaling issue is something that needs to be faced. Costa Rica truly has achieved a milestone much larger than it sounds.

It is possible I'm not saying its not. The three gorges dam hydroelectric plant is able to produce near 22 GW, also the largest power plant in the world (including non renewable energy)


> Renewables aren't up to it when it comes to the scale and speed required (even though the countries involved are on the equator).

Surely you must be joking. Nuclear plants take years, if not a decade to build. Coal must be trucked in. Wind and solar deployment speed is limited to only your logistical supply chain to get the parts to the generation site and your on-site installation talent.

If the first world wanted to help the third world, they'd give them renewable generation equipment free or at cost.

http://www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2015/highlights5...

"China, the country that is building more nuclear reactors than any other, continued to get more electricity from the wind than from nuclear power plants in 2014. This came despite below-average wind speeds for the year. The electricity generated by China’s wind farms in 2014—16 percent more than the year before—could power more than 110 million Chinese homes."

"China added a world record 23 gigawatts of new wind power capacity in 2014, for a cumulative installed capacity of nearly 115 gigawatts (1 gigawatt = 1,000 megawatts). Some 84 percent of this total—or 96 gigawatts—is connected to the grid, sending carbon-free electricity to consumers."


What kind of land do we need to make wind turbines generate more power then a nuclear plant?


Are we counting off-shore turbines that consume no usable land? And are we taking into account that we still don't dispose of nuclear waste in an acceptable way and won't ever agree to recycle it?


Good point, but does sea based cost the same and is available to everyone? What's the average case?


I am under no illusions about the need for power :-). In fact, I agree with just about everything in your post.

However, I would add: Coal plants use only a relatively small local surface area, but when you add the size of the coal mines, the infrastructure required to ship those tons of coal, the space required to store the tons coal ash produced each day (often contaminated with heavy metals; it's earth we're burning after all).... that becomes a very different discussion.

I'm unsure why people are so keen on geothermal, though. I thought it was relatively well-known that geothermal generates power in the order of milli-watts-per-square-meter, thus much smaller than solar (hundreds of watts per square meter), or even hydroelectric.


Did you factor in the energy that goes into producing vehicles, building & maintaining roads, etc? Or did you just count tail pipe emissions? What all factors did you consider when assessing the impact of the fleet?


Like I say, it was a simple model developed as part of a summer intern project. It was also quite a few years ago now, so I don't remember many details.

Regardless, I don't think energy from vehicle/road production is a valid consideration for a company assessing the environmental impact of their fleet.


These days, ESB's generation is mostly gas, with wind being the second-largest. Coal is being phased out, and peat generally not expanded.


Furthermore, within the "transport" category, the largest container ships emit more combustion products than every car. If you combine the tailpipe emissions of every car on Earth, that accounts for less atmospheric pollution than just 16-24 gigantic ship engines, burning bunker fuel.

And furtherfurthermore, coal-fired electricity plants are by far the worst polluters among electricity generating facilities that burn fuel.

This is a big win for Costa Rica, but the rest of the planet would be hard-pressed to replicate the achievement without going bankrupt. That accomplishment would be surpassed many times over by even one technology that could be used to refine coal or bunker fuel to make it cleaner-burning in the existing infrastructure at or near the same price per ton.


EPA Chart: Global Emissions by Source

  • Energy supply: 26%
  [...]
  • Transport: 13% (certainly less, but "a relatively tiny part"?)
  • Buildings: 8%
  • Waste & wastewater: 3% (definitely a tiny part)
[updated for formatting and clarity]


Obviously 'electricity' is not 'all energy' and the title does not suggest that, it very explicitly uses 'electricity'.

Also, quite a bit of Costa Rica's rail is electrified:

http://www.ferrolatino.ch/en/reports/costarica/

And then there is 'off-grid' electricity, local installations of solar power. These are typically smaller but there are quite a few of them.


Re: Rail......

All of those railroads have been shut down for ages - there are no working railroads here, other than a revived diesel commuter railroad with a few cars that goes back and forth across the central valley.

