As of early September 2016, Costa Rica has been running completely on renewable energy for over two months. The Central American nation managed to supply its electricity load entirely with a combination of hydro, geothermal, wind, and solar energy, with conventional fossil fuels nowhere in the mix since June 16. This accolade is impressive, but it is truly nothing new for Costa Rica, as just last year the green achiever set a record of 75 continuous days generating electricity solely by renewables (now broken), with 299 of the total days in the year being powered by the clean energy alternatives.
However, Costa Rica isn’t the only place to meet such an accomplishment in 2016. Back in May, farther north on the other side of the Atlantic, Portugal powered through 107 hours without the use of any conventional form of energy.
Could the world be powered by clean energy?
Since the nations in these two examples have proven it possible for an entire electricity load to be generated by clean forms of energy, one might wonder if such a thing is possible for other regions throughout the globe. While an idealist might claim that the highly polluting nations could quickly switch from conventional to renewable forms of energy, the answer is truly no.
To understand why, we must first look at how Costa Rica is unique geographically in its ability to make use of clean energy. Traditionally, people tend to associate clean energy with solar and wind power, since the two industries are rapidly growing throughout much of the world. However, while Costa Rica is currently harnessing power from blowing winds and the Sun’s rays to provide its nation with electricity, about 80 percent of its total energy load is actually coming from hydropower, with another 12 from geothermal.
This is possible because of the immense concentration per capita of volcanoes and rivers in the coastal nation, the latter of which allows for the operation of over 30 hydroelectric dams in the nation. It also helps that Costa Rica ranks fourth among nations that have the greatest average rainfall annually. In fact, the Costa Rican hydroelectric plants were able to maintain such reliable electricity outputs for an extended period due to the extremely heavy rainfalls that the country felt throughout 2015 and 2016.
In this instance, hydroelectricity provides the base load of Costa Rican electricity, with solar, wind, and geothermal simply supplementing the rest. In areas that don’t have high hydropower potential (which includes much of the world), there are few alternatives for base loads other than conventional forms of electricity generation, such as coal, natural gas, and nuclear.
The reasoning behind this is simple: these fuels can be easily stored. Whenever a power plant needs to provide more electricity during a high-demand time, the workers can simply burn more coal or methane. If a grid’s electricity load is supplied entirely by solar and wind energy, they can’t control the provided amount of sun or wind.
This makes the breakdown of electricity generation sources highly skewed on the side of conventional forms of energy in many countries. Of course, the reasoning behind using nonrenewables in many instances is not just because of the impracticality of using only renewable energy, but it can certainly further impede the industries’ development.
For example, in the United States, renewable energy sources only account for about 13 percent of the total electricity generated, with almost half of that amount being hydropower. The rest is taken up by an almost equal amount of coal, natural gas, and nuclear (which is a little less than the other two, to learn why read our past post Nuclear Power – The Most Misunderstood Source of Energy).
Even in relatively greener nations, we see a distribution of energy sources with a strong conventional base load. Throughout Europe as a whole, there are higher amounts of hydropower (10 percent) and wind and solar (22 percent), but still a significant dependence on coal (16 percent), gas (20 percent), and nuclear (22 percent).
Another factor necessary to consider with Costa Rica’s clean energy dependence is the amount of electricity that the country requires. The nation is on the smaller side, both in geography and population, at 51,100 square kilometers in area with a population of 4.8 million. For comparison, the United States has 320 million people in an area of about 9.8 million square kilometers. And China, which is currently the world’s greatest atmospheric polluter of carbon dioxide, as it surpassed the United States in the past decade, packs almost 1.4 billion people in 9.6 million square kilometers.
Therefore, in Costa Rica, there is far less demand for electricity than in larger countries that subsist greatly off conventional forms of energy. Continuous monthly use of only renewable energy is surely an achievement for the smaller nation, but it is nothing but a dream for others.
However, even though the world’s atmosphere continues to be polluted by carbon dioxide emissions, the situation is not as dismal as it might seem. In fact, in current energy trends, there is a clear tilt towards less-greenhouse gas emitting energy sources. In the United States, where atmospheric pollution has been common throughout industrial history, coal only accounts for one-third of the nation’s electricity, a record low that is now equal to the rapidly growing, cleaner natural gas. Even in China, where coal use is rampant (it accounts for 70 percent of the country’s electricity), there is still growth of nuclear power and natural gas.
In addition, investments in clean energy are continuous, and in many cases, growing. Just in the second quarter of 2015, there was $90 billion invested in renewables. If this trend is to continue in the upcoming years and decades, as current models project, sources of energy like solar and wind could easily account for far more electricity worldwide than they currently do.
Ultimately, the widespread adoption of clean energy is a gradual process. The world can’t switch from conventional forms of energy tomorrow, but it can make the switch eventually. For now, Costa Rica serves as a glimpse into the world’s energy practices of the future.