A bill aimed at extracting geothermal energy from Costa Rica’s national parks has drawn criticism from environmental organizations.
The Law of Geothermal Energy Production in National Parks is in commission review in the Legislative Assembly and gaining support from legislators. But environmentalists maintain the bill is disruptive and unnecessary.
Angeline Marín, president of Wild Flora and Fauna Preservation (APREFLOFAS), said she supports the idea of geothermal energy but argues that opening up national parks is dangerous because it could constitute a first step down a slippery slope.
“The issue is exploitation,” said Marín. “If we open up national parks for this, where will it stop?”
Marín fears that allowing construction of the plants in the national parks could “open doors for more companies to build in the parks.”
She said building geothermal plants in the parks could also disrupt animal and plant diversity.
The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), which introduced the bill, said the potential abundance of geothermal energy from Costa Rica’s national parks is too great to ignore.
According to a study by the institute, Costa Rica has the potential to produce 800 megawatts of geothermal energy, but only produces about 20 percent of that amount.
Miravalles, the lone geothermal plant in Costa Rica, produced over 1,200 gigawatt hours of geothermal electricity in 2004 at a cost of 4 cents per kilowatt hour. By comparison, the cost of thermal energy in 2004 was 49.1 cents per hour. ICE cited all of this information in their bill proposal as arguments in favor of more geothermal energy production.
While ICE’s goal is to significantly increase the percentage of electricity produced by geothermal energy, some environmentalists feel the company is being greedy.
Héctor González, the director of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), has doubts about ICE’s motivation.
While González admits Costa Rica needs to explore more energy resources, he thinks ICE’s national park plan would be used for exports rather than to meet domestic demand.
ICE has said that exporting the energy is not its intention and that all electricity generated in the parks would stay in Costa Rica.
Still, González insisted, “The fact they would even consider opening up national parks shows their negligence for regulations.”
Another issue surrounding geothermal plants is that of over-extraction. Geothermal energy is a relatively clean way to produce electricity, but it is also one of the more difficult forms to manage.
María Martínez, a vulcanologist at the National University (UNA), said the size of a geothermal plant can have a considerable impact on its success.
Energy for geothermal planets is harnessed from the earth’s naturally occurring heat and steam. If a plant is too big or tries to extract too much from the earth, it runs the risk of drying up the geothermal location, Martínez said.
She added that the water can also be an issue for the plants.
Because the generators rely in part on steam to create energy, the use of water for the production of geothermal electricity could overtax areas facing shortages of water.
“Water is already an issue,” she said. “Some places don’t have enough water now, and it could be dangerous to take more water from the earth.”
Martínez said she supports using geothermal energy, but said officials and operators must monitor the plants closely.
The positive side of geothermal plants, she said, is that they are not weather-dependent and can operate on a year-round cycle.
Almost 80 percent of Costa Rica’s power is generated from hydroelectric plants, but these plants can run low during the dry season – December through April – and cause large blackouts.
ICE said they would model any new geothermal plants that might be built in the national parks after successful projects in other parts of the world “in order to maintain the environmental equilibrium.”
But Marín argues the national parks are the wrong places to start.
“There are a lot of places outside the boundaries of these parks that have demonstrated geothermal possibility,” she said. “I think ICE needs to find a better plan.”