Costa Rica has been powered by renewable energy for 76 days. Could the US pull that off?

Source: AP
Source: AP

At the rate it's going, Costa Rica could run its power grid exclusively with renewable energy for over half of 2016. To date, the Central American country has spent a total of 150 days this year without burning fossil fuels for electricity — 76 of which were a straight run from June 16 to Sept. 2, according to a report from the Costa Rica Electricity Institute. If we're talking about minimizing a country's carbon footprint, Costa Rica practically levitates.

But Costa Rica is a country with a population of nearly 4.9 million and an area of under 20,000 square miles, making it the 126th largest country on Earth. In 2015, it only generated 10,713 gigawatt-hours of electricity, according to a report from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. That's about 1/373rd of what the U.S. generated that same year, Mashable reported.

Costa Rica's renewable energy model: The country has four hydropower facilities, which generated 80% of the country's electricity in August — supported by much lower contributions from wind and solar power. Still, high-fives all around for a country that, last year, managed to go almost 300 days without burning fuel for electricity.

A hydroelectric dam in Costa Rica
Source: 
Ezequiel Becerra/Getty Images

Occupying less land area than West Virginia, Costa Rica has low energy demands and a hugely available renewable, reliable, powerful energy source right off the shoreline. Having that translate to an energy-hungry behemoth like the U.S. may not sound feasible right now.

But it could be. Bob Brecha, research director for the Hanley Sustainability Institute in the University of Dayton's School of Engineering, Renewable and Clean Energy Graduate Program, believes the U.S. could implement a scaled-up version of Costa Rica's achievement.

It would take three things, he said in an interview Wednesday: backup renewable resources that don't fluctuate, like hydropower and biomass; better battery and storage power; and — maybe most importantly — tailored electricity needs. To do the latter, we'd need to upgrade our current electricity infrastructure to a smart grid system, Brecha said — in other words, something like the Nest smart home system, but for the entire country.

A technician checking a "smart" power grid system
Source: 
Joel Page/AP

A smart grid would mean being able to digitally monitor and adjust energy needs in granular ways — like by the hour, day or half-day. 

Besides pleasing the environmentally conscious, it would also help people trying to save a few bucks on their utility bills. If you're getting constant feedback from the power system about when the demand is high, you could also see when the price of that power goes up. 

"If you can see that the cost of electricity is up at a certain time, you can choose to do your laundry at another time," Brecha said.

The U.S. has already rolled out renewable energy projects that are affordable, too. The solar-panel initiatives in California, for instance, aim to get affordable solar panels onto the roofs of homes to reduce reliance on carbon energy sources.

A residential solar power system in San Diego, California
Source: 
Lenny Ignelzi/AP

"It's feasible to power large facilities like school districts with renewable energy [in San Diego]," Daniel Sullivan, CEO of Sullivan Solar Power, said in an interview Wednesday. "We just need to get more people understanding that ... putting a solar power system on your home is often half the cost of staying with the utility company."

In 2015, 13% of electricity generation in the U.S. was from renewable energy sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration — a substantially smaller percentage than Costa Rica's production. 

It's going to take a lot of work to reduce national dependence on fossil fuels. But when you consider how screwed the planet will be without large, energy-devouring nations playing ball and tightening their belts, drastic actions are becoming more necessary every year.

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Max Plenke

Max Plenke is a staff writer at Mic, where he covers breaking news, climate science, health and the future. His work has appeared in Esquire, GQ and Wallpaper. Send story tips to max@mic.com.

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