Costa Rica: A Small Country Giving Gigantic Lessons

    The Reventazón Hydropower Plant Receives the "Blue Planet 2019" Award, for Its Environmental and Social Sustainability Efforts

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    Abelardo Canelo
    I am not only a fluent Spanish-English reader/speaker but also a bi-cultural person who has a broad solid background. I also have a passionate interest in different expressions of music, especially many American styles and their combinations (Folk-Country, Jazz, Pop, Rhythm and Blues, Rock, Soul, and so on), dance, stage and screen, and some other forms of artistic expression.

    We are used to pressing a button to turn the light on or off, but for electricity to reach homes, businesses or industries there is a huge infrastructure behind to illuminate our lives. But the effort is greater when that work has been built caring and protecting the planet.

    This is the case of the “Reventazón” hydropower plant, located in Costa Rica and considered the largest hydroelectric project in Central America. This project has been recognized today by the International Hydropower Association (IHA) with the Blue Planet 2019 award for achieving the application of good and best sustainability practices in its construction between 2010 and 2016.

    What are its achievements? Well, respecting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; protecting endangered species; reducing resettlement; adequately handling noise and waste, and guaranteeing air quality, in addition to promoting good communication and information processes.

    This hydropower plant, located in the province of Limón, in the east of the country and on the river that gives it its name, distributes continuous and renewable energy to almost 100% of the country’s inhabitants.

    The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) led the construction of this project which, from its planning stage, took into account the search for improvements for environmental and social management. Hence the decision to build it in a key site to generate fewer impacts both for the ecosystem and for people.

    Hydroelectric plant’s infography, according to the ICE

    Ruth Tiffer Sotomayor, a senior environmental specialist at the World Bank, explains that hydropower is “the heart of Costa Rican energy”. “Reventazón is an example of green development, sensitive to biodiversity and to people and that contributes to the low carbon agenda and adaptation to the country’s climate change”, emphasizes the expert.

    “Reventazón is an example for Latin America and other regions such as Africa and Asia that have great hydroelectric potential, but also great environmental and social challenges, since it needs to show society the local benefits and make hydroelectric projects that apply the best practices of environmental and social sustainability, such as those promoted by the Protocol”, adds Tiffer.

    Social and environmental management

    In other countries, building a hydroelectric project such as Reventazón would have involved the resettlement of thousands of families. But, in this case, fewer than 10 families had to relocate. In this sense, dialog with the communities was key to making the construction of the hydroelectric plant viable; consultations were held and communication and collaboration channels were established with the villagers and work were also done with the local municipalities to share benefits for the work.

    Aerial view of the awarded hydroelectric plant

    Likewise, the impacts on ecosystems have been mitigated and compensated by making payments for environmental services to the owners of the basin, strengthening biological corridors, monitoring key species of the country’s rich biodiversity and creating one of the first aquatic compensation systems for a hydroelectric plant in Latin America.

    There were many years of planning and negotiations for the government and the ICE together with the public, private sector, national and regional banks and multilateral organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Bank Group (WBG) to make this plant a reality, with 305 megawatts of installed capacity, allows to generate clean electricity to more than half a million homes in the country.

    This infrastructure work had a cost of US$ 1,217 million, has a reservoir for water storage with an area of 8 square kilometers and a dam of 130 meters in height.

    Winner of the Blue Planet Award

    During 2017, a team led by Tiffer provided technical assistance to Costa Rica for the application of the Sustainability Assessment Protocol in Reventazón, a project selected among several of Latin America.

    A team of advisors accredited by the International Hydropower Association (IHA) in coordination with the ICE team -led by Miguel Víquez and Sergio Bermudez, of the Environmental Corporate Department- made several field visits; interviewed community leaders and residents and more than 100 ICE professionals who participated in the planning and construction of the work. Also, they reviewed more than 400 records and allowed to evaluate the 19 topics required by the Protocol in the financial, technical, environmental and social sectors.

    The selection of the Blue Planet award is in charge of a panel of international experts, coordinated by the IHA, who evaluate projects around the world based on the results and qualifications obtained from the works in the application of the Protocol.

    With the Blue Planet 2019 award, Costa Rica, in addition to being recognized for its natural wealth, is positioned as a global example for developers of clean and renewable energy.

    The IHA awards this prize since 2001. To date, 8 projects have been won in countries such as Australia, South Africa, Nepal, and Iceland. Costa Rica is the 1st Spanish-speaking nation to receive the award and the 2nd in Latin America, after Brazil.

    The Association defines Reventazón as an example that hydroelectric projects can make a significant contribution not only to the generation of energy in a country, but also in the application of international best practices for the technical, environmental, and social management of works regarding renewable energy.

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