San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

It’s getting easier to go solar in Costa Rica

From the print edition

In a country loved for its intense and almost consistent sunshine, solar energy is an enticing investment for homes and businesses. But how do consumers get such a system?

The answer may be a few young companies here that provide solar options for home and business owners at a time when solar is becoming more cost-efficient.

With a 6.5-year payback on solar projects and recent changes in government regulations on renewable-energy investments, the landscape is becoming increasingly favorable for solar, said Lester Sacks, who founded Costa Rica Solar Solutions four years ago.

“In 2008, things were on the rise, and then economic fallout definitely affected sales,” Sacks said. “There has always been a lag since then, but this year we’re just starting to see renewed interest.”

Solar energy history began in Costa Rica long before recent economic crises. In 1977, Dr. S. S. Nandwani was invited to work on solar energy at National University in Heredia, north of the capital. Since then, a lack of funding has been a constant challenge. But solar energy is now included in national information material on energy-saving practices and machinery, the use of solar power for cooking is being promoted in rural communities, and even tourism is benefiting through the use of solar energy by hotels and sports centers for cooking, hot water and in heating swimming pools. 

The National University is working with the Education Ministry and the Environment Ministry to produce literature and equipment for schools and short training courses. In the meantime, Nandwani continues searching for outlets to inform people of the results and social influence of his research.

“The hardest part is getting people to realize you will get your money back,” Sacks said. “It’s all about educating people that solar is not a toy, and we can generate real power to run our lives. It takes a lot of forward thinking to see where energy is today and where it will be tomorrow.”

Sacks’ Costa Rica Solar Solutions recommends hybrid systems feeding into the country’s national electricity grid as well as battery backup. This prevents burnouts during surges and the ability to ride out outages. Panels sold by the company have a 25-year warranty, and most are expected to last up to 40 years.

Sacks designed and built one of the country’s largest solar systems at the boutique hotel Kura Villas on the southern Pacific coast. The system currently uses 30 panels at 280 watts each.

Until 2010, those harnessing solar energy in Costa Rica could not connect to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute’s (ICE) grid. But a few years ago, ICE dropped sales and import taxes and fees for solar systems and developed a net metering program. This program allows residential and commercial structures on the ICE grid to integrate directly into the electricity switchboard, generating electricity during the day for direct use. If a system generates more electricity than a building consumes, the excess power is automatically exported to the grid and counted as credit on the electricity meter.  

If a building requires more electricity than the solar power system generates, the difference is automatically imported from the grid and metered as debit.

Cham Brownwell, chief operating officer for Pura Vida Energy Systems, which opened in 2010, said the net metering program is a large step forward for green energy development.

“Before net metering you would have to have a large battery to collect energy for when the sun doesn’t shine,” he said. “This is great for Costa Rica too to have access to extra electric energy during peak hours.”

Only the state-run ICE allows this energy credit- and debit-metering program for solar-generated electricity; cooperative electricity companies do not participate. Brownwell doubts other companies will participate in net metering until the Public Services Regulatory Authority enforces regulations that make benefits available for all consumers, regardless of which utility company they use.

In Guanacaste, a northwestern province with the sunniest days in the country, ICE covers only half of the area. Therefore half of the region cannot take advantage of the metered solar credit.

“Electricity is very expensive in this country already,” Brownwell said. “Over the past five years, the percentage increases have been in the double digits. But when you invest in a solar system, you lock into the electricity rates for the lifetime of your solar system. Every time rates go up, your system is still making the same amount of energy, so it’s all the more you save.”

Brownwell said his company’s most popular system is the Westinghouse Solar System for both residential and commercial structures. Because of its simplicity, contractors can install the unit themselves. All of Pura Vida’s equipment is imported from the United States and has a 25-year guarantee. 

The smallest system the company offers is a three-kilowatt system for $15,000, which saves a consumer a projected $110 per month. The largest system the company offers is a 10-kilowatt system for $40,000, which saves consumers $550 per month.

One of the newest solar companies in the country is Powersmart Solar. This New Zealand-based company began operating in Costa Rica in January. 

“We believe solar energy in Central America has a great future,” said Yohann Chateau, the company’s Costa Rica manager. “This is a very safe investment in Costa Rica because of the 15-year contracts at a fixed rate that ICE is offering at the moment.”

Chateau said that one challenge with developing solar systems in Costa Rica is lack of education about using the cost-effective ICE metering program and years of overpriced solar options by other companies. His company offers solar consultation and quotes free of charge.

Powersmart offers solar systems for those off-grid locations. If a building is connected to the ICE grid, to install a solar power system no changes are required for the building. But it becomes more complex with off-grid projects.

“Off-grid is a different way of thinking and living,” Chateau said. “It’s more financially intensive but completely possible.”

Though Powersmart is new, they are already receiving calls from engineers inquiring about their solar systems. The company is unique because of its experience designing solar power systems for harsh, remote and tropical environments, Chateau said. The company’s system is designed to withstand high temperatures, salt-laden air and risk of cyclones and flooding. The systems also come with a 25-year warranty.

In New Zealand’s coral-island territory of Tokelau, Powersmart has established solar energy systems that will power 100 percent of the 1,400 residents’ electricity needs. For this project, Powersmart collaborated with IT Power Australia in a project funded by the New Zealand Aid Program and supported by the government of Tokelau.

“You can pay ICE prices that increase every month or make a solar investment that will be paid off in a couple years, and then it’s profit for you after that,” said Lester Sacks of Costa Rica Solar Solutions.

For Sacks, energy independence is crucial: “ICE knows this, and we can achieve this with the removal of taxes and import duties for renewable energies. It’s government that needs to make good on its promise to be really green and cut down on the hoops people and companies have to jump through to participate in solar connection.”

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