CARIBBEAN ISLANDS ARE ON THE ROAD TO A CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE
When it comes to the Caribbean islands, monikers like “tropical paradise” get thrown around a lot, and for good measure—warm water and air, sandy beaches, spectacular snorkeling and scuba diving, fresh seafood, a relaxed vibe. Full-time residents, though, know another reality: extremely costly retail electricity, dependence on fossil fuel imports, and vulnerability to climate change and the sea-level rise and increasingly severe tropical storms associated with it. It’s these challenges—coupled with the Caribbean’s abundant renewable resources, especially solar and wind—that make the region ripe for leading the way toward a clean energy future.
DEPENDENCE ON FOSSIL FUEL IMPORTS
Islands’ smallness often means limited local fuel resources and, as a result, dependence on fuel imports. Since they may have no pipeline access for gas, and are too small to burn coal cost effectively, most islands burn costly liquid fuels, such as diesel or fuel oil. Those expensive imports take an economic toll. Oil imports cost up to 12 percent of GDP in Antigua and Barbuda, 13 percent in Grenada, and 14 percent in the Bahamas (the U.S. is currently at 1.3 percent). At the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Conference, Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart emphasized the negative effects these high prices have for island economies. “At the regional level we realize that high oil prices have severely affected Caribbean competitiveness, with a negative fiscal and macro-economic impact on our fragile economies.”
In 2002, RMI’s Amory Lovins addressed the Bahamas’ Prime Minister and Cabinet at the pioneering renewably-powered campus of The Island School in impoverished South Eleuthera. At that time, the deeply indebted, government-owned Bahamas Electricity Corporation was sending 11 percent of GDP, or about a half-billion dollars a year, abroad for fuel and capital. That’s the same fraction of GDP as today’s earnings from financial services, the nation’s second-biggest sector. The biggest, now about 60 percent of GDP and half the jobs, is tourism. Back in 2002, Lovins estimated that roughly a fourth of total tourist revenue was needed just to provide the nation’s electricity. Oh, and did we mention that BEC lost money on every kWh it sold? It could probably have cut those losses by giving away efficient showerheads and light bulbs.
“Islands are challenged by the need to depend almost solely on costly fossil fuel imports to provide their energy supply,” says RMI principal Karen Crofton. “Thus, islands are truly searching for a comprehensive solution that provides both a clean and secure energy future.” For example, about 98 percent of St. Lucia’s energy is imported oil, so in 2010, the government crafted a National Energy Policy to “create an enabling environment, both regulatory and institutional, for the introduction of indigenous renewable energy to the national energy mix, thus achieving greater energy security and independence.”
Islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands are following St. Lucia’s lead. In 2010, the USVI Water and Power Authority burned 2.6 million barrels of oil to generate electricity. The USVI, almost 100 percent reliant on imported oil for electricity and transportation, now has a target to reduce its fossil fuel dependence 60 percent from business-as-usual forecasts by 2025, largely via energy efficiency and renewable energy.
All of that imported fossil fuel doesn’t come cheaply. Due to the islands’ cherished remoteness, fuel must be imported long distances, so most residents pay extremely high energy costs. While the cost of electricity in the continental United States averages $0.12 per kWh, in Hawaii it averages over $0.36, and in the U.S. Virgin Islands it’s an astronomical $0.48–0.50.
Renewables easily compete with those high prices. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory study found the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for windpower in the USVI would be in the range of just $0.07 to $0.30 per kWh. And recent installed projects on Aruba and Jamaica are getting windpower at an LCOE of $0.10–0.20 per kWh.
Those prices are one reason the Caribbean island of Anguilla has decided to switch to renewables. In 2012, electricity prices on the island, which relies completely on diesel, spiked to $0.63 per kilowatt-hour. With many families unable to pay their monthly bills, the Anguilla Electricity Company cut power to so many homes that the island seemed plunged into darkness. Now, an Anguilla Renewable Energy Office is spearheading a 10-year plan to make Anguilla energy-independent “built upon a solid and ever growing foundation of our own free, abundant, clean, and renewable energy resources—the wind and the sun,” according to the island territory’s official energy policy through 2020.
RESILIENCE AND CLIMATE CHANGE VULNERABILITY
Adding insult to injury, burning the fossil fuels on which the islands depend is not only crippling their economies but threatening their very existence via climate change, including rising sea levels, saltwater infiltration into groundwater, and increasingly severe tropical storms.
While most islands aren’t large enough to have a big direct impact on climate change, collectively they can demonstrate to the world that energy transformation is possible through repeatable, scalable projects. Which is exactly why the small island of Tokelau in the South Pacific, a colony of New Zealand, has gone 100 percent renewable with one megawatt of PV. At the Durban Climate Conference, Foua Toloa, then head of Tokelau’s government, stated, “We stand to lose the most of any country in the world due to climate change…so leading the way by making the highest per person investment [in renewable energy] in the world is a message to the world to do something.”
EMBRACING ABUNDANT LOCAL RENEWABLES
What the Caribbean lacks in local, affordable fossil fuels it more than makes up for in renewables. From the abundant sunshine that draws tourists to its islands’ beaches to the famous trade winds, there is no lack of reliable sources of renewable energy. An NREL study of a potential wind site on St. Thomas (USVI), for example, found abundant opportunities for wind resources class 4 and above, the typical standard for wind of utility-scale quality. A recent report commissioned by the Inter-American Development Bank showed that Latin America and the Caribbean have enough renewable energy potential to cover their projected 2050 electricity needs 22 times over.
Having the resources is one thing, but taking advantage of them is quite another. “Although many SIDS [small island developing states] are energy deficient in conventional energy, limitless potential for renewable energy and energy efficiency resides in our countries,” said Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart. “The fundamental issue thus is how do we, as small island developing states with inherent structural problems and limited resources, convert this renewable energy potential into a tangible product that is accessible, affordable and adaptable?”
This is where the international partnership for Energy Development in Island Nations (EDIN) comes in. EDIN, founded by NREL, is a partnership of Iceland, New Zealand, and the United States. EDIN supports islands by helping them find the technology, financing, and policy solutions that allow them to tap into their renewable energy resources and also deploy energy efficiency measures. Besides helping the USVI with their energy goals, EDIN is currently working with Dominica and the Pacific Islands to reduce their dependence on imported fossil fuels.
“The comparatively small project sizes on islands can often hinder obtaining sufficient financing and competitive bids for project execution. However, by collaborating on solutions islands can still leverage the power of scale,” notes RMI’s Crofton.
PARTNERING WITH CARBON WAR ROOM
In early February, billionaire Sir Richard Branson announced that NRG Energy would build a microgrid combining solar, wind, storage, and other technologies to power his Necker Island in the BVI. The announcement came at Creating Climate Wealth (CCW), an event held on Necker and Moskito islands off the coast of Virgin Gorda. CCW kicked off the next phase of the Ten Island Challenge, an effort in which RMI is now partnering with the Carbon War Room to work with Caribbean islands to transition off fossil fuels onto renewable energy. The CCW workshop brought together more than 100 attendees from government, corporate, nonprofit, and international aid institutions.
Aruba was the first island to join Branson’s Ten Island Challenge, pre-dating the February 2014 summit. Aruba’s goal is to transition to 100 percent renewables by 2020. Currently a 10-turbine wind farm rated at 30 megawatts meets 20 percent of Aruba’s electricity needs, and a second wind farm is in progress. “As an island, Aruba is particularly vulnerable to rapid changes in the price of fuel oil,” according to Aruba Prime Minister Mike Eman. “So it makes great economic and security sense for us to rely to a greater degree on renewable energy and have more control over our destiny.” Other islands in the Ten Island Challenge include the British Virgin Islands, St. Lucia, and Grenada.
In the wake of the CCW summit, a total of nine island ministers committed to move forward with project-based activity focused on transforming the energy sector in the Caribbean. RMI, for its part, will continue to support the efforts of Carbon War Room’s Ten Island Challenge and others to attain a carbon-free Caribbean whose energy system is affordable, resilient, and environmentally sound.
“[Bringing] renewable energy to the region is the only assurance we have of preserving the Caribbean’s beauty and prosperity for generations to come,” wrote Branson during the event. By switching to renewable energy, islands reduce their reliance on imported fuels, keep money in the local economy, provide residents and guests with reliable power, and lower their carbon emissions—a win for the Caribbean … and the world.
Laurie Guevara-Stone is a writer/editor for RMI.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.