A Sunny New Market for Clean Power: The Caribbean

carribbeangeneric1Last year’s oil spike feels like a distant memory, but to remind you, oil prices surpassed $147 per barrel last July, with gasoline prices above $4 per gallon. But if you think that was bad, feel lucky you weren’t living in the Caribbean at the time.

Yes, I said “lucky.” Because while living in the Caribbean islands may have plenty of other perks, the islanders suffer more than Americans when oil prices skyrocket. After all, the United States gets only 2 percent of its electricity from petroleum, with most of its electricity coming from coal and natural gas, according to the Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, a whopping 92 percent of the electricity in the Caribbean comes from oil, said Babul Patel, a senior consultant for energy software and consulting firm Nexant Inc., at the Intersolar North America conference in San Francisco last week.

As a result, the region suffered “a major shock” last year, which sparked interest in renewable energy in the last six to eight months, and caused the region to realize “reliance on only one [energy source] is not a viable option,” Patel said. That awareness has led to research initiatives, as well as initiatives to develop certification programs for solar-water-heater manufacturers, establish a renewable-energy center and create renewable-energy policies.

Solar power in the region has a strong potential for agricultural applications, such as for crop dryers and water pumps for irrigation, as well as in some industrial applications. The islands also have plenty of hydro, geothermal and wind resources, and geothermal resources are particularly plentiful on Nevis, Saba and Dominica; Dominica and the southern islands have the most hydro potential, while most of the islands have good wind and solar resources.

But renewables face some barriers to reaching the Caribbean market, not least of which is cost. And the islands’ remote isolation doesn’t help. Large hydro and geothermal projects are cost-effective because they can produce large amounts of electricity cheaply, but don’t work out as economically on a smaller scale, Patel said. Meanwhile, individual islands don’t use enough electricity to justify larger projects, and aren’t able to export it at this point. Exporting electricity would require extensive – and expensive – undersea power cables, as well as power-sharing agreements among the islands.

In addition, most of the islands are small, meaning that little land is available for wind and solar farms, Patel said, calling large utility-scale solar projects “unfeasible.” And offshore wind is unlikely to be allowed because of tourism and fishing concerns, he added.

Wind’s intermittency is another concern. Because the wind doesn’t always blow when it’s needed, increased wind capacity wouldn’t decrease the amount of diesel capacity the islands would need to keep on hand for calm times, Patel said. That reliance on diesel is what the islands hope to avoid by diversifying into renewables in the first place.

Finally, hurricanes could complicate matters. Patel said that wind-turbine and solar-panels in the area need to be designed to be more robust against hurricanes, and this could help make renewable-energy projects more viable in the region.

Better policies also could boost renewables. While some islands have set goals, and a few – including Martinique and Barbados – have solar incentives, most are sorely lacking in programs that could attract private investment, Patel said. He recommended that the islands divert some investments from petroleum-based energy and partner with utilities if they want to meet their energy-security goals.

Caribbean leaders might consider looking at some of Hawaii’s initiatives. While some of the conditions are clearly different, Hawaii — like the Caribbean — gets much of its electricity from oil, and the state has become one of the most aggressive pursuers of renewable energy, setting a goal of reaching 40 percent of its power from renewables by 2030.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons.