Both environmentalists and governments looking towards a more sustainable future are constantly trying to find ways to eliminate their dependence on fossil fuels. One of the ways of doing this is through renewable energy, and quite commonly that comes in the form of hydroelectric power. Hydroelectricity or hydropower is using flowing water to generate electricity. Costa Rica has perfected the use of hydroelectricity; for them, this technology is old news. They have been constructing dams and reservoirs for hydroelectric plants since the 1960s and they currently have five fully functioning hydroelectric plants. They are doing so well with hydroelectricity and renewable energy that in 2015 they powered the entire country with renewable energy for 299 days. This became proof for other countries that it was feasible to run on renewable energy. It should be noted that Costa Rica is at quite an advantage having preferential conditions for hydroelectric power as it has immense rivers, volcanos, and a tropical climate. Albeit an impressive feat to have most of a Costa Rica’s energy coming from renewable sources, Costa Rica’s energy sector is not without faults.
First, all this talk about the energy sector, meaning electricity, has nothing to do with transportation. Monica Araya, a sustainability activist from Costa Rica, explains in her TED Talk, that 70% of Costa Rica’s energy consumption comes from oil because of the transportation sector. Furthermore, even though renewables are on the right track of sustainability, they still come with costs. Hydroelectricity, for example, requires the existence of a reservoir and a dam. Both are man-made structures that require displacement of the habitat, disruption of the land, and usually a fairly high cost. Dams cost hundreds of millions of dollars on the low end and can cost up to 2 billion dollars on the high end. All of these factors were present in the case of the Reventazón project.
This hydroelectric plant is the largest infrastructure development in Latin America behind the Panama Canal. With its sheer enormity comes good and bad. On the positive side, it provides electricity to 525,000 homes. For a country to be internationally recognized as a developed nation, they must be able to provide electricity and running water to the entire country. This hydroelectric plant represents an important step towards that goal. It shows that Costa Rica has a commitment to renewable energy and it gives an example to the rest of the world that a country ranked 74th with a GDP, according to the World Bank, of 57 billion USD compared to the US ranked 1st with 18 trillion USD can allocate its resources to what it finds important. The Reventazón Dam ended up costing 1.4 billion dollars. As stated above, renewable energy does not necessarily mean any negative environmental impact. The construction of this dam and the placement of the lake cut right in the middle of the Barbilla-Destierro Ecological Corridor, which was habitat for jaguars, pumas, and many other animals. It has greatly affected the populations because of their ability to migrate freely. Furthermore, the jaguar is endangered and is considered a protected species in Costa Rica. This hydroelectric plant places the species in further danger. The environmental impact is not always adversarial to another species; it can affect our own just as much, as is the case of the El Diquís hydroelectric project.
El Diquís is a proposed hydroelectric project that will be even larger than the Reventazón, with even more electrical capacity. The government has declared that this hydroelectric plant is of national interest. However, where the dam will flood is sacred land to the Terraba and Chinakicha nations of indigenous people in that area. Not only would it displace those that live there, but the dam would ruin the environment by flooding burial sites and ancient ruins. The indigenous groups argue that ICE, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, did not consult them whatsoever on whether or not it was acceptable to build on and disrupt this land. ICE has acknowledged this conflict and agreed to consult with the indigenous groups. Indigenous consultation is even a subsect on the official website for the dam. It is unclear if this is a valiant effort by the government to hear out the indigenous groups or if it is merely a ploy for some positive public relations. The track record has not always been strong, as seen in the case of the Cachí Dam. In the case of the Cachí Dam, built in the 1970s, the people in the surrounding area either did not want to leave or they did not have the resources to relocate. Therefore, the land they call home is constantly unsafe and at a significantly higher risk of natural disasters.
This is not about villainizing renewable energy. Hydroelectricity is currently the best option for both development and environmental impact. Rather, it is about realizing renewable energy comes with a cost. Even though the naïve thought process of development is that everyone will benefit from the projects being implemented, that is not always the case. The people and animals that are displaced and negatively impacted by these projects deserve to have their voices heard too.
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