The mouse that roared

Is this small Central American nation ready to be the next superpower?

UIG via Getty Images

Could a small, tropical country with no military ever be considered a superpower?

It seems unlikely… actually, it seems impossible. But maybe that’s because we’re thinking about superpower nations the wrong way.

What if there were a new measure of superpower status? A country that can successfully do battle with the emerging threat of climate change? A country whose rank as a superpower is determined by environmental sustainability, rather than military might.

What if, as Hillary Clinton said during last week’s presidential debate, there is going to be a new type of “clean-energy superpower of the 21st century?”

Could it be Costa Rica?

If you’re still reading this article (and I’m guessing some of you aren’t—I’ve seen the analytics), bear with me for another second, because I actually asked the President of Costa Rica this same question, and I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, a bit about Costa Rica. 1) It’s not an island. 2) It’s sort of like the Ned Flanders of Central America. And I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I lived in Costa Rica for years and still have friends there, including the president. But Costa Rica isn’t as wild as its neighbors. It’s generally friendly, responsible, democratic and overall Okily Dokily.

Costa Rica’s beer isn’t as good as Nicaragua’s, and it’s buildings aren’t as tall as Panama’s. But when it comes to clean energy production, the Ticos are in a league of their own. In fact, just two weeks ago Costa Rica became the first country in the hemisphere to announce it has fully switched to renewable energy sources. It’s 100% green. The U.S., by comparison, is only about 10% clean energy, and 90% fossil fuel.

“In 2015, we generated 99% of our energy through renewable sources. And this year, during the months of July and August, we got to 100% renewable generation,” said Edgar Gutiérrez, Costa Rica’s Minister of Environment and Energy.

Costa Rican power plants haven’t burned a single drop of fuel for three months. And considering the country just inaugurated Central America’s largest hydroelectric plant—the massive Reventazón dam, which pumps out enough megawatts to power half a million homes (10% of the country)—Costa Rica might never go back. The country already produces more hydroelectric energy than it consumes, so when you factor in the additional geothermal, eolic, and solar power, Costa Rica has a bunch of spare “green batteries” sitting in the drawer.

But Costa Rica’s commitment to going green doesn’t stop there. The country aspires to become the first nation in the world to become carbon neutral by 2021, just in time for it’s 200th birthday. That means net-zero carbon emissions within the next five years. And if you’ve ever backed your car out of the driveway without simultaneously planting a tree, you know how difficult that is.

Anyone who has sat in a San José traffic jam knows that Costa Rica’s goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2021 is increasingly elusive as the bicentennial approaches. But hey, the country is taking greater strides in that direction than most countries, and it’ll probably get there first.

But is all that enough to make Costa Rica a clean-energy superpower? Maybe, maybe not.

“I don’t think we’ll become a superpower, because we don’t have the size, but we can become a model in many ways. This is something that we can preach to the world about,” says Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís (see, I told you we’d get to him).

Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís says his country's experience with clean energy is something other presidents are interested in hearing about.Stephanie Gonzalez

Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís says his country's experience with clean energy is something other presidents are interested in hearing about.

Solís says that when he travels to other countries—something he does entirely too much of, according to his critics—foreign leaders often ask him about Costa Rica’s experience with renewable energies.

“You should have seen the look that Angela Merkel gave me when we were talking about this a year ago. She told me Germany is making efforts to remove its nuclear power plants and [switch to clean-energy], and when I told her we switched to hydroelectric 60 years ago, she said: ‘Really? Tell me about it!'” Solís said. “Energy is the kind of thing I can talk about with Angela Merkel or anyone else. I mean I cannot talk about armies, but I can talk about energy.”

In fact, Costa Rica’s long-term commitment to clean energy started the same year the country abolished its army, nearly seven decades ago. It’s part of what makes the country such a unique case.

Costa Rica didn’t go green overnight. It started the process gradually and methodically in 1949, when the state-run Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) was created with a mandate to switch the country to hydroelectric power. While other Central American countries were plotting guerrilla insurrections and military coups, Costa Rica was getting down to the serious business of nation-building. It was the type of long-term planning not normally seen in a region where “long-term” usually means a four or five-year presidential term, before the next person comes into office and tries to undo everything their predecessor started.

View of the hydroelectric dam on Costa Rica's Reventazon River. It was inaugurated last month.AFP/Getty Images

View of the hydroelectric dam on Costa Rica's Reventazon River. It was inaugurated last month.

Switching to clean energy, Costa Rica’s president says, was a sustained “conversion process” that has endured 18 administrations from right, left and center. Even outside tipsy Central America, that’s the type of steadfast commitment that very few countries are able to make.

“I would definitely claim that we’re a case to be looked at and a model to be followed, particularly because we got here as a result of a number of public policies that were enacted through many decades,” Solís said.

Climate change is a fickle problem, however. Costa Rica is now faced with the challenge of adapting its commitment to clean energy to an ongoing cycle of worsening droughts. In recent years, the country has been turning brown as fast as it’s going green. Water shortages have led to rationing in the capital, and a shriveling effect in Guanacaste, the northern Pacific beach region that’s popular with tourists.

Solís says his government combating the problem by focusing on long-term reforestation and by investing more in geothermal energy to rely less on hydro in the future.

It will be another long and slow process to shift the energy matrix to geothermal, but Costa Rica has track record of staying the course. And if the country can pull off two renewable energy revolutions before other countries can do one, that will definitely put them in the running for clean-energy superpower status.