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Costa Rica's Energy Debate Focuses on Renewables, Parks and Consumers

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During the early May summit in San Jose with U.S. President Barack Obama and the presidents of Central America and the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica focused much of its efforts on bilateral energy initiatives.

From the U.S., Costa Rica and other countries on the isthmus want to import liquefied natural gas at discounted rates. Meanwhile, Ticos are working on developing cleaner technology based on hydrogen converted to fuel for both domestic consumption and export.

But what would those programs entail, and what is the likelihood they will come to fruition?

Ad Astra and hydrogen

"Obama was impressed that [hydrogen technology] is being developed in a country as small as Costa Rica, and the proposal to the U.S. is that we cooperate with exchanges of university researchers, investors and young engineers," Costa Rican Environment Minister Rene Castro said following the summit.

The Ad Astra Rocket Company, located in the provincial capital of Liberia, Guanacaste, and founded by Costa Rican astronaut and scientist Franklin Chang, has three large research projects focused on extracting hydrogen from water and using it to store and produce renewable energy.

"Our interest is utilizing hydrogen as a possible alternative fuel," Ad Astra engineer and project administrator Juan Del Valle told The Tico Times.

Hydrogen is an interesting option for Costa Rica for two reasons: It is environmentally friendly because it is a clean fuel. When hydrogen is used to produce energy, its byproduct is pure water. And water -- the technology's input -- is an abundant resource in this Central American country.

Costa Rica currently produce more than 90 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, mostly hydroelectric projects. Eventually, using hydrogen as an alternative fuel could help release Costa Rica entirely from its remaining dependence on hydrocarbon imports, particularly if that technology targets the transportation sector. And that could help further the administration's goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2021.

Ad Astra hopes to develop technology that uses wind-turbine technology to extract hydrogen from water through electrolysis, or the decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen via electric current. Ad Astra is designing and building small-scale and low-cost wind turbines for that purpose.

"It's convenient for Costa Rica, because with electricity and water, we can produce hydrogen. In Costa Rica, we have water and electricity, and actually we are leaders in the production of electricity from renewable sources like wind," Del Valle said.

The second project entails building an experimental station where, once hydrogen is produced, it is pressurized and stored in high-pressure tanks.

Ad Astra's third project, supported by U.S. company Cummins, Inc. and Costa Rica-based EARTH University, is building a new type of electric generator that uses biogas and hydrogen instead of fossil fuels.

"Cummings is a specialist in electricity plants, and EARTH University has experience in anaerobic digesters that use organic waste to produce biogas," Del Valle said.

Ad Astra hopes to enrich biogas with hydrogen to improve the efficiency of a generator, he added.

Research into the generator project began in August 2011, and scientists will begin testing it by the end of May.

Ad Astra hopes to take the results of the three projects and consolidate them into one program that powers dairy and other farms, and small businesses, with the goal of helping businesses become energy self-sufficient.

"We can use this technology, and in the future, create an engine that can be adapted for use in conventional vehicles that operate with biogas and hydrogen. It's a long-term project that will take at least 10 years to develop," Del Valle said.

Ad Astra eventually hopes to export the new generators.

Mauricio alvarez, president of the Costa Rican Environmental Conservation Federation, or FECON, said using hydrogen to develop new energy technology is a positive development as long as more energy is produced than is used as input. The electricity that is produced should primarily be used for local consumption, because exporting it would have greater environmental consequences, he said.

Although production of this type of energy would be much cleaner than fossil fuels, water use and availability should be analyzed to ensure that rivers are not strained, he added.

Liquefied natural gas

Another initiative Costa Rica is pursuing is the importation of liquefied natural gas from the U.S. at preferential rates. Obama said the U.S. would decide if it is interested in exporting the product in the next six months.

"We're pitching the idea early, as the United States is still discussing exporting [LNG]," Castro said.

alvarez and Broad Front Party lawmaker Jose Maria Villalta, however, doubt the U.S. will decide to share its hydrocarbon reserves with Central America. Rather, they say, the northern giant likely will save those reserves for its massive internal consumption.

Geothermal energy

In the Legislative Assembly, lawmakers are debating a bill that would allow the generation of geothermal energy inside the Rincon de la Vieja National Park in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

There are two ways to do this, as Costa Rica has a law that prohibits the extraction of resources from national parks.

The first involves changing park boundaries and adding additional territory to compensate for the area converted to energy production. The other would require a reform to the National Parks Law, allowing the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) to tap energy inside national parks.

Last month, ICE held a forum to debate the controversial issue, attended by ICE Executive Director Teofilo de la Torre, the environment minister, lawmakers, conservationists and others.

De la Torre said that without geothermal energy, the only alternative for boosting electricity production would be using hydrocarbon fuels, which are more costly and environmentally harmful.

Castro said that geothermal energy is one of the few options available to confront climate change.

alvarez, however, is worried that changing the national park law or redrawing park boundaries would set a troubling precedent.

"The national parks have many resources, and if we set that precedent, the door will open to extracting other resources," he said. "The national parks were created precisely to protect those resources."

FECON backs the idea of searching for geothermal energy sources outside of national parks. alvarez also believes the government should do more to reduce energy consumption.

"How are we going to extract resources from national parks before implementing a national plan to conserve energy?" he asked. "Costa Rica depends on tourism and its image of an environmentally friendly country."

Villalta backs the geothermal push.

"We support the development of geothermal energy in Costa Rica, because it's a stable energy, is available throughout the year, and has a much lower effect on the environment than hydroelectric projects," he said.

Hydroelectric projects and the country's abundant supply of water have helped Costa Rica meet is electricity demand, but conservationists say large-scale dams disrupt ecosystems.

Other alternative energy sources include wind and solar power, but they do not supply a constant, year-round source of energy.

Although Villalta supports the geothermal idea, he said it's important to address conservationists' concerns. ICE, he said, should develop geothermal projects without damaging national parks.

Villalta backs changing park boundaries to allow geothermal projects in small areas, but those areas should be replaced with larger areas to make the parks bigger, not smaller, he said.

"Of course, we're not going to accept a law that replaces forests with pastures, and the areas that are added should have an equal amount of biodiversity, so that our natural wealth isn't diminished, but rather, expanded," he said.

Villalta noted that ICE is making progress on searching for geothermal sources outside of national parks, but those sources are limited.

He also called for a national energy conservation plan to target consumers by using a utility rate scale that adjusts costs based on the hour of the day and that obligates big companies to use more efficient energy technology.

He acknowledged, however, that "energy demand will always increase, because the population increases, and so does the economy."

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