What You Want to Know About Costa Rica’s Renewable Energy Victory

How Costa Rica achieved 100% renewable energy, and what it means.

Estanquillos
Estanquillos, Costa Rica

There’s been a lot of excitement about Costa Rica’s recent announcement that it got 100% of its electricity from clean renewable energy sources for 76 days straight, from the end of June through August. Its total for 2016 so far is 150 days altogether. Costa Rica set a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2021, though they’ve recently pushed that back to 2085.


It’s great to have some good climate change news for a change — we need the inspiration — but remember how you heard that a thing that seems too good to be true probably isn’t? Well, it’s not that Costa Rica’s claim isn’t true, exactly. It’s just that it leaves out some critical “buts.” The country does have a genuine and exceptional commitment to fighting climate change, so while its story provides a glimmer of good news, it’s really just a glimmer.

There’s More to the Story Than Power

To begin with, it’s Costa Rica’s electrical grid that’s been running on renewables, but not the transportation systemcars and buses — which accounts for nearly 70% of the country’s energy consumption. (Less than 200 hybrid cars that can take advantage of the clean electricity have been imported.) Adding to the carbon dioxide levels are two big cement plants that burn coal and petroleum coke, and air quality is further affected by the many houses that still burn wood for heat.

But About That Clean, Renewable Electricity

Costa Rica has a hydroelectricity infrastructure that’s supplied the majority of the country’s power since 1989, according to Costa Rican think tank Nivela

Reventazón DAM (ICE)

Some years this works better than others — the country suffered a major drought in 2014 — and 2015 and 2016 have been unusually rainy, keeping reservoirs full. The downside? The bountiful downpour is likely due to climate change. Paraguay is another country that gets almost all of its power from hydroelectric, thanks to their Itaipú Dam, and Brazil gets over 75% of its power from hydroelectricity.

Another 12.6% of Costa Rica’s electricity comes from geothermal plants that pull heat from deep in the earth’s crust.

Geothermal resource

Costa Rica gets another 2% of its electrical power from wind turbines, with a little bit of additional energy coming from biomass burning and solar.

Iceland gets 99% of its electric power from a similar mix of sources: Dammed rivers supply hydroelectric power that meets 70% of demand, and geothermal energy from the collision of the two continental plates the country straddles takes care of the other 30%.

Size Matters

It’s great that Costa Rica’s doing so well meeting demand with clean energy, but its small size means it can get by with producing far less than many countries. 51,000 square kilometres in size — about half of Kentucky — with only 5 million people and no real heavy industry, demand in 2015 was met with 10,713 gigawatt-hours of electricity. Compare that to about 4 million gigawatt-hours needed in the U.S. during the same year, and you see why Costa Rica has a smaller mountain to climb than many.

In larger countries, producing sufficient hydroelectric and geothermal power may have to wait for technology beyond what we currently have. The destruction required to even attempt to produce the power larger countries need now would be unacceptable, and likely impossible anyway.

Costa Rica’s Role

The best way to take the good news from Costa Rica is to count the country among a number of other inspiring nations working diligently to leverage current technology and take advantage of naturally occurring resource opportunities as they arise. Costa Rica joins them at the leading edge of the global effort to safely and non-destructively meet our need for clean, renewable energy.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Your genetics influence how resilient you are to the cold

What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science

Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.

Keep reading Show less

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
  • The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
  • Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast