Tuesday, December 29, 2009


A brief (and personal) review of a few things that happened in 2009 and a preview of 2010

Renewable energy in the Caribbean

One word: geothermal. It’s the game-changer in the Eastern Caribbean, but only a couple of our countries appear to have seriously recognized this. Those that have, are now well on their way to developing truly sustainable and energy-independent futures. Others are trying to catch up, and yet others are still at the lip-service, do-nothing stage of the game.

First out of the blocks was Nevis. Having started explorations in January 2008, their geothermal project achieved critical milestones during 2009 (proving significant energy potential and signing of a power purchase agreement with the local electric utility). The project developer is now scheduled to commence drilling of production wells in first quarter 2010. This will be followed by commencement of construction on the proposed 11 MW geothermal power plant, which will supply baseload power to the Nevis Electricity Company (whose 2009 peak demand was about 9 MW).

Dominica isn’t far behind – and they're dead serious about geothermal. The Dominica government commissioned two separate geothermal explorations on the island in 2008; so far one of these has (unsurprisingly) concluded that Dominica has the largest geothermal energy potential in the Caribbean. The next steps will be to perform exploratory drilling in specific locations in 2010, to prove the extent of the resource, and to inform the design of the power plant options, which vary from 2+15 MW to 4x30 MW. And that’s only one of Dominica’s geothermal projects.

The other countries? Let’s see what happens in 2010.


Let’s file this under what didn’t happen. By most reports, the outcome of the climate change summit represented a failure of political will on the part of the leaders of the world’s two biggest polluters, and a few others. China appears to have been particularly intransigent and, some have claimed, largely responsible for the failure of the talks. And it seems a supreme irony that, just weeks after his administration officially declared greenhouse gases to be a public health hazard, President Obama was unable to make any significant pledge for America, the world’s largest per-capita culprit, to cut its emissions of the stuff. The question now is: how to recover and move on? Expect lots of debate (and finger-pointing) in 2010.

Smarter Energy

Energy efficiency became sexy in 2009; look for it to be taken seriously in some parts of the Caribbean in 2010. Its newfound status is partly propelled by the breathless reporting from the developed world about so-called ‘smart’ electricity metering (part of a larger approach to achieving the ‘smart grid’). More important is the growing realization that energy efficiency is truly the low-hanging fruit; the easiest and least costly way to deliver energy services. And, for Caribbean countries that are dependent on imported energy (ie: all except Trinidad & Tobago) the benefits are even greater.

Welectricity, an award-winning new service to be launched in first quarter 2010, is based on this realisation. With its innovative, behavior-based approach to the energy efficiency problem, Welectricity will help households to achieve positive energy efficiency outcomes. Watch this space (and get more information at


The surprise of the year. I started using twitter in January (my first tweet: “Finishing off a commentary for my website
www.greenislandinc.com”). In less than 12 months, it had become my number one source of information on developments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

When I started using the micro-blogging service, it was because I vaguely realized that I ‘had to’. According to what I had read, it was supposed to allow me to extend my marketing and advertising reach beyond my traditional sphere of connections, budget, and so on.

I’m not quite sure how the marketing and advertising bit has worked out yet. John Wanamaker, a US department store merchant, once famously said that “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.” That’s sort of how I feel about the time I’ve invested in twitter. But I do know that what I have gotten is a great and growing source of relevant and timely information and opinion that I didn’t previously have - all in one place. Priceless.

For more insight on the twitter phenomenon, read the
June 2009 Time cover story (the opening sentence is spot on). Then follow me on twitter at http://twitter.com/hazbert

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Where were you when the corn ethanol revolution happened? Actually, that revolution didn’t turn out so well. Revolutions are supposed to be by the people, for the people kinds of things. But this one was by the US government, for the special interests. Not surprisingly, it ended up harming the people – in this case by contributing to a worldwide food crisis that exacerbated hunger in the developing world, social unrest and global recession.

Observing today’s hype about smart meters, I can’t help thinking about corn ethanol. Why? Because the benefits of corn ethanol, such as they were, didn't amount to sustainable, widespread energy or economic benefits. The numbers didn't add up – and I don’t yet see them adding up for smart meters.

Advocates of smart meters primarily tout them as devices that will benefit consumers. They emphasize the savings the meters will encourage by allowing consumers to ‘see’ what energy they are using; the idea being that more informed consumers will make better choices about their energy use.