Historically, yes, costa rica was one of the first countries to adopt electric power as a nation, including for railroads and stuff... but that time is over.


Ai, that's a real pity. To go from being ahead of the curve to behind really sucks.


I wouldn't say behind... those railroads were the product of a booming fruit industry - and those days are over; global agriculture changed. Also, now we have roads.

You can drive from the carribean to the pacific on highway in a few hours here.


Well, the title doesn't say "100% of Costa Rica's Electricity is Now Renewable", it says "Costa Rica Is Now Running on 100% Renewable Electricity."

That translates out to "What Costa Rica runs on is 100% renewable." It's likely pedantic to discuss it, but I will wager that no, the construction of that title was less than explicitly mindful. The ambiguity is reinforced multiple times throughout the article.


That's pretty much correct. The article's title at first glance looks like it says (Costa Rica Is Now Running on) (100% Renewable Electricity).

This is a subjective grammatical nitpick, but it would be foolish to say that it's not there at all. Further, the article text isn't mindful of the distinction either , so I'm happy that I raised the topic, with the resulting discussion around the share of total energy used for transport vs grid, and with my original wording of "as the title might suggest". (emphasis now on "might". YMMV. )


That title can just as easily mean that Costa Rica's electricity is 100% renewable as it could mean that all of Costa Rica's energy is 100% renewable electricity. Given two equally correct meanings, choose the one that actually makes any sense in context.


> That translates out to "What Costa Rica runs on is 100% renewable."

No it doesn't. You changed the meaning.


Grid electricity is only about a third of primary energy consumption. Renewables and nuclear power only make up about 10% and 6% of primary energy consumption worldwide [1]. In the coming years we have to ramp those fractions up globally A LOT in order to become CO2-neutral. Also from the low fraction of 6% we can see that nuclear could be switched off today without making a big difference for CO2 output, renewables already generate more power.

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_energy


That's exactly what it means - grid power. I don't know why everyone thinks it means we somehow, under the radar, stopped using gas vehicles and stoves and stuff... obviously that's not the case.

And it's not a milestone.. it's a sensationalized headline.

As much as I'm proud of my little adopted country - this doesn't represent some new investment or initiative. We had more rain than usual this year so ran on renewables longer than average this year (dropping electricity prices 10% for a while, which is fantastic).


On that note, consider this sentence:

>And the country's economy relies on tourism and agriculture, not energy-sucking industries like manufacturing.

Of course tourism is energy-sucking. Its just not grid electricity and most likely the energy use is attributed to European or American airlines and passengers.


And that's where electric vehicles come in :)

Also I find it really dismaying the degree to which nuclear has been downplayed. It has risks, but what are those risks against the certainty of global warming?


While I believe both are real risks, I also believe catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) is only certain for those who have something to gain from the immediate actions to combat it. Ice is melting, seas are rising, storms are getting more powerful. But, are we not able to adapt? Under Kyoto, the forgone economic growth would put us in a much worse position to do something about adapting (rebuilding, relocation, drought assistance, etc.). And who knows, there might be other things we will have to adapt to besides changes in climate in the future. Improving our living conditions and technology is the best option. Out of that will come solutions to CAGW.

Despite a couple of bad preventable accidents, Nuclear is safe and the only clear economic solution to the CO2 emission issue.


Another issue is disposal of waste. Living in Australia it seems pretty clear to me there's lots of land here where such storage / disposal could be implemented, yet the outcry from various groups over 'abuse' of areas where no-one lives or visits has to be seen to be believed. And one reason I stopped supporting Greenpeace (some years ago now) was because of their staunch and irrational opposition to nuclear.


I have a feeling that many new car buyers figure out a way to get around the import tax - probably by driving them in through Panama or Nicaragua.


The title "Running on 100% Renewable Electricity" in no way suggested to me that they are talking about anything other than grid electricity.


If I recall Costa Rica has a 100% import tax on cars. Not everyone has or can afford a car there. What would be really interesting is if they were to remove or lower that tariff for electric vehicles it could for example make a Nissan Leaf the cheapest new car you could get in the country.


It does say electricity, not energy.


This article misses a vital point. Its now been more than 85 straight days without using fossil fuel for power.[1]

[1]http://www.sciencealert.com/costa-rica-powered-with-100-rene...


It also doesn't do as good of a job as this Guardian article: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/30/truth-b...

at pointing out that this is a temporary blip caused by record rainfall following a record drought.


Worth noting that this is a "comment is free" article, which is basically the Guardian's sanctioned area for trolling their right-on readership.

"Green energy is only possible for tiny countries that suffer from global warming and even then not really" is a fine bit of trolling and I salute the author's skill in this game.


(I'm still waiting for the W3C spec and full browser support that will allow me to comment on just any url.)


The W3C has Annotea, but they never got widespread browser support. I know I actually downloaded Amaya at one point, presumably in hopes of trying Annotea.


You got it all :)


I couldn't find the original article so linked the one I found quickly.

But here[1], this article is quite well with enough info and pitches in a few more things than just Costa Rica.

[1]http://qz.com/367985/costa-rica-is-now-running-completely-on...


Fossil fuel for electricity. Transport is a comparable energy consumer and overwhelmingly fossil fuel based. In cooler climates the same is true for space heating.


> So to prepare for drier weather that's likely to come with climate change.

I don't understand why do so many people equate climate change and global warming with drought?

If only it was only that simple?

One of the most noticeable, measurable effects of climate change is the warming of the oceans.

That warming adds energy to the oceans and that energy then causes big changes to barometric pressure, resulting in wind directional changes.

The warming oceans warm the air above them and that causing the air to rise. That rising warm air sucks in colder surrounding air. That air movement changes the prevailing wind patterns.

It is those changes to local wind patterns that cause the changes to local weather. If suddenly you’re country is seeing more onshore winds, you’ll be seeing more drought. But if you’re seeing more offshore winds you’ll see more flooding.

The climate models are so complex it’s impossible to predict how these changes will pan out at a local level.

But as someone living here in Oz, it's clear that over the last few years the local wind patterns have changed and those changes have caused changes to local weather.

Some areas are seeing warming, others are seeing cooling, some areas are in drought, others are in constant flooding, but in the end it just depends on how the the prevailing winds have changed.


The models may well have changed, but a quick Google for "climate change impact Costa Rica" brought up a 2008 study, saying:

> Regional climate models predict that the area will become warmer and drier as climate change accelerates.

Give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they are talking specifically about the best current models for Costa Rica, instead of suggesting every place will have drought.

Although the models are complex and may change, there's no reason not to run with the best current models, changing your plans only when these long-term forecasts change.


Here's a 2013 study in Nature on the subject[1]. Drought has increased over many land areas since 1950, pretty well matching their model, which predicts increasingly severe drought over the next 30-90 years.

For much more on the subject, a great book is Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, who reviewed about 3000 papers on the projected effects of climate change (and referenced them extensively). I don't remember all the details, but one issue is that more heat brings more evaporation, drying out the soil. Rainfall tends to be less frequent and harder, which washes away the dried-out topsoil.

Another issue is that rain clouds tend to form over the warmer ocean, instead of drifting over land. Rain falling in the Indian Ocean is expected to cause severe drought in Africa (and that's already been seen to some extent).

[1] http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v3/n1/full/nclimate16...


Forget about the rights of indigenous people, agricultural productivity, water evaporation, environmental impact, the subsidies, the malls, Jevons paradox, Plan Puebla Panamá, etc. Let's talk about greenhouse gases.

http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/sdissues/energy/op/hydro_tremb...


Always wondered how Costa Rica seems able to do so well in a region that seems otherwise to be stuck in never-ending poverty, environmental degradation and conflict.



Wow. That is truly amazing. What is almost as shocking to me is that I have never heard of this before. I have heard that Costa rica was a model for its healthcare sytem but i never heard that it didn't have a military.

