Ecological Engineering in the Tropics

Costa Rica – MSU / UCR – December 27, 2014 – January 10, 2015

Dec. 30 – Tileran/ICE – Lisa

On December 30th we were located in Tilaran, at Hotel Guadalupe.





Tilaran was a nice town located next to Lake Arenal, and the Arenal Volcano.  This town lies over 500 meters above sea level, so the weather was very mild and comfortable (Source 2).


Arenal Mountain (Source 2)


Lake Arenal (source 2)

Grupo ICE

We toured Grupo ICE, which is the Costa Rican Electricity Institute. ICE was formally established in 1949 after a group of electrical and civil engineers presented a document named the “General Plan of Electrification of Costa Rica” to the National Bank. This initiative was the first step towards ICE becoming a key energy producer and electrical network for Costa Rica. (Source 1) Now, their mission is to satisfy the needs of customers as an innovator of solutions for both telecommunications and electricity. They aim to stay the main producer of electricity that is environmentally safe as they center their company around alternative energy sources.



Our Day 

Our day began at ICE (the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity). We started with a classroom session where we learned about how Costa Rica utilizes hydropower- and they are very successful! About 80% of the energy for electricity in CR is provided by hydropower; this is a huge part of their efforts to be carbon neutral. ICE has three hydro plants spread across Guanacaste, connected  by the flowing water powering the plants (in pipes 5 feet in diameter!) The site was very impressive, with three huge turbines connected to generators utilizing the water flowing in at 100 m3/s (Source 3).


This is a picture on the wall at ICE showing how their water flows into the turbine which is connected to the generator


The group standing by the main pipe bring in water to the plant.


Above view of the three generators at the first ICE hydro plant.


Also on the wall at ICE, this image shows a painted areal view of the mountains, Lake Arenal, and the towns and three hydro-plants.

The source of water for the three plants is Lake Arenal. This is an artificial lake, create by ICE to capture rainfall in the mountainous area containing the Arenal Volcano. This lake allows them to capture and move water towards the Pacific side of the country that would naturally flow towards the Atlantic. Another interested fact about this lake is that it lies over multiple old towns. Because this location was prime, they made the decision to move the towns in this area out of the way for the lake, and to this day when the water level is low you can see remains of the towns below the water. This aspect of these hydro plants is somewhat controversial, as it upset the life of both people and surrounding wildlife alike. Hydropower also can have negative affects on the ecosystems of the rivers and lakes the water is released into after use (Source 5). These things must be factored in when weighing the pro’s and con’s for this type of energy.


Jackie standing in front of the beautiful view of Lake Arenal.

After learning about the history of the lake and details about the three hydro-plants, we went to tour the indoor area of the plant. The first level down housed the generator, the second level down contained the shaft connecting the generator to the turbines which is on the third level down.


This is the view looking through the floor at ICE, showing all three levels below ground.


In the basement of the building looking at the pipe and valve that close to shut the turbine off.


Standing in front of the shaft on the second floor down.

Then we went outside where we saw the reservoir where the water flowed to after exiting the turbines. We were even lucky enough that ICE opened the bypass route for the water, which allowed us to see just how powerful the flow really was first hand.


ICE reservoir, main building, and water pipe in the background.


The group standing in front of the reservoir with the plant in the background.


Overlooking the reservoir at ICE.



The powerful flow of water they showed us by opening the bypass.

After this, we traveled to the third of the three ICE hydro plants. This location is special because it is near farmland where the water is used for irrigating the crops (Source 4). This is an example of good Ecological Engineering because it takes advantage of water the environment in Costa Rica already had to offer (through mass amounts of precipitation), and manipulates it through engineering and technology so water that would naturally go to the Atlantic side of the country now goes to the Pacific side. Then it is utilized to create massive amounts of energy along with providing water to an area that needs it to produce crops for the country, which solves two important social needs.  This is a very good example of not letting resources go to waste!

On our way back to the Hotel, we took a detour to see some of the wind turbines that Costa Rica and ICE also utilizes to produce energy (currently about 3.5% of countries usage.) We took a long, winding road to the most windy, and arguably one of the most beautiful views in Costa Rica. This is another good example of ecological engineering as they input technology (wind turbine farms) to take advantage of what nature already had to offer in this area with extreme winds. In fact, wind 10m above ground in an open area like this can be calculated as approximately 145 km/h! (Source 6)


Us trying to fight off the crazy winds at the wind farm to get a good flag picture.


Success! (kind of)



Aubrey proudly waving the MSU flag!

It was interesting to reflect on the types energy Costa Rica uses, because they have such vast resources available to them in the land. In Michigan, for example, we do not have the wind speeds to generate as substantial amounts of energy. We also do not have the mountainous regions like Costa Rica does. They have done a remarkable job utilizing their natural resources,  and it’s unfortunate that this is not possible in all areas of the world.


Another cool shot of the group at a different area of the wind farm down the mountain. If you look closely you can see a rainbow in the background!

On the way back down the mountains, we stopped at a small street seller that had beautiful pieces of art, and many of us bought souvenirs!


Beautifully painted wooden pieces at the street seller stand.

To end the evening, we had a fun dinner at Ronald’s friend’s house. We all pitched in to help cook a delicious meal, and then finished the night off learning how to salsa dance from the Costa Ricans. We really got a taste of their lively culture! It was a long, educational and fun filled day.


Some of the crew in the kitchen chopping veggies.


Additional Links


  3. Plant Tour; ICE Location 1
  4. Plant Tour; ICE Location 3

15 thoughts on “Dec. 30 – Tileran/ICE – Lisa

  1. What an exciting day. I LOVE all the great pictures!
    Costa Rica is a beautiful country!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great write up on ICE and man do I look good in all those pictures.

    ICE was a very interesting hydropower plant and there was so much to learn. One aspect I thought was very interesting was that the man-made lake at the top of the three plants use to actully be a town. ICE needed to use that land to form a lake so they moved the city to the side of the Arenal volcano and called the city New Arenal. What shocked me the most about this move was that none of the homes in Arenal were demolished. One would think that these homes may pollute the lake, but because most of these homes were made of organic products such as wood instead of concrete, the waters remain unpolluted. To this day if one was to dive to the bottom of this lake they would find many homes.

    Anouther aspect of the building of this lake that interested me was the process taken to clean the filtration system from the lake into the pipes leading to ICE’s first plant. Large trees and debrie would get caught up in the pipe at the entrance so divers would dive to retrieve them. This process of cleaning ended shortly about a diver was sucked into the pipe and killed. German engineers were hired to create a new system after this incident and their creation is still in use today.


    • Good point Nate,

      Also we need to remember that this is water from the lakes is constant movement, because is being use for the hydropower production and in lowlands it is use in irrigation, for that thing is important to have a good recovery with the rain water. If the rain water stations change the lake will have level fluctuations, this think will produce problems in system stability and problems for 2 uses for the water.

      And interesting think maybe is know if this water had large concentrations of Poshate or Nitrate because this kind of organic matter in the lake and if this can help for the irrigation of the crops. Maybe

      Juan Pablo


    • Jabron13 is Nate. Just so everyone knows!


  3. Great post Lisa! I thought this tour was very interesting as well. Since I interned for a power company, I was comparing it to the hydroelectric plants back home and it was very informational to see another side of hydroelectric power. It is so successful in Costa Rica and I was wondering why it could not be in Michigan considering all the water sources we have access to.,4570,7-153-10364_52259_27415-80296–,00.html

    Here is a source from the Department of Natural Resources about Michigan’s hydroelectric dams. It explains that it is challenging for Michigan to create hydroelectric power because of the small rivers and our flat land. However 1.5% of our power is from hydroelectric plants. I thought it was neat to compare this to what we saw in Costa Rica.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lisa- great information and pictures. Good job! Looks like its a great trip!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This day was packed with information on how Costa Rica is relying on more sustainable sources of energy. It was interesting learning about Costa Rica’s very small dependence on fossil fuels and made me curious, similar to Erica, what Michigan is doing to reduce its use of fossil fuels. I was surprised to find out that DTE Energy plans to meet their target of 10% renewable energy production in 2015, mainly depending on the use of wind energy ( This was a surprise to me because after visiting the wind turbines in the mountains of Costa Rica, I didn’t think Michigan’s terrain could successfully produce enough wind to make wind energy a competitive, alternate source of power.


  6. I think that it is really awesome that so much of Costa Rica’s power comes from renewable sources and can’t wait for more renewable sources to come to the United States and Michigan! Are there any plans in place to completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources in Costa Rica? What are some of the possibilities that could replace the energy that comes from the fossil fuels if any plans aren’t already in place?


    • Great question! They actually told us that right now they are using no non-renewable energy sources for electricity due to the current amounts of wind and water resources they have available. At other times in the year, however, they do have to use a small amount on fossil fuels. Currently there are many wind, and other renewable energy projects planned out through private companies, but because there are such strict laws only allowing ICE to produce significant amounts of power, these efforts are very limited. These laws are in the process of being changed, so hopefully in the future these private companies can help contribute to provide enough energy to completely eliminate non-renewable energy forms!


  7. It’s important to recognize that Costa Rica (as well as most of the world) heavily relies on fossil fuels for transportation, even though their electricity use is predominantly hydroelectric.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes this is a very good point. Which rises the question, how are they factoring that aspect into their efforts to be “carbon nuetral”?


      • That’s really interesting that Dr. Reinhold brought up the issue of transportation. While I was researching my blog topic on carbon neutrality in Costa Rica, I discovered the fact that transportation is one of the biggest areas in the country that is still heavily relying on fossils fuels, but it is one of the first focal points in the process of becoming a more sustainable country. Costa Rica plans to introduce an electric railway and bus system that runs on biofuels within the next few years! It is amazing how a whole country can strongly rely on biofuels and other renewable resources for their needs. It will be interesting to see if some of these practices can be applied to the United States, at a much larger scale, and still be as successful?


  8. Are there any disadvantages to hydropower?


  9. Good post Lisa, this is Eduardo’s email (Eduardo Sibaja Duarte).

    In Costa Rica, due to its geographical position and the orientation of the mountain range (both from southeast to northwest), rains during all the year. Masses of water vapor from the Caribbean or the Pacific come and bring water to Costa Rica and precipitate (in most of the cases due to orographic precipitation ( For that reason, Costa Rica has a huge potential to produce hydroelectricy, but it hydropower has disadvantages. Ecosystem damage and loss of land, siltation and flow shortage, methane emision (from reservoirs) and relocation are some disadvantages ( Also, reservoirs can “colmatate” ( In Tilaran, ICE has this problem. If the reservoir colmatate, the reservoir losses capacity to hold water (less volume) that negatively impacts the energy production. The way to clean the reservoir and recover the volume is to open gates. That produces damages downstream and sediments would accumulate in the oceans killing flora and fauna.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Ronald for the email address and all the great info/links!

      There are definitely negative sides to hydroelectricity. along with most types of energy. It’s always a matter of weighing the good and bad things that come with all options to determine what is best for people and the environment!


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