RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We visit one of the greenest countries on earth this morning - the latest installment in climate connections, our year-long series with National Geographic. Costa Rica has created vast national parks to protect fragile ecosystems. It generates power without burning fossil fuels, and it promotes eco-tourism. In the next couple of decades, Costa Rica hopes to become the first carbon-neutral nation, but it's not always easy being green. Costa Rica's efforts to minimize its own contributions to global warming have made it especially vulnerable to climate change caused by other countries. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.
(Soundbite of rustling sound)
JON HAMILTON: Most nations find natural resources in the ground. Costa Rica looks to the sky.
Mr. MARIO MONTERO (Environmental Planner): It's one of the rainiest places in the world.
HAMILTON: Mario Montero is inspecting a reservoir that feeds the Angostura Hydroelectric Plant. It's high in the lush, green mountains of Central Costa Rica. He points toward a distant peak.
Mr. MONTERO: I know for rain, they just up there, it records around 8,000 millimeters of rain a year. This would be about maybe 315 inches.
HAMILTON: That's 26 feet, an average of nearly one inch of rain a day. Montero is an environmental planner from the government corporation responsible for making and distributing electricity. He says rain in this water seg flows into three different rivers that fill this reservoir, which at the moment is carpeted with water lilies. We approach a concrete spillway where the water disappears into a tunnel that leads to the nation's largest hydroelectric plant.
(Soundbite of hydroelectric machinery)
Mr. MONTERO: It's one of the pipes where water enters the turbines.
HAMILTON: The turbines then degenerate. That makes the electricity that's delivered nationwide through a power line. Angostura, which came online in 2000, supplies about 10 percent of the nation's power. 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 protections show a huge increase in power consumption over the next couple of decades.
Mr. MONTERO: 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.
HAMILTON: A lot of the power goes to businesses like TechShop, a precision machining operation in the capital city of San Jose.
Mr. ALAN GUZOWSKI (General Manager, TechShop): What we do here is we cut steel.
HAMILTON: Alan Guzowski is the general manager. He says TechShop produces a lot of custom parts for the aerospace industry. When touring a room 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.
Mr. GUZOWSKI: These machines are so sophisticated, in order to bring them to Costa Rica, we need an export license from the Japanese government and the Department of State.
HAMILTON: Guzowski says the machines and the computers that control them are completely dependent on a large and steady supply of power.
Mr. GUZOWSKI: Without electricity, we basically have to - we shut off. So, for us, when there's no electricity, it - there's nothing we can do.
HAMILTON: Electricity was never an issue, though, until the end of the dry season last year.
(Soundbite of turbine stopping)
Mr. GUZOWSKI: We just lost power. And in this location, it didn't come back on. The next day was the same, and then after a couple days, the government started making an announcement that they had issues. At that point in time, they didn't know exactly what it was. And then after that it was that they started saying that the levels of the water in the main dams were very, very low.
HAMILTON: The problem was that the rainy season came a couple of weeks late. That's 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's taken steps to prevent this sort of thing in the future, but Guzowski has his doubts, partly because he thinks climate change is already affecting Costa Rica.
Mr. GUZOWSKI: The weather is not what it used to be. And you know, they've got this whole store, el Nino, la Nina, and which I - my opinion is that nobody really knows what to expect.
HAMILTON: Climate experts agree. They say it's one thing to know that 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.
Mr. MAX CAMPOS (Meteorologist): This is something that people must understand that any a small deviation from what we consider normal, it is going to be very, very difficult to adjust.
HAMILTON: Campos says last year's power outage should serve as a warning.
Mr. CAMPOS: We have been insisting a lot from the people from the hydroelectric sector and the people from the environment and so on, that we must learn to live within a wider range dominated by the extremes.
HAMILTON: Mario Montero says that will be tough for the electricity business. Either they'll get less rain, which means less water to make power, or…
Mr. MONTERO: …stronger rainy seasons, which means our reservoirs cannot hold all the water we would generate. So we have to let it go through.
HAMILTON: To adapt to these changes, the countries would need bigger reservoirs and more hydroelectric plants like the one at Angostura.
(Soundbite of water flowing)
HAMILTON: Montero shows me where water exits the plant once it's passed through the turbines.
Mr. MONTERO: There's a little pool where water (unintelligible) some residual energy, and then it flows through the channels to the point where it's going to be sent back to the river…
HAMILTON: Where it can be captured by another damn and used to make more electricity - at least in theory. 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 ingenious 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.
Mr. MONTERO: According to our projections, it should last for the next 20 years. After that, we would have to figure out some other major source to serve as a backbone for our system.
HAMILTON: 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 decreasing hydroelectric power, Costa Rica will have little choice but to generate electricity using the same fossil fuels that are causing global warming.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And there are other Climate Connection stories from around the world at npr.org/climate. There, you can also find the latest stories of global warming from National Geographic magazine.