This story should be told more often and Costa rica should be a model for the world in this regard.


I'm an expat that lives here, the social healthcare system is a complete mess and garbage. As an employer, not only do I have to pay a ~30% tax over the salary of each employee (to pay this healthcare system) - in the end you must resort to private healthcare as the system is terrible. If your not half dead, you will wait hours and hours (not even kidding) trying to be attended. Aside from waiting hours and hours on end just to be attended, the doctors treat you like crap, the nurses treat you like crap - no one cares if you live or die.

Story: My wife's brother was crossing the street and was hit by a car, pretty badly at around 8pm. He was able to get able, and they took him to this public hospital. He has bleeding, vomiting (from concussion) and he waiting over 12 hours to be attended. The only they did was give him an IV for his dehydration (due to excessive vomiting for 12 hours from concussion), told him he was fine and to go home. He asked for a pill for vomiting, and doctor told him to go across the street to the pharmacy to buy it. Yes, really.

The private healthcare sector here is pretty good. A bit expensive, but good. I could have had my kids here in the "Caja" (public hospital) for free, but after hearing tons of complaints and horror stories it was better to just pay a $5000-$6000 fee to the doctors and hospital in the private sector to have each of my kids born.

Costa Rica is absolutely not a model for it's healthcare system. It's expensive, in huge debt, it's terrible, and no one cares about you. Would not recommend.


It's a lot easier when your national security is underwritten by the world's largest military force.


That's true insofar as dealing with the Eastern Hemisphere. I don't know of any doctrine that would compel us to aid them in the event of invasion from e.g. anywhere else in Latin America.


The borders of Costa Rica are really close to the Panama Canal. If Nicaragua started to invade Costa Rica, I think America would put a stop to it really quickly to protect the Canal.


Could you link to a source for this. The relevant wikipedia article makes the same claim but is tagged [citation needed]. The LA times article linked by the parent says "(Costa Rica is presumably sheltered by the U.S., but only under the loose ties of the Organization of American States)" which is kind of vague and mysterious. All the countries of the Americas are in that organisation so that leaves the question of what would happen in a conflict between neighbours.


In essence, they have made themselves a client state.


I'm sure it's completely altruistic and not having to do with beneficial trade agreements.


Exactly. Having armed forces ready to stage a coup any time their friends in the State Department or CIA encourage them leads you down the route of Honduras, Chile, and so on.


Except that they could abolish the army because USA has underwritten their security. So in essence they have gone one further than Chile.


Characterising the situation of Central American states as having "the US underwrite their security" seems willfully at odds with actual history.


Part of the usual explanation is that they abolished their military after their civil war in the 40s: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_of_Costa_Rica


for the record, Norway has had something like 98% of it's energy from renewables for a long time.


If this is said about Europe's largest oil producer (between Nigeria and Kuwait in world stats), there's something wrong with energy production accounting.


If you're fortunate to have a ton of renewables and petros, the renewables typically don't travel well so you use those domestically and sell the petros on the global market.


Actually Norway is a big exporter of hydro electricity too.


And then imports it again when autumn is "unsusually" dry...


That figure (98%) is about electricity production, not total energy used by the country.


Not necessarily. Norway has lots of hydro power. As energy producers go, Norway is not comparable to other oil producers from internal economic point of view as they've extensively rigged their economy not to implode from the "resource curse" .


Why do you say that? Shouldn't the burden go on the consumer?


No, placing the burden on the individual consumers doesn't work. "Tragedy of the commons" type problems are generally solvable only by organized collective decisionmaking.

Irrespective of that, discounting oil production from "share of renewables in energy production" is just nonsensical.


Tragedy of the commons can happen no matter who you blame. It takes a government-level mandate to pay for cleanup.

I think it's simplest to force the consumer to pay.

> Irrespective of that, discounting oil production from "share of renewables in energy production" is just nonsensical.

I disagree. There are other things you can do with oil, and it doesn't pollute anything sitting in a tank. It's the energy production that matters.


