San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Solar Power’s Potential High, But so are Costs

Fourth in a Series on Energy in Costa Rica.


Costa Rica’s plans for solar energy could use a total recharge, most experts in the field say.

The country, which prides itself on using a multitude of renewable sources, accounting for approximately 80 percent of electrical production every year, is not home to a single solar power farm – a type of energy generation that most consider the cleanest of all.

Cost is the Reason

The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) simply cannot afford to install a largescale solar farm.

Prices for the installation of solar panels vary, but it is still clear that solar energy soars above its alternatives in initial costs.

According to the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, a U.S.-based non-profit organization, the cost of a solar panel was $3.66 per watt in 2007 and it should fall to $2.14 per watt in 2010.

While the lower price indicates a cheaper future for solar, it is still quite expensive when compared with some of its renewable partners, which can cost mere cents per watt to install.

“It’s just not economically viable to do it on a large scale,” said Javier Orozco, director of integral expansion and electrical planning for the ICE. “It’s not competitive. The equipment we would need costs too much.”

While ICE may not have the capital to invest in a large-scale solar project, Orozco noted that the institute has installed some small solar panels on the roofs of other plants across the country to help cut operating costs.

The institute also rents out small solar panels to residents who live in remote locations and aren’t completely connected to the grid.

But these 90-100 watt panels aren’t much good for anything other than powering a radio or providing enough electricity to flip on a light switch at sunset.

But even considering the high installation costs of solar energy, there could be a way for Costa Rica to take advantage of its sunny skies: private generators.

Many of Costa Rica’s homes that are fitted with solar panels could potentially feed energy generated by their system back into the electrical grid.

Unfortunately, an aging law written in 1989 that regulates the amount of private electricity ICE buys, states that no more than 15 percent of the country’s electricity can be fed by private generators. ICE relies mostly on private hydroelectric plants to satisfy this need, leaving solar without much daylight.

Jason Borner, of Poderco, a renewable energy company in Costa Rica, said the technical phase of re-entering solar energy into the grid is quick and cheap.

Houses need only to install a two-way meter system, which he estimates at around $30 dollars per meter.

Once this is done, any excess energy that is generated and stored by a solar panel can be sent directly into the grid. Outgoing electricity is measured by the second meter and the amount is deducted from the owner’s monthly electricity bill.

“We hope this can happen,” Borner said of the meters. “I think ICE recognizes that they have to get it done,” Borner said.

Shyam Nandwani, a physics professor at the National University (UNA), agreed that something needs to be done to allow the country to take advantage of solar power.

According to a study by the UNA, Costa Rica’s land area has the capacity to produce an average of 1,500 kilowatts of solar radiation per square meter per year, which theoretically, could produce 2,600 times the amount of energy that Costa Rica uses annually.

“There is too much potential in this country for us not to use the sun,” he said. “If ICE can’t afford to invest in solar panels, then (it should) find a way to buy it from someone who can. They need to be more flexible with the laws to use this source.”

Orozco supports the idea of installing the two-way meter system, but he said the private generation law makes it difficult to do so. He said the government monopoly is not pushing new legislation for the use of two-way solar meters, but it is looking for a way to work within the current law to begin to realize solar energy’s potential in Costa Rica.

“We would love to have some sort of compromise, but things happen sometimes really slowly here,” he said. “And in the future, when the price drops, we can start thinking about larger solar plants.”

Next week: Geothermal Energy



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