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

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

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.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
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  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
  • The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
  • But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.


Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.