So do we have to tally Saudi oil pollution on the exporting country instead of those that actually use it?


I'm not sure which point you're responding to.

Regarding accounting re. renewables share in energy production, yes, I think their oil exports should be taken into account, and we should say that Saudis aren't model citizens of renewable energy production.

Regarding political responsibility, I think we should definitely hold producers responsible as well. We can't burn all the oil that's still in the ground without devastating climate effects, and it's in every nation's interest to reduce oil production and consumption in an orderly but swift fashion.

EDIT: responding here as I can't reply below anymore. This discussion was about energy PRODUCTION, you are below talking about energy CONSUMPTION. US oil imports should indeed count as energy production in the exporting country. Re electricty production - this subthread was about general energy production, not electricity!


About your edit: fair enough, if you are talking about primary energy production. I understood what the figure provided in the first comment was referring to (electricity production/consumption) and was addressing that.

In the end, I think the fact that they produce all of their electricity from hydro is a fantastic achievement. That you (and many others, including a lot of people in Norway) would like them to stop pumping oil from the North Sea is (for me) a different issue.

I don't think Norway producing less oil would reduce global oil consumption.

FWIW, they produce about half of what they did in the early '00s.


Let's see, the US imports 30-40% of the oil it consumes. Should that oil be accounted as used by the exporters?

Norway uses no fossil fuels for its electricity production. Norway happens to export a lot of oil. How does the second statement negate the first one?


Last year that was only 27 %, btw.

(If "oil" means "crude oil and petroleum products").


Might Norwegian hydro be less polluting than Costa Rican? I am thinking of lower CO2 sequestration in northern versus (sub)tropical climate forests.

Flood a forest for a dam, and you have less sequestration...


I believe Norway produces 140TWatt-Hr per year vs Costa Rica 9 GWatt-Hr per year. Norway produces a lot of aluminum that takes a lot of power to produce. Is this right 14 thousand times as much power generated by hydro in Norway than Costa Rica? National statistics can be very misleading.


I was actually wondering about CO2 sequestration per flooded unit of surface of forest...


And Costa Rica doesn't have a nearly trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund. It's not a very fair comparison.


Most of the renewables was built before the oil.


France has around 94%, largely form nuclear, but with around 15% hydro and up to 10% wind at times. Coal and gas are a few percent.


In what way would you regard nuclear as renewable? It is fuelled by finite stocks, the extraction and refining of which are completely dependent on fossil fuels as a base.


I don't see how it could be classified as "renewable," but I'd argue the more relevant terms would be "clean" or "sustainable."

"Renewable" makes you think of "some of this stuff is going to run out!" which is all wrong. Sure, oil and coal and gas are finite, but if we actually burn through a good chunk of the reserves, the emissions will totally screw us long before we actually run out of stuff to burn. The problem with fossil fuels isn't their finiteness, it's the long-term effects of their use on the planet. If there were an infinite supply they would still be just as bad.

Alternatives are clean, in that they don't emit nearly as much harmful stuff, and they're sustainable, in that they can keep being used for centuries without massive ill effects. Nuclear fits into that just fine, even though it's not really renewable.


While nuclear is finite, we have enough for tens of thousands of years if we use breeder reactors: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-long-will-glob...

And it is also true that the extraction and refining is completely dependent on fossil fuels, but so are renewables.


Except that breeder reactors are one of those things that you may not want to hand out willy nilly...


Uranium is available in seawater in virtually limitless quantity (for all practical intents and purposes), so nuclear power should be considered renewable.


Uranium is available in seawater in virtually limitless quantity...

So is gold, which is back up over US$1200/oz, while the spot price on U3O8 is US$39.50/pound. If it isn't economically viable to extract Au from seawater, it's certainly not for U.


Actually, nuclear is not generally regarded as renewable energy by definition [0].

I can somewhat see the reason (of course, it's arguable) in the fact that there is some identification of renewable sources of energy with their "cleanness".

[0] Quick google search! And wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_proposed_as_rene...


But how can you call solar power 'renewable'? It's powered by fusion reactions in the sun, which are finite; it's going to run out.

Only partly tongue-in-cheek. Fission power will also last hundreds of millions of years, so although it is "non-renewable", it shouldn't carry the same connotations of "will therefore run out".


One of the non-renewable aspects of Nuclear power is the storage of nuclear waste, which has specific geological requirements which are not easy to satisfy in many parts of the world.

I expect that's a more limiting factor than the availability of nuclear fuel, but I could be wrong.


It has specific political requirements that are not easy to satisfy in many parts of the world. We can do it technically, it's just that no one is happy about having a nuclear waste dump in their backyard.


> We can do it technically

My understanding is that this is a difficult technical challenge and an active area of research. It is difficult to predict which geological structures on Earth will be stable and inaccessible by life forms or geologic volatility on timescales > 10,000 years.

I'm not an expert in this area, just that we spent considerable time discussing the challenges in some earth science courses I took, but that was several years ago. So if you have some good review sources to suggest, that would be helpful.

My starting point is merely: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_waste#Long_term_ma...


France has around 94%, largely form nuclear

This is about renewable energy, which nuclear isn't considered to be?


Well the article was largely about non CO2 emitting, although it was somewhat ambigious.


You mean electricity. Electricity is only a fraction of energy use. Heating and transportation are the other big two contributors.


Electricity here is so cheap we use it to heat our porches. Other means of heating are very very unusual.


And iceland (which the article points out is a leader in geothermal energy production)


IIRC, it is somewhere between 80-90% of houses using geothermal energy to heat up their houses.


Yes, people, especially Scandinavian journalists, tend to forget that when they copy-paste stories on the internet, that this is nothing new.


It should be noted that this is mostly hydro power. If I recall right, hydro is up to 90% of the electricity generation in Costa Rica and if there is a drought in the country, they will burn coal to support their base load power generation.

Nevertheless, great achievement.


Except hydro isn't really that great of a power source, when the environmental impacts are taken into account. In the US, the most recent trend has been toward removals.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dam_removal


A breakdown of the generation capacity is available here:

https://www.reddit.com/r/Futurology/comments/3042kb/costa_ri...


A UT geosciences professor made a fantastic and enlightening documentary on global energy called Switch that is certainly worth a watch if you're interested in this topic.

From wikipedia:

"... he asks the central question of the film: what will the energy transition look like for the rest of us? ...travels the world to find out.

The expertise of the interviewees and the access to restricted energy sites is unparalleled in other energy films. After his journey, he assembles his findings to map out the likely energy future. While coal and oil will continue to play a large role especially in developing countries, a global transition to where their alternatives become dominant will happen in about 50 years. Renewables see by far the largest growth rate, while natural gas makes up the largest portion of the replacement, with nuclear approximately equal in share to renewables."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Switch_%282012_film%29

http://www.switchenergyproject.com/


It popped up in my Facebook stream yesterday and one comment caught my attention: "Okay, but what about the hectares of forest (with actual indigenous people, animals and plants) and farm lands they are destroying every year with dams ?".


Well everyone has to make sacrifices, some have to visit the mall less often, others have to endure their communities literally sink into oblivion [1]. It's all for the planet, even the methane [2][3].

Of course some dams are not so "good" and some are not so "bad," so you have to be specific. Being able to export electricity (think Plan Puebla Panamá) adds very positively into the math, so all the "indios" and bad environmentalists shut up.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Diqu%C3%ADs_Hydroelectric_Pr... [2] http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewa... [3] http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/sdissues/energy/op/hydro_tremb...

EDIT: Just found this in another comment http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/30/truth-b...


What about the new lakes generated by the dams? What about using these lakes as water reservoir needed for agriculture?

There are certainly different kinds of hydropower. Some generating a large lake for a little power output while others in the mountains of an area with heavy rainfall generate a lot of power without flooding a large area. Yet, it seems that all hydropower projects are either labelled "good" or "bad".


