WB 2015 – MSU Ecological Engineering in the Tropics

Costa Rica – MSU / UCR – December 26, 2015 – January 9, 2016




My name is Alex Mullen and I’m currently a senior at Michigan state university studying civil engineering, and more specifically transportation. Even though my major is not specifically related to ecological engineering I still am very excited about this trip and the possible impact I could have in helping to promote sustainable energy. The reason I feel so strongly about this is because I am a avid backpacker, fisher, camper and all around outdoors enthusiasts. I believe that the only way that future generations will also be able to enjoy these things I love is to reduce there carbon footprint by using alternative and more sustainable means of living.


For my final project I want to evaluate the effects of hydroelectric dams on both the ecosystem they are within and how effective they are in producing power. In doing so I want to compare and contrast whether or not hydroelectric power is a sustainable source of power generation. To do this I want to compare the negative effects that are caused by hydroelectric dams like interference with wildlife populations and the carbon emissions they produce versus how effective and how much power can be produced by hydroelectric dams.

To do this project I have started looking up information on groupoice.com, which is the website for the hydroelectric dam that we will be visiting in in Tilaran Costa Rica. On there website they state that the reasoning for starting the use of the hydroeletric dams was from power shortages in the 1940’s. Currently hydroelectric power accounts for about 16% of the worlds energy and for the country of Costa Rica it accounts for about 78% of the county’s energy production. Even though hydrolectric dams produce so much of the worlds power they also produce a large amount of carbon emissions. In an online article I read it states that hyrodelectric dams produce between .01 and .03 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour which is a large amount compared to how many kilowatts are generated world wide.







Post Program Reflection:

While I was in Coasta Rica I learned a lot about ecosystems engineering. Coming from a Civil engineering background I never used to think about how the needs of a society and the preservation of ecosystems could coexist. I also used to think that sustainable energy was something that was unattainable and a lost cause. But when I saw that in 2015 Costa Rica generated 99%  of its energy through sustainable means, I was more than shocked.

For this reason I chose to study one of the many hydroelectric dams that are in the county. Originally I have been told that hydroelectric power is terrible and abuses and redefines ecosystems in a negative way. However at the dams we visited, the water management  practices the group saw did not seem to support this. At the Arenal dams they only used water from rain to fill the reservoir and adjusted the dams output to not deplete there water source. This also insured that the local people would have enough of a water supply to make it through the year.

Another major part of this program that I have learned about is preforming life cycle analysis and mass balances. In doing these analysis, one can better understand and actually quantify how sustainable a system is. In do this for individual project I learned that hydroelectric dams produce about .23% of the amount of carbon dioxide that an equivalent coal fired power plant produces (based on my mass balance).

The last and most important thing that I am able to take away from this experience is just how much power the united states uses compared to Costa Rica. While at the hydroelectric dam I learned that about 35% of Costa Rica is supplied by the 240 megawatts the hydroelectric dams produce on average. In comparison Michigan State University consumes about 90 megawatts for about 80,000 people. This means that the amount of power that Michigan State uses alone could power over half a million Costa Rican homes. This just shows how out of control power usage is in the united state, and that the only way to reduce our impact on our planet is to reduce the amount of power consume.



2 thoughts on “Alex

  1. What has been the most surprising thing so far?


  2. Currently, small hydro plants in the US are getting a reduced rate per kilowatt from Consumers Energy and other energy brokers although hydro is considered a renewable energy source. Partly this is due to wind and solar projects coming on board and partly it is due to the very low cost of natural gas now. What can be done in the United States to keep small dam operations viable when competing with wind, solar and gas energy?


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