Rainfall Shortages Threaten Costa Rica Power

The Angostura hydroelectric plant in central Costa Rica. i i

hide captionThe Angostura hydroelectric plant in central Costa Rica is the nation's largest hydroelectric plant.

Jon Hamilton, NPR
The Angostura hydroelectric plant in central Costa Rica.

The Angostura hydroelectric plant in central Costa Rica is the nation's largest hydroelectric plant.

Jon Hamilton, NPR
Mountains of central Costa Rica i i

hide captionThe lush, green mountains of central Costa Rica are where most of the rain falls and most of the country's electricity is generated.

Jon Hamilton, NPR
Mountains of central Costa Rica

The lush, green mountains of central Costa Rica are where most of the rain falls and most of the country's electricity is generated.

Jon Hamilton, NPR
Technicians at the Angostura plant monitor water levels and electrical output. i i

hide captionTechnicians at the Angostura plant monitor water levels and electrical output.

Jon Hamilton, NPR
Technicians at the Angostura plant monitor water levels and electrical output.

Technicians at the Angostura plant monitor water levels and electrical output.

Jon Hamilton, NPR
Mario Montero visits the Angostura hydroelectric plant. i i

hide captionMario Montero, an environmental planner from the Costa Rican government corporation responsible for making and distributing electricity, visits the Angostura hydroelectric plant.

Jon Hamilton, NPR
Mario Montero visits the Angostura hydroelectric plant.

Mario Montero, an environmental planner from the Costa Rican government corporation responsible for making and distributing electricity, visits the Angostura hydroelectric plant.

Jon Hamilton, NPR
A machinist cuts steel at TechShop in San Jose. i i

hide captionA machinist cuts steel at TechShop in San Jose. The factory, which makes custom parts for the aerospace industry, depends on a steady supply of electricity.

Jon Hamilton, NPR
A machinist cuts steel at TechShop in San Jose.

A machinist cuts steel at TechShop in San Jose. The factory, which makes custom parts for the aerospace industry, depends on a steady supply of electricity.

Jon Hamilton, NPR

Costa Rica ranks among the greenest countries on earth. It promotes eco-tourism, operates vast national parks, and is working to become the first carbon-neutral country.

Perhaps most impressive, the nation produces more than 80 percent of its electricity in hydroelectric plants, which emit no greenhouse gases.

But Costa Rica's efforts to minimize its own contributions to global warming have made it especially vulnerable to climate changes caused by other countries.

The reason is rain. Even a tiny shift in rainfall patterns could leave the country without enough water to meet its growing demand for electricity. And scientists say climate change is likely to have a significant effect on rainfall.

The lush, green mountains of central Costa Rica are where most of the rain falls and most of the country's electricity is generated.

Mario Montero, an environmental planner from the government corporation responsible for making and distributing electricity, is inspecting the reservoir that supplies Angostura, the nation's largest hydroelectric plant.

He points toward a distant peak. "One of our rain gauges up there records around 8,000 millimeters of rain a year," he says. That's about 26 feet, or nearly one inch a day, on average.

The rain collects in this reservoir before disappearing into a tunnel that leads to the Angostura power plant. Water under tremendous pressure spins massive turbines that turn the generators that supply 10 percent of the nation's electricity.

A Growing Demand for Electricity

Hydroelectric plants like this one have allowed Costa Rica to bring electricity to nearly every home, and to support a burgeoning economy built on tourism and high-tech industries.

Montero says government projections show a huge increase in power consumption over the next couple of decades.

"It's going to continue to grow at about 5 to 6 percent yearly, which means we have to double our installed capacity every 13 years," he says.

A lot of the power is being consumed by new businesses like TechShop. It's a precision machining operation in the capital city of San Jose that makes custom parts for the aerospace industry.

The main shop floor is big enough to hold several basketball courts. It's filled with lathes, drills, and grinding equipment accurate enough to make parts for the space shuttle.

"These machines are so sophisticated that in order to bring them to Costa Rica, we need an export license from the Japanese government and the Department of State," says Alan Guzowski, the general manager.

The machines, and the computers that control them, are completely dependent on a large and steady supply of electricity, he says. That wasn't a problem, though, until the end of the dry season in 2007.

'We Just Lost Power'

"We just lost power and on this occasion, it didn't come back on," Guzowski says. The government initially said it didn't know the cause of the outage, he says, "and then after that, they said it was that the levels of water in the main dams were very, very low."

The rainy season had come a couple of weeks late. That was all it took. Reservoirs dried up. The whole country pretty much shut down.

Intel stopped making computer chips at its plant down the road. San Jose went dark. Tourist resorts endured rolling blackouts.

The power company says it has taken steps since then to prevent a recurrence.

But Guzowski has his doubts, partly because he thinks climate change is already affecting Costa Rica.

"The weather is not what it used to be," he says.

Climate experts agree. They say it's one thing to know climate change is coming, and quite another to know precisely how things will change.

Max Campos is a meteorologist who helps Central American countries assess their water resources. He says Costa Rica's dependence on rain, rather than petroleum or coal, means people here will be among the first to feel the effects of climate change.

"This is something that people must understand," he says. "Any small deviation from what we consider normal, it is going to be very, very difficult to adjust."

Campos says the power outage should serve as a warning "that we must learn to live in a wider range, dominated by the extremes."

Adapting to Change

Montero says that will be tough for the electricity business. Sometimes it will have to cope with less rain, which means less water to make power. Other times there will be so much rain that the reservoirs overflow.

To adapt to these changes, the country would need bigger reservoirs and more hydroelectric plants like the one at Angostura.

But building future dams and power plants will be increasingly difficult. Costa Rica has already put facilities in most of the easy places.

Now it's having to consider projects in national parks, or on lands controlled by indigenous people — areas that have been off-limits so far.

Montero says these efforts should keep the power flowing for a while, even if the climate changes a bit.

"According to our projections, it should last for the next 20 years," he says. "After that, we would have to figure out some major source to serve as a backbone for our system."

That could include more power from volcanic heat, which already provides some electricity, and from the winds that blow through some inland valleys.

But if climate change greatly decreases hydroelectric power, Costa Rica will have little choice but to generate electricity using the same fossil fuels that are causing global warming.

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