Home of authentic coffee beans, chocolate, and hammocks, Costa Rica also holds the title for having the third largest geothermal installed capacity in the Americas, behind the United States and Mexico; and twelfth in the world’s geothermal generation.
In March of this year, Costa Rica celebrated 25 years of geothermal power production. With this anniversary, operations commenced for the implementation of a 55MW plant at Pailas II. The project is estimated to generate electricity for approximately 55,000 homes. Other plants are located at Miravalles I, II, III and IV and Las Pailas I. The plants have a combined generation of 207MW. One (1MW) generates enough energy for approximately one thousand homes!
Deep drilling exploration began in 1978 upon the discovery of a high-temperature reservoir and more exploratory studies continued until 1985. The wells which were initially drilled and got the country started in its utilization of geothermal energy are still very much active and in production. Work began at the start of the 1990s and commercial operation began on March 24, 1994, with an installed capacity of 55MW. With subsequent drilling stages, three flash plants were commissioned in 1994, 1998 and 2000 and one binary plant in 2004. The total installed capacity was at 163MW.
At present, 8% of the energy produced in Costa Rica is provided by geothermal resources. Underground steam is used to power the turbines of a power plant, often at competitive costs. Geothermal energy uses in Costa Rica are divided into three broad categories: sustainability, conservation, and cultivation. Of these, the applications include agriculture, aquaculture, heating, mining, industrial process, pasteurization and the two primary uses being for electricity generation and balneology. Yet, Costa Rica holds up to 875MW of the geothermal potential of which only about 23% is exploited.
Geothermal and hydro-electrical power plants are used to generate electricity rather than thermal power plants. The Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE) is the only company which sells electricity to consumers. The final price relates directly to the averaged costs of all sources. Consequently, substituting the most expensive generation sources with geothermal (or even cheaper energy sources) is considered; and is an important economic issue in the country.
Located in the tropics, Costa Rica has a low level of industrial development and interest has been placed on the utilization of high-enthalpy geothermal resources. Geothermal plants produce constantly throughout the year, and as such are used as a base load for the country’s electrical generation. This is because of the variation in the hydro-electrical plants’ production and due to the seasonal variations of Costa Rica’s weather. The ICE oversees the development and management of electric power generation in Costa Rica. It is the only seller of electricity to end users. Thus, the final price is directly related to the average costs of all sources. For this reason, the substitution of the most expensive generation sources with geothermal (or cheaper energy sources) is considered and is an important economic issue in the country.
Despite its developments to date, Costa Rica has been described as wasting the opportunity to generate more and better energy. There is the potential for geothermal energy to generate economically competitive electricity with little environmental impact. In addition to satisfying local demand, electricity can also be exported to other Central American neighbors. For many decades now, the government of Costa Rica has been applying strict environmental protection policies. As a result of this, many protected areas have been created which comprise 25% of the national territory. Costa Rica possesses considerable undeveloped geothermal resources, and the most stringent level of protection applies to the national parks where the best geothermal and hydroelectric prospects are located. By law, all activity related to geoscientific studies and the eventual exploitation of energy resources in these areas is prohibited. These have inhibited the utilization of existing geothermal resources in previously located high-temperature zones. These restrictions are unproductive for the country because the production of electricity depends primarily on two energy sources: hydroelectric and geothermal.
A new bill, entitled “Regulation Law for Geothermal Energy Production in National Parks” (File No. 16,137), was written and presented to the Costa Rican Congress. Its main purpose was to authorize ICE to develop geothermal resources inside the national parks while retaining sensitivity and concern for environmental issues. In the preliminary studies and final phases of any geothermal development project, the principles of environmental sustainability and the continued environmental improvement in the potential area of interest must be respected. The new law assigns to the “Secretaría Técnica Ambiental (SETENA)” the oversight of any possible geothermal development, in order to assure that these principles are being followed correctly.
In many countries, there are laws and regulations intended to prevent the abuse of natural resources, yet the opposite is being observed where these resources may be damaged for all mankind. It is therefore imperative that each country develop its natural resources sustainably and responsibly. In a country like Costa Rica, a greater use of geothermal energy will enable citizens with the opportunity to effectively control their own energy resources as they utilize a domestic source that is stable and secure. The “social function” of natural resources should not be overlooked – as protecting the environment does not imply inhibition of its rational use. Addressing the equilibrium between nature and human beings in order to improve the quality of sustainable living is of the utmost value.
In Costa Rica, the electricity produced by geothermal plants is treated as base-load power to use it as a substitute for petroleum by-products. It benefits the environment by producing only a fraction of the CO2 and H2S per generated kilowatt-hour produced by a thermal plant. The investigation and exploitation of geothermal energy electricity production can coexist with the concept of protected zones because, in addition to the many benefits, ground remediation in the surrounding areas and forest regrowth are subject to commence once the construction phase is complete.
This wraps up our #GeothermalCountryOverview on Geothermal in Costa Rica. Check back weekly to read more of our #GeothermalFactsandStats blog and follow us on all our Social Media platforms.
Author: Elizabeth Bullock