San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Living Light: Using renewable energy in the home

From the print edition

With Costa Rican residential electricity rates increasing an average of 12.7 percent over the past 12 years, according to the Public Services Regulatory Authority saving money on electricity costs while simultaneously cutting one’s carbon footprint is a win-win situation. 

Fortunately, there are many options for producing and conserving energy in the home and also a number of local companies in the business of supporting this venture. Not only is it a practical investment, but it also contributes to Costa Rica’s efforts to preserve natural resources and reach carbon neutrality by the year 2021.

Conservation first

Jason Borner, founder of PODERCO Renewable Energy Company, which sells and installs solar, wind and hydro systems, says that the best way to begin is to consider ways to cut back on general energy consumption. Companies such as PODERCO offer energy-efficiency consultations, which enable clients to purchase the least expensive and most appropriate renewable-energy system and take other steps to reduce energy consumption. 

According to Borner, the following are simple ways to lower electricity costs:

• Installing white or reflective roofing and  walls to prevent transmission of excess heat to the building’s interior.

• Creating roof overhangs to shade the walls and avoid overheating.

• Checking for proper ventilation that will reduce the need for air conditioning  (a major energy consumer).

• Replacing regular light bulbs with LED and Compact Fluorescent Lights.

• Purchasing Energy Star-rated appliances.

• Ensuring that wiring and cables are safe and have proper grounding to prevent loss of energy.

• Where in use, regularly change the air conditioner’s air filter to avoid obstruction of airflow and improve efficiency.

Taking these initial steps can result in significant savings by avoiding unnecessary energy use. Then, when it comes to considering installing renewable-energy systems, different options exist, including solar electric, solar thermal, wind and hydroelectric power systems. 

In most areas, solar energy is the most logical renewable-energy option for Costa Rica, which averages about 5.5 hours of usable sunlight per day. Wind and small-scale hydro systems can also be effective, but depend on the availability of a constant source of wind or water. Mixing two or more sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, is also an option.

Solar electricity

In solar-electricity systems, photovoltaic (PV) panels convert sunlight into electricity. Solar tiles, which are sometimes preferred as a more aesthetically pleasing solar PV installation, are also an option and can be installed in lieu of regular roofing tiles. 

Cham Brownwell, chief operating officer at Pura Vida Energy systems, which specializes in solar electricity, says, “Costa Rica is one of the few places in the world where solar reaches such rewarding parity, meaning the system will pay for itself quickly. While in the United States it takes from 11-14 years, in Costa Rica it takes only six to eight years. No other place has such a rapid return on investment.”

In some instances, there are added incentives and discounts tied to green energy. For example, Pura Vida Energy Systems offers a program called “Poder al Pueblo” (Power to the People), which allows a group of 10 or more to collectively purchase solar electricity by each paying a little more than $4,000 for an individual 900-watt solar system. This program works to make renewable energy more accessible to the general public and rewards the individual who coordinates and recruits the group with their own free solar electric system.

Solar hot water

Solar hot water systems are also powered by energy from the sun and can provide hot water for domestic use. Arine de Bordes from Purasol Natural Energy says that using the sun to heat water is a natural and viable alternative to expensive electricity-generated hot water: “With a solar thermal system, water temperatures will increase 40 degrees [F] in three hours on a sunny day.”

Some companies like Purasol Natural Energy – which offers solar, wind and hydro options – also sell additional electricity-saving sustainable products such as solar-powered stoves, well pumps, swimming pool pumps, street lamps, pool heaters and fountains. 

Wind energy

Micro-wind turbines use kinetic energy  to generate electricity, and work best in either wide-open spaces or areas that allow for the installation of a turbine above nearby obstructions. For domestic systems, the two most frequently used systems are freestanding and building-mounted turbines. It is important to know the wind speed of the area to determine the best type of installation. Most renewable energy companies in Costa Rica, such as Turbo Eoms, which specializes in wind energy, will offer customers assistance in determining the wind exposure of their area and deciding whether wind energy is a viable solution.  

Hydroelectric energy

Micro-hydro turbines are best suited for homeowners in rural areas who have access to a constantly flowing water source. The efficiency and feasibility of such a system is highly specific to location because it is dependent on the area’s water flow and velocity. One benefit from hydroelectricity is that if there is a reliable water source, energy can be generated 24 hours a day. In order to begin construction, a permit is first needed by the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry to approve hydroelectric installations.

Saving money and the environment 

The perception of higher costs associated with installing green energy equipment is what usually dissuades people from exploring renewable energy options. Although the initial installation price may mean spending more out of pocket, once the systems are in place, harnessing energy from the sun, wind and water is free.

The cost of renewable-energy systems is contingent on energy needs, which is based on factors such as the size of the building, number of residents, energy efficiency  and amount of appliances. A renewable energy provider can help determine what type and size of equipment is neccesary, and give an accurate cost estimate. 

Cost will fluctuate depending on the provider, output in kilowatts of the system, and quality of the equipment. Solar electricity systems can range from $24,000- $26,000 for a 5 kW system, a solar water heater tank can run about $1,500-$3,000, hydroelectric can range from $14,000-$20,000 for a 3 kW system and wind energy can range from $9,000-$12,000 for a 3 kW system.

It is also important to know that some companies offer two different distinct types of renewable energy installations: off-grid and on-grid systems. Off-grid systems are battery-powered while on grid systems are connected to a utility meter that sends excess generated energy back to the electric company grid. The state-owned Costa Rican Electricity Institute, which distributes electricity in most of the country, has a net metering system that will give credit for the additional energy produced. For foreign homeowners who only spend a portion of the year in Costa Rica, renewable energy systems will continue to generate energy and rack up credit through the net metering system, which can then be utilized while the owner is in Costa Rica. On-grid systems can also reduce initial costs by reducing or eliminating the need for battery-storage capacity.

Ultimately, renewable-energy systems benefit not only the individual by cutting back on electricity costs, but also the environment and the country. As Borner explains, renewable energy reduces expenditures on fossil fuels, a cost that comes directly out of the gross domestic product, and by decreasing that amount it means the country has more money for social problems and development.

Renewable Energy Resources:

ASI Power and Telemetry:

PODERCO Renewable Energy Costa Rica:

Pura Vida Energy Systems:

Purasol Natural Energy:

TurboEoms S. A.:

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