Monday 6 December 2021

Costa Rica’s innovative solution to long trips in electric cars, a pioneer in Latin America

Thanks to a grassroots scheme, you can now reach a large number of remote tourist spots around the Costa Rican town of Monteverde in an electric vehicle.

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QCOSTARICA (BBC.com) On the way to Monteverde, Costa Rica, a mountain town nestled in a cloud forest like something out of another world, El Sol restaurant sits on the edge of a cliff. It’s the last stop before a steep uphill drive of misty views and hairpin turns.

Not having enough charge to take a long trip is a stressful problem for electric car drivers

It looks like a traditional “soda”, a roadside restaurant that serves “casado” (rice, beans and meat) and fresh juices. Except it also has a silver cylinder with green lettering in the parking lot – the first electric vehicle (EV) charging terminal in the area.

“It’s like with smartphones,” says Minor Oliverio, owner of El Sol. “Eventually, everyone will have chargers and vehicles. But someone has to be first.”

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The station is part of the Ruta Eléctrica Monteverde (Monteverde Electric Route), the only charger network in Latin America created to avoid the anxiety that electric car drivers feel about not having enough charge to reach their destination.

The idea came as part of a plan to replace the circulation of gasoline vehicles and promote tourism.

Until before the pandemic, Monteverde received more than 200,000 visitors per year, most of them traveling in large vans that created traffic jams in the commercial corridor.

In contrast to the EV charger infrastructure concentrated in cities, the Electric Route is promoting its installation in remote locations.

“We are not waiting for the government to install chargers,” says Katy Van Dusen, a Monteverde neighbor and founder of the Monteverde Commission for Climate Change Resilience (Corclima), which devised the Electric Route.

A sustainable solution

Costa Rica has installed about 200 fast and semi-fast charging stations, but most of them are located in and around the capital, San José.

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Another 85 charging points are those that the Monteverde Electric Route has added.

While installing it is expensive for most rural businesses, Van Dusen and his team involve hotel and restaurant owners, coffee shops, tour operators and nature reserves to offer free chargers to customers.

While they wait for their vehicles to charge, visitors can eat, sleep, shop, or walk. Van Dusen calls this “carrying a purpose.”

Free charging points attract tourists to local businesses.

At the Hotel Belmar, the free charging offer has attracted electric vehicle drivers. “In rural areas like Monteverde, people are more environmentally conscious,” says Richard Garro, the hotel’s sustainability manager. “It’s part of the reason people come here.”

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Community leaders see this as an opportunity to support local businesses.

“We want companies to spend as little as possible [on recharging people’s vehicles],” says Daniel Castillo, technical advisor for Ruta Eléctrica and founder of Energías Limpias de Costa Rica (Elco), a Costa Rican recharging company.

Castillo is now focused on selling portable chargers to car dealerships to include them in electric vehicle sales. “All a local business has to do is install connection points.”

Since most of the Ruta Eléctrica network is to support commuters, lobbying car rental businesses to offer electric vehicles is critical.

Currently, only a handful include electric cars as part of their fleet.

Milena Ramírez, the current coordinator of the Monteverde Electric Route and director of the city’s tourism board, recently borrowed Van Dusen’s electric car to visit all of Monteverde’s charging points to ensure functionality.

“It was her first time driving a long distance in an electric vehicle and she was nervous about the battery life,” she says.

“More communities are needed to build freight corridors. It is not just one company offering this service. We all benefit when there are many companies involved.”

A pioneering project

In many sectors, Costa Rica is already overcoming its weight in the fight for the global climate crisis.

In addition to its ambitious decarbonization plan, in which almost 100% of its electricity is generated from renewable sources, deforestation was banned in 1996 and a moratorium on oil and gas production could become law later this year. anus.

In this context, Monteverde plays a leading role in sustainability in the country.

The city established the largest private reserve in the country, the Children’s Eternal Forest, which includes 230 square kilometers of protected land. The area acts as a vital watershed for surrounding communities, farms, and hydroelectric projects that produce more than a third of Costa Rica’s electricity.

Costa Rica’s sustainability plan still has the challenge of replacing the old and polluting vehicle fleet.

“Monteverde is a pioneer. Sustainable tourism models for the country come from the work that people were doing there,” says Mónica Araya, an advocate for electric mobility.

Araya witnessed the development of the Electric Route idea during a talk she gave in Monteverde in 2017 on the community’s natural role as a pioneer in electric mobility. “I have never seen people organize so quickly. For Monday, Corclima started with a plan.”

While the city may be an outlier, Araya says the country’s spirit of sustainability runs deep.

“Our commitment to the natural world is part of our identity,” says Araya. “Instead of criticizing ourselves for not being green in certain areas, we should build on what we have done so far.”

However, the transportation sector remains a major sustainability challenge for Costa Rica, accounting for more than half of the country’s carbon emissions.

Investment in public transport is a cornerstone of the country’s infrastructure plan, with a focus on a network of electric trains and high-speed buses.

But first lady Claudia Dobles says that a cultural change will not come about through politics alone. For her, the Electric Route opens the way for change: “Our work around sustainability comes from the community and rises. Without citizen participation, there is no decarbonization plan.”

A growing network

Corclima is now scaling the model to a national network, Rutas Eléctricas Costa Rica.

It has already expanded to La Fortuna, an ecotourism center in the north, and will launch in Nosara, a beach community on the Pacific. By the end of 2022, it hopes to reach 14 cities.

In a small town outside of Tamarindo, Douglas Anderson recently decided to join the network.

As an electrician, he had tried to convince local companies to offer charging options: “When people see that there are other communities behind this, they realize that it is not just me with futuristic ideas.”

Information sharing is a key benefit of the Electric Routes.

What has been learned in Monteverde – the importance of installing 240 charging points, what type of adapters are the best, how to prevent insects from entering the sockets – is being shared with other communities.

Corclima is developing a comprehensive member manual as well as a registry for companies to track usage.

While electric vehicles are a small fraction of the 1.4 million cars on Costa Rica’s roads, the numbers are projected to increase exponentially by 2023.

Johnny Calderón, the owner of Flow Trips, a travel company in La Fortuna, had his first visit from an electric vehicle user this month.

He and his wife started clapping and taking pictures. Although the driver did not purchase a tour, the entire Calderón family gathered around the car to watch it load.

“I don’t care if it takes time to get EV customers. I want to be part of the change. Maybe one day it will pay off, but that’s not why I’m doing it.”

Article was originally published in Spanish at BBC.com.

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