This argument is only true up to a point. The deeper substance is often missed, which is that information by itself has not been shown to be a sufficient motivator for energy conservation (or for that matter, other outcomes that require behavioral change, such as weight loss or quitting smoking). In which case, the potential impact of this fundamental selling point is debatable. (I’ve written in some detail about the behavioral stuff here).

Another proposed benefit is that, where utilities have variable rates (electricity prices that vary during the day based on supply, demand, generation type and/or time of day), their customers can save money by adjusting their heavy electricity usage to occur during times of lower prices. This of course may not always be practical for the consumer, and in any case doesn’t apply to most of the Caribbean.

For now, it seems that the biggest beneficiaries of smart meters are likely to be the utilities themselves – the main benefit being that the electricity company can read the installed smart meters remotely from a central place, thereby eliminating the cost of sending out meter readers.

Billions of dollars are being spent by utilities and governments worldwide on smart metering programmes. Just this month, the British government unveiled an ambitious plan to install smart meters in all of the country’s 26 million homes by 2020, at a price tag of £8.5 billion. Their estimate is that the plan will allow the power industry and consumers to save £14.5 billion. Caribbean utilities are following suit with their own, much-smaller-scale smart metering programmes (but no word on what they’re spending yet).

But what about the energy and carbon balance of all this?

A smart meter is a complex thing. After it is designed it must be manufactured, using energy, materials and components (glass, plastic, metals, integrated circuits and so on). Then it must be packaged in a box (which itself must be manufactured), then shipped in a truck, train, ship or plane. Then it is taken to the customer’s home (more driving) and installed. At that point, after being responsible for a long chain of energy use and carbon emissions, the meter is meant to help reduce the customer’s energy use and carbon emissions.

In some cases, the smart meters will be designed to be linked up to in-home displays and also to other monitoring devices and systems connected to (or built into) electrical outlets or appliances. All this is so that a consumer can get a complete, detailed array of information about his or her energy use, at any given minute. In other words: more information – but also more devices, which means more materials, manufacturing, packaging, shipping, energy used and carbon emitted.

All of this raises a few questions.

What impact will all of these devices have when they finally get into the home and are plugged in or equipped with batteries (yet another device)? Will the energy savings and carbon reductions encouraged by the meter over its lifetime be sufficient to offset its own direct and indirect energy and carbon footprint?

Remember the paperless office? The widespread use of computers and digital imaging technology was supposed to eliminate paper documents by allowing us to digitize written communications. We would, the argument went, use far less paper because, thanks to technology, we wouldn’t need to. Well, that didn’t happen. On the contrary, according to The Myth of the Paperless Office, a book by Sellen and Harper published by MIT, the use of email in an organization causes an average 40% increase in paper consumption.

Smart meters will probably work out for the utilities that deploy them. But on the consumer side, this looks to be another example of trying to attack a problem of behaviour (how we consume energy) by throwing yet another device at it. And we already know how other examples of applying technology to behavioral problems have been working out.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I attended the Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum (CREF) held in Jamaica, in October. It was well-attended and featured a packed programme of presentations and panel discussions on renewable energy issues and options in the region.

At the conference I heard the phrase “agnostic about renewables” a lot (and used it a couple of times myself I’m sure), which I guess is a safe position to take. There’s no single technology fix that’s going to secure the Caribbean’s energy future. In fact, the question of whether technology is the answer is something that’s been occupying me for the better part of the year, but that’s for another post.

That said, I think that, assisted by events such as the CREF, a fairly clear picture is emerging of the continuum of Caribbean renewable energy technology prospects, from the game-changers on the one hand, to the technologies that need to be in the game on the other. So here’s my list of the things we should be watching now in the Caribbean.

Geothermal is (as I had previously written) the game-changer in the Eastern Caribbean. Successfully implemented, interconnected geothermal power projects will provide abundant, renewable, baseload power to OECS countries at a predictable price, and will usher in the reality of hybrid and electric-vehicle transport in the region. Note that Dominica and St Vincent & the Grenadines, which are ranked 2nd and 3rd in the OECS for geothermal potential, already use more fuel for transport than in their power sectors. Memo to regional oil companies: you should be taking a serious look at geothermal energy as the 21st century driver of your energy business.