The damage caused by hydro-electrical plants is always blown out of proportion.

Dams create huge reservoir of water, which flood a lot of land upstream, causing the river lines to expand.

however people forget to mention that gravity is a zero-sum game. every area that is being rendered unusable upstream results in creation of new area downstream. More often than not these areas are near large cities which are usually located downstream.

Also it opens up new fertile river bed for agriculture.

Now coming back to your question. Sometimes government do not properly compensate the people that are being displaced or take care of the animals etc. But that is a fault of the government and not the science behind hydro-electrical.


>however people forget to mention that gravity is a zero-sum game. every area that is being rendered unusable upstream results in creation of new area downstream.

That's not right. Once the lake is created, nearly the same amount of water will be flowing downstream.


With a dam the water flow is more controlled, so there is less flooding downstream. It's not a simple zero-sum game like the grandparent post said though.


Not necessarily true bc that assumes constant rain. Depending in the inconsistency of rainfall, the water flow downstream will be lumpier due to the resevoir requiring a certain level of water.


The other way round: the reservoir catches excess rainwater and feeds it downstream through dams and power plants, often aiming to catch water to the reservoir and keep constant flow, at least not exceeding the generation capacity (trying to avoid bypass discharge). The reservoir is where the "lumps" are caught and level of water can change considerably.

The absence of lumps, i.e. floods downstream, is of course not always good for nature of the water systems, as in many places the river system ecology is based on having some floods. And specific arrangements need to be made for fish to pass dams and power plants.


Except for changes in evaporation, the exact same amount, though timed differently.


> however people forget to mention that gravity is a zero-sum game. every area that is being rendered unusable upstream results in creation of new area downstream.

What? The area taken up by artificial bodies of water is not a zero-sum game. If you build a reservoir which is as large or larger in area as the whole river downstream - conceivably possible in some cases - the river downstream does not vanish or become negative area.

Flood control brought by dams may make the waterways downstream behave differently and lose area, but those impacts aren't all positive either (ecologically or economically).

It may be true that damage caused by hydro-electrical plants is very often blown out of proportion, but I don't follow your logic regarding the areas at all.


> The damage caused by hydro-electrical plants is always blown out of proportion.

Blanket statement. Which hydro-electrical plant? Very important point. That's a point the "let's reduce carbon emission with hydro-power" camp misses all too often.


However fish that needs to travel upstream have a hard time. It can be solved to some extent.



Always? Sounds as if there's a nasty conspiracy around. Any data to backup your proclamation?


Electricity supply has to exactly match electricity demand at all times, which is why (in my opinion) 100% renewable energy doesn't make sense. There has to be /some/ source of electricity that a country can turn to if the wind stops blowing, the sun goes behind a cloud, or - indeed - demand for electricity suddenly spikes.

The only way you could do this with renewable energy is if you had a way of 'storing' electricity, which could be used to meet demand if there was a shortfall in supply -- and this becomes incredibly expensive very quickly.

The most efficient approach to the electricty supply is to have a base-load of electricity being supplied by something which is 'always on', e.g. fossil fuels or nuclear energy, and then having renewables top up the rest.

[All this is just my opinion, by the way, but didn't want to litter the whole post with "in my opinion..."! You get the idea!]


I agree that there is a need for reliably energy producers in standby to satisfy energy demand at every point in time.

Using those for the base-load, as you suggest, however does not make sense. The base load has to be supplied by renewables and nuclear energy. On top of that a quick-to-regulate energy source is needed. Nuclear only really makes sense for the base load as it best runs full power all day. About 50% Nuclear plus coal plus a bit gas is a good idea for a stable grid but not so good CO2-wise. Mixing a high percentage of nuclear with wind and solar does not make too much sense. Then you either need to throttle nuclear power or add another source many times. That leaves coal, oil, gas or hydropower for the grid security. The cleanest here is hydropower where additional turbines are installed but only activated when the demand is high. Using excess energy to pump water back up in the storage lake is also a possibility but more expensive than using what's already there.

