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COSTA RICA: Working Towards Carbon Neutrality

Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSE, Aug 6 2010 (IPS) - With the elimination of certain taxes and the implementation of several green initiatives, Costa Rica is pressing forward in its aim to promote sustainable energy generation with a view to achieving “carbon neutrality” by 2021, the year this country will celebrate two centuries of independence.

Following in the footsteps of countries like Finland, Norway and New Zealand, Costa Rica plans to fully offset its carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions that cause global warming by planting forests and introducing improved mitigation technologies, among other initiatives.

Companies and individuals will be able to apply to the Costa Rican Certification Body to certify their emission reduction efforts.

While this Central American nation’s best bet in reducing GHGs is the expansion of its forested area, clean technologies will also be necessary if the country wants to become carbon neutral, said Orlando Chinchilla, director of the National University’s Forest Research and Services Institute, who added, however, that it will be no easy feat.

A Jun. 30 amendment to a tax exemption act (Law No. 7400) promotes the use of renewable energies by eliminating 13 percent of the tax burden previously levied on solar panels and solar-powered kitchens, refrigerators and heaters, as well as on devices that run on wind and hydroelectric power.

Complementing these efforts, and as part of the same Energy Plan implemented by the social democrat administration of Laura Chinchilla, the governmental Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE) will provide incentives for companies and homes that install solar panels and biomass (organic waste) generation systems.

Users of such technology will be able to recover their investment in an estimated three to six years, through savings in their power bills calculated at about 200 dollars a year for an average family of four.

Household and company power systems will be connected to the ICE grid, enabling individual users to assign their excess power in exchange for discounts on their electricity bill.

This will be done through the installation of a two-way meter that will determine whether there is a surplus of power that can be sold or if generation capacity is insufficient to cover the user’s consumption and the ICE grid needs to supply additional power.

This will not only make homes more sustainable and self-sufficient in terms of their power needs, but will also reduce the country’s fossil fuel dependency, as the ICE will collect the excess energy and use it to cover the needs of other consumers.

According to government figures, 64 percent of all commercial users are supplied by energy from fossil fuels. The transportation sector accounts for a large part of that percentage.

But hydropower dams are the leading source of electricity in the country, accounting for 78 percent of electric power, and making Costa Rica the region’s leading producer of clean energy.

Geothermal power — obtained by tapping into underground steam from volcanic areas — is the country’s second most important renewable source of electricity, with thermal, wind and biomass lagging far behind.

The use of solar energy is still negligible, but the aim is for alternative power sources to expand significantly over the next decade.

“The final price of equipment and materials will drop 20 percent, not just 13 percent,” Rodrigo Salazar, general manager of Energy Solutions, a company that sells solar heaters, told IPS. This additional cut in costs will come from the elimination of the import tax on renewable energy equipment purchased by the sector’s companies.

Salazar believes the initiative will boost alternative energy equipment sales, which have been stagnant since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008.

In the government’s plans there is also room for another alternative source: bio-digesters. These are small plants that generate gas from cattle manure fermentation, and in addition to eliminating animal waste and generating energy, they produce bio-manure for use on crops.

Rural and low-income communities have benefited the most from certain pilot programmes that have been underway for a number of years. An estimated 1,400 bio-digesters have been installed in Costa Rica. Their low cost and the fact that they are easy to install and maintain make them an attractive alternative.

The village of Santa Fe, in Guatuso district, near the Nicaraguan border, has 10 bio-digesters, which were built four years ago at a cost of about 200 dollars each.

With that investment, users save 15 dollars a month in gas for cooking and heating water. “It’s innovative and environmentally-friendly,” because it curbs pollution, deforestation, and “gets rid of animal dung,” Xinia Montero, head of the Santa Fe Women’s Group, told IPS.

And it can also be considered a tourist attraction, as people “come from different countries to see how they work,” Montero said.

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