Wind energy is now the fastest growing renewable energy resource in the region, with some large projects on stream: Jamaica is upgrading its Wigton Wind Farm from 20 MW of installed capacity to 38 MW by July 2010 and Aruba has commenced construction of its 30 MW Vader Piet wind farm, also scheduled for completion in 2010. I think that the deployment of multiple small (@300 kW), collapsible wind turbines in distributed wind farms is an approach perfectly suited to the Caribbean, particularly for the smaller islands, but so far only the French island Guadeloupe has made any significant use of this windpower model. In any case, the bottom line is that the future of wind energy in the Caribbean looks very good.

For countries with relatively large populations and/or high rates of personal consumption (and therefore large waste output) Waste-to-Energy (WTE) makes complete sense, which would explain why two large WTE projects are now in progress in Jamaica (65MW) and the US Virgin Islands (49MW).

Continued development, improvement and upgrading of small hydro in the region is essential and, fortunately, ongoing. There are hydro projects at some stage of development now in progress in Belize, Dominica, Jamaica and St Vincent, all financed under the Caribbean Renewable Energy Development Programme (CREDP).

Ocean energy hasn’t yet made much of a splash. The ocean current regimes in parts of the region are considered by some to be quite favourable, but the shortage of fully-commercial ocean energy projects anywhere in the world isn’t helpful in bringing the technology to a region that can’t afford to be an early adopter.

Biofuels and biomass energy are always of interest in this region, but have made few inroads. The much-publicised debate on the role of biofuels in the 2008 ‘food crisis’ has left the sector with a definite image problem. Brazil, the world’s biofuels giant, has over the past 30 years created a huge, and hugely successful, biofuels sector based on sugarcane ethanol, that has replaced 50% of the country’s gasoline consumption. The Caribbean can’t match this using agriculturally-based biofuels production, but Jamaica has already made a small start, with its e10 program, which uses refined ethanol (produced in Jamaica from imported raw ethanol from Brazil) in a 10% blend with gasoline.

Solar thermal energy is truly the low-hanging fruit in the Caribbean RE space – and it’s not being picked. Barbados amply demonstrated, decades ago, how easy and inexpensive it is to make solar thermal energy a national success story with huge benefits. And yet, their excellent example has been all but ignored by the other countries.

As always, the belle of the ball was solar electricity and not surprisingly, the solar discussion panels generated the most heat!

I was intrigued by presentations on solar cooling projects that have been implemented on large commercial and institutional facilities in Europe and elsewhere. The technology appears to be developing rapidly and the economics are reported by its proponents to be far better than the economics of, say, installing PV panels to power space cooling needs. But, I didn’t get a sense that there was anything happening on this front in the Caribbean, despite the obvious facts that we have the sunshine and we need the cooling. As one local delegate passionately summed it up, “nutting naa gwaan!”

Jigar Shah, CEO of Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room, founder of SunEdison and pioneer of the solar-as-a-service business model for solar power, presented thought-provoking ideas on how to deliver solar electricity in large quantities to the Caribbean. Shah’s presentation was reflective of his thinking on how to enable the new paradigm for electric utilities – what he refers to as Utility 2.0 – and how to translate that to the Caribbean. (His ideas were well-received and I get the impression that several Caribbean utilities have been in follow-up discussions with him on this).

I believe that energy efficiency, one of the things only mentioned in passing at the CREF, is a critical component of the Utility 2.0 model, for the simple reason that whatever our sources of energy, we need to find ways to use it more efficiently: after all, even a resource such as solar PV can have a significant environmental footprint due to the materials and processes that go into its deployment.

All things considered, attending the CREF was a well-spent two days for me. Now some serious follow-up is needed by the people who can make things happen. I’d better get back to work…

Visit the CREF website or join the CREF group on LinkedIn here for post-conference information.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I installed a wireless whole-house electricity monitor this weekend. One of the things it confirmed is that the electric kettle is one of the energy hogs in my home. Have a look at the video.

My electricity demand went up almost x 5 when I switched the kettle on. Of course, at the time, there was not much else on that was using electricity, but you get the point... the kettle pulls 2,000 Watts of power when it's in use.

That's a lot of power. So, when you're boiling water for that cup of tea/coffee/milo/ovaltine/whatever switches you on in the morning, just boil enough water for one cup. The planet will thank you!