An alternative to alleviate the strain on the grid is to regulate consumption. This is best done by having some large consumers getting cheap electricity but having to shut off when the grid demands it. Another idea is to use price regulation and the "smart grid". E.g. electric cars shifting their overnight charging time to adjust the demand with the supply. We'll have to see how far the "smart grid" takes us. When a large percentage of cars are electric cars with batteries it might make sense.


That's why all the articles about countries doing so well on renewables are always on countries with lots of hydro and/or geothermal. There really should one word for those sources, which provide energy pretty much on demand but aren't available everywhere, and a different word for wind/solar which have the opposite characteristics. Using the same word for both tends to make people overoptimistic about wind/solar.


Some renewables are "baseload" sources of power. Things both proven, like geothermal and hydro, or more experimental like OTEC. They can work 24/7/365.


Hydro is sort of wasted as "baseload" source, because it's so readily adjustable, i.e. it is good as "dispatchable" source.

Nuclear is the typical baseload source, as adjusting output is not that fast.

But of course, if your hydro is really plentiful, then it doesn't matter.

Take the case of Norway and Denmark: Denmark has wind energy, which is very erratic. Norway has lots of hydro power which is perfectly dispatchable. When there's wind and not much consumption, Norway can buy wind electricity cheaply from Denmark (in fact the price may be negative because the excess production has to be sunk somewhere). The hydro plants are stopped. When there's no wind and there's a lot of consumption, Norway can sell electricity at a very good price to Denmark.

So, capacity is not the only thing that matters, dispatchability is important, and Norway clearly has the upper hand here because its wattage capacity is of a better kind.


I'm not convinced renewable energy is always a good idea. Many times, people wanna save the environment at the cost of the poorest.

In Brazil, a lot has been discussed about Belo Monte Dam(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belo_Monte_Dam#Social_effects) as it's bringing serious social and economical issues to native residents.


That's not because non-renewable energy would be better. The problem is that they wouldn't need to build that dam at all if they maintained the dams they already have better.


> Many times, people wanna save the environment at the cost of the poorest. Not quite, they want to keep/increase "their" wealth at the expense of the poorest. So old story here.


The costs of environmental problems are disproportionately borne by the poorest as well.


I completely agree. My point is that this is part of a bigger pattern of "power dynamics." For example the urban middle class engages in a kind of self-congratulatory mode by observing such rituals as Earth Hour, while at the same time condemning the intransigence of poor communities who refuse to be displaced for the sake of the country, the planet, etc. No one dare even suggest that the economic rewards of cheaper energy be allocated in further promotion of environmental protection measures, or God forbid, compensation for the displaced, instead of fueling an imminent manifestation of Jevons Paradox, which would obliterate the thinly argued benefits of e.g. a hydropower project. As we say in Spanish "la cadena se rompe por el eslabón más débil." [1] The case of environmental problems is filled with nasty expressions of this saying [2]. David Graeber is one who has written about this pattern beyond this case.

[1] The chain breaks on the weakest link.

[2] Take the case of the WWF http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/wwf-helps-industry... . Or this case of a hydropower project in my country Panama https://intercontinentalcry.org/un-registered-barro-blanco-h... which our local breed of "pragmatic environmentalists" dared not to object.


> And the country's economy relies on tourism and agriculture, not energy-sucking industries like manufacturing.

As it relates to the topic, it should say "not electricity-sucking industries". This is an important point however. The U.S. uses 7.3x as much electricity per capita.[1] It would be extremely difficult and costly to build the renewable infrastructure to replace what we have now. Sure, if you're in a warm climate and not used to consuming so much electricity, then renewables are great, but insisting that all developing economies use renewables, or imposing that cost on workers who haven't seen much wage growth in a while, you're asking for trouble. Solve the nuclear waste issue and we can really improve living conditions all over the world, while helping to prevent CAGW.

1) http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.ELEC.KH.PC?order=...


Most of it comes from hydro which is considered environmentally unfriendly. Its still very interesting even if the "greenness" is somewhat debatable.




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