I suppose I could have gone to New Zealand if I wanted the underground scoop on geothermal plants, or Arizona if I needed the blazing sun and their centralized solar farms, or Nevada to marvel at the great engineering feats of the Hoover Dam, or Cape Cod to debate the aesthetics of installing a few dozen wind mills. But I came to Costa Rica to study greener energy in a critical light, under the microscope of a smaller nation burgeoning with alternative energy sources. That is exactly what I had done the first few days of my first two-week field trip.
First, we visited a wind farm based on the top of the Tillirán Mountains, where the tropical trade winds set the stage for optimal energy production. To say the least, it was an adventure having lecture outside in wind and mist like that of a hurricane. The sheer size of these machines is a marvel in itself, and they have been touted here as particularly green energy. Yet the infrastructure required to build these structures and the aesthetics of having these intruders on the natural landscape is not often discussed. In ideal conditions, wind farms can be multi-use, sharing space with cow pastures and the never-ceasing trade winds. However, a compromise must be made between offering more renewable energy and possibly endangering the Northern-bound migratory birds and bats with the potential for direct impact collisions and false nesting spots.
Seventy-five percent of Costa Rica’s total energy comes from hydropower. This is an accomplishment not meant to be overlooked, and we were lucky enough to visit their largest man-made reservoir—Lake Arenal—sizing up at 88 km2 or almost 22,000 acres. Alone it produces 30% of Costa Rican energy through the use of water flow to spin turbine which in turn converts mechanical energy to electrical energy. The discharge is irrigated to the dry Guanacaste region, supplying many with potable water for personal, agricultural, and aquacultural use. Built in 1978, the project displaced 1,000 families who lived in the valley destined to become Lake Arenal, not to mention the innumerable terrestrial organism forced out of their native habitats.
Our final energy stop was by the Miravalles solar and geothermal energy projects. Geothermal energy produces approximately 13% of Costa Rica’s energy, and every election cycle it becomes a hot topic for debate. In the interest of diversifying energy resources, Costa Rica has long debated placing geothermal plants in their National Parks that are rich with volcanic activity. The implications on the lucrative tourism industry, as well as ideological shifts on ecological integrity, are on the table at every proposal. Could I imagine placing a large energy plant with all of its noise, infrastructure, and smell at say, Yellowstone or Mount Rainier?
Of course, these critiques and observations did not go without a little fun. At the heart of this National Park debate is Rincón de la Vieja (The Old Lady’s Corner) Parque Nacional. To appreciate Costa Rica’s natural volcanic wonders and tourist resources, we took a day off to see the sulfuric mud pots and the pristine waterfalls that accompany the park. My time in Rincón reminded me that we have a commitment to preserve our world’s natural wonders to seek the most sustainable energy sources possible for our burgeoning population. The next step is to see how we can accomplish one without sacrificing the other.