The devastating impacts of Hurricane Irma and Maria on energy systems in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean highlight an energy security problem that has been lurking for decades. Massive damage to centralized grids will mean that many of the affected island nations and territories won’t restore full electricity service for another four to six months at the earliest.
Calls from international political and business leaders to rebuild Caribbean energy infrastructure around clean energy resources like wind and solar are encouraging. As rebuilding efforts begin, project developers will need complete clarity on the needs and challenges of bringing renewables to the region in order to translate today’s enthusiastic pledges of support and funding into tomorrow’s efficient, reliable and resilient clean energy projects.
As the 9th Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum kicks off in Miami today, the Caribbean sits at an intersection of need and opportunity when it comes to energy infrastructure. Caribbean islands have long had some of the world’s highest electricity prices, largely from dependence on imported fossil fuels like diesel. Post-hurricanes, there’s a new pathway to bring down high prices in the long term: rebuilding with more sustainable, reliable energy infrastructure. Doing so would come at a modest incremental cost as compared to rebuilding energy networks according to pre-existing non-renewable models.
The case for microgrids
To ensure significant improvements in resilience, renewable generation would ideally be paired with microgrids. Within the past six to eight months, enabling technologies — large-scale batteries, solar panels, energy monitoring and control software — have advanced technologically and fallen in price, making renewables-powered microgrids a feasible, competitive solution.
Rather than recreating the same vulnerable centralized generation and distribution infrastructure based on imported polluting fuels, Caribbean governments could rebuild sections of the grid independently using clean energy with the added benefit of improved resiliency without raising rates.
In the aftermath of the recent hurricanes, we have seen many solar and wind generation facilities in Puerto Rico and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands that survived the storms with minimal damage. Most of these facilities remain offline since the wires that connect them to the larger grid have been heavily damaged or destroyed. If these renewable facilities were deployed on regional microgrids, we could have seen power restored to areas throughout the island before the larger grid that connects them is rebuilt.
Until now, microgrids have been studied extensively but only deployed in isolated locations where the normal utility network is not available. Demonstration projects implemented in areas that have access to a centralized grid have rarely led to further implementation. The prevailing thinking is that use of microgrids is unwarranted in areas where utility network power is available. Recent events demonstrate that this approach may no longer be best for storm-prone areas like the Caribbean.
Pilot projects, transparency and open dialogue
The path to translating talk into action on renewable energy projects, with or without microgrids, means starting small with demonstration projects that will add to system resiliency over time. The sites that were already the most vulnerable — perhaps fed by a single line from centralized generation — are the best places to begin creating a sustainable network piece by piece. Identifying these areas is the first step toward resilient, renewable energy infrastructure in the Caribbean.
Project developers, financiers and government agencies ready to harness the momentum for clean energy need to keep local context in mind. Transparency and trust are key for operating in the region, where past promises for development weren’t always kept and skepticism of renewable energy’s dependability is high. Setting and delivering on milestones helps build that trust.
Government ministers and their staff are juggling competing priorities, so developers should clearly outline proposed projects and transparently compare them to other options for rebuilding energy infrastructure competing for the same attention and funding. Developers will need to provide the facts required to overcome the inertia against making a decision that’s inherent to bureaucracies around the world, through case studies, interviews and site visits.
Project planning should be a continuous dialogue with both the local community and government ministers — most proposals won’t move forward unless each party knows that planned actions have the other’s approval. Developers should use local labor, contractors and suppliers at every project stage, which builds trust, brings money into the community and provides workers with hands-on experience with renewable energy development.
My company’s planning for the development of our wind farm in Jamaica included extensive dialogue with federal and local government agencies, as well as community groups, on the siting of the project. We continually accepted comments and amended plans for the siting of turbines, roads and transmission lines to minimize land use and impacts on local residents. By keeping the siting discussions open and moving forward, we avoided criticism and resistance during and after project construction.
It’s encouraging to see so much enthusiasm for turning tragedy into opportunity and building a clean energy future in the Caribbean. Renewable energy projects offer solutions to longstanding challenges in the region: lower costs from generating electricity without the need for fuel and decentralized resources that are more resilient and easier to repair after natural disasters.
Now is the time for the organizations and individuals who will be doing the building to educate themselves and begin planning to ensure swift and responsible execution of cleaner, more resilient energy systems and all the benefits that come with them.