(ps: An idea of pure genius occurred to me while tweeting about this blog post. We can save the planet by simply staying in bed!)

Saturday, September 5, 2009


When we were children and our mothers, grandmothers or assorted aunts wanted us to stop acting like children, their command was “Behave!” When you heard that and got the look that went along with it, you generally shaped up. Or else. These days, the problem with behaviour is that no one pays attention to it any more (no, this isn’t a discussion about parenting; it’s about energy efficiency and conservation in the Caribbean).

The energy problem in a nutshell is that we need to find ways to supply more green energy – and to reduce our demand for it at the same time. So energy conservation and energy efficiency are vital aspects of the solution.

The thing is: our policymakers (and here I’m also referring to the consultants who write the policies and plans that the politicians approve) have quite often misunderstood the demand side of the problem – and have traditionally framed it as being comprised of two separate things, one having to do with people and the other with technology.

For example, according to a national energy policy document published this year by a large CARICOM country, energy conservation is defined as “practices and actions that reduce the amount of energy that is used”, whereas energy efficiency is “changing technology so that less energy is used to accomplish the same task.”

In other words:

Conservation = Behaviour
Energy Efficiency = Technology

So, according to the above formulation, if I walk to the bar instead of driving there, I would be reducing my energy use by conservation. But if, on the other hand, I bought a new, more fuel-efficient vehicle that gets far better gas mileage than my current vehicle, I could still drive to the bar – but I would also use less energy, so I achieve the same result, thanks to technology!

New technology is so much sexier than better behaviour.

Except that: a British economist named William Stanley Jevons explained, some 144 years ago, why this would not actually be the case. “It is wholly a confusion of ideas”, Jevons wrote then, “to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” In his book The Coal Question, published in 1865, Jevons pointed out how James Watt’s steam engine, by improving on the previous design, provided much better fuel efficiency – thereby causing England’s consumption of coal to soar. His observation came to be known as the Jevons Paradox.

The Jevons Paradox is explained by what is called the rebound effect; an economic theory which says that if the cost of a resource is reduced due to increased efficiency, people will consume more of the resource (or the services dependent on the resource) than previously, thereby offsetting (partially or entirely) the effect of the efficiency improvement.

For example: a colleague recently told me the story of his neighbour, who never used his outdoor lights at night – until he got energy efficient compact fluorescent lamps. Since then, he has been leaving the lights on outside, because he knows he now has “energy-saving bulbs” inside. Well, guess what the overall effect on his electricity bill is likely to be? (This is an example of a direct rebound effect).

Or, take television. I want a new TV. I have a 32” Sony cathode-ray tube model, and I’m interested in a sleek flat-panel set. Flat-panel plasma or LCD TVs are more energy efficient than their bulky CRT counterparts; they use less electricity per inch of screen. But what are the chances that I will replace my 32” CRT with a 32” flat-panel? More than likely I (and many other buyers of new TVs) will upgrade screen size as well, which then causes the better energy efficiency per screen inch of the new TV to be offset by the larger number of screen inches. And, you know what? Flat panel TVs look really sexy when they’re on, so maybe I’ll inadvertently leave my new TV on more often than I did the old one. This all adds up to using more electricity, not less.

The important point here is that these are not isolated examples. A growing body of research indicates that the rebound effect is a universal behavioural response, one that gives rise to energy consumption outcomes that are quite different to the predicted ones.

So how is this relevant to Caribbean energy policy?

To date, I have seen no energy policy published in the Caribbean that makes any reference to the rebound effect or to behavioural factors in relation to energy efficiency outcomes. This omission causes us to get our sums wrong.

We can calculate, based on the technical efficiency differences, the energy-saving effect of new technology (importing fuel-efficient vehicles; replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs and so on), but without taking behavioural factors into account, our estimate of the amount of energy to be saved will be incorrect. We need new equations, which are:

Conservation = Behaviour
Energy Efficiency = Technology + Behaviour

Who’s sexy now?

I’m writing some more on this soon, but here’s some reading on the rebound effect. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebound_effect_(conservation)

Friday, July 31, 2009


That’s what I was, when I realised the status of renewable energy in Guadeloupe during a recent visit. I was there to participate in a trade mission on renewable energy in the Caribbean, organised by Carib Export in partnership with the Guadeloupe Regional Council.

275kW Vergnet wind turbine at Grand Maison, Guadeloupe.
Photo: H Samuel

Prior to my visit, I knew a few things about what was happening on the French-Caribbean island of 660 square miles (I should say 1710 sq km) and 460,000 people. I had previously written about their geothermal power plant and I was generally aware that there was utility-scale wind energy being used; my impression was that there was a large-ish wind farm on the island.

I soon found out how wrong I was: Guadeloupe boasts a grand total of thirteen wind farms, with over 200 wind turbines having a total installed capacity of 25 MegaWatts. That’s only a slice of the renewable energy pie: In addition to the 25MW of wind and the 15MW of geothermal power, Guadeloupe benefits from almost 60 MW of biomass (mostly bagasse from sugar cane); 8.7 MW of hydro power and 2 MW of grid-connected photovoltaics. And, there are 30,000 solar water heaters installed on the island.

In absolute terms, that sounds pretty impressive, but in overall percentage terms, not so much. Renewable energy accounted for 14% of all electricity used on Guadeloupe in 2008, which is less than the figure for St Vincent and the Grenadines, which in 2008 had 17% of its electricity supply from hydro, or Dominica, which had 24% hydro electricity that year.

More to the point is that the local government in 2007 drew up ambitious plans to increase the share of wind and other renewables to a very impressive 50% by 2020. Called the PRERURE (long-term regional energy plan of prospecting and exploitation of renewable energies and the rational use of energy), the plan was formally adopted in May 2008 and is now being implemented. According to Mr Louis Galantine, president of the Commission Energie de Guadeloupe, the plan’s objectives are “ambitious, but realistic and doable”.

One project now approaching completion under the plan is a new school that will be completely powered by renewables. It’s an impressive green energy project (though I think some aspects of it may be overdesigned). The school is intended to house 1200 secondary-level students and their estimated one million kWh of annual electricity consumption is to be entirely supplied by a combination of grid-connected photovoltaics, biomass and wind energy.

Renewables-powered school under construction in Guadeloupe.
Photo: H Samuel

The wind energy is already being generated a few miles away at the Grand Maison wind farm developed by French company Aerowatt, comprised of 5 turbines of 275 kW each, for a total installed capacity of 1.375 MW.

The Grand Maison turbines, made by French company Vergnet, are specifically designed for the Caribbean challenge: they incorporate special lattice towers that are able to be quickly winched down to the ground and secured to a docking frame when a hurricane threatens – as was successfully done in August 2007 as hurricane Dean approached the islands, only a few months after the wind farm was commissioned. (Dean went on to wreak havoc on Dominica’s hydro output by causing a landslide that destroyed one of the island’s three hydro power-stations).

This design approach addresses what I think is perhaps the major problem with wind energy in the region, but the approach also has other benefits. Because the use of a collapsible lattice tower limits the turbine size, this suggests the use of numerous, relatively small turbines spread across the island, as opposed to fewer, larger turbines in one location, to produce a given amount of output.

I believe that this outcome helps to address the intermittency problem of wind power – that sometimes the wind is strong enough to produce energy and sometimes not. If wind power is not available at the same time that there is high demand for power, then the power has to be provided from another source – which tends to be a fossil fuel source.

Because of this, wind power is often considered a fuel replacement option, which cannot completely replace investment in baseload power capacity: the utility still has to have some capacity to cover the idle wind capacity. This balancing act is easier if the wind capacity is broken up into smaller, widely spread units, some of which may be available when others are not.

I think the French Caribbean model is showing us how we should think about wind energy in the Caribbean. Perhaps another trade mission for a closer look is in order?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


I read recently that this week’s summit of the heads of government of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) will feature a packed agenda. Climate change is high on the list, according to CARICOM's secretary-general. Another item for discussion will be freedom of movement for CARICOM nationals.

This latter item, of course, has been discussed many times at previous CARICOM meetings. And, I’ve often wondered: why do we CARICOM citizens need so many different immigration forms for travel within our region? After all, we’ve been on this path to a so-called single market and economy for – how long now? I’ve lost track. Why not one CARICOM immigration form? In fact, why do we need a form at all, now that we’ve got machine-readable passports and fancy ID cards?

Well, I found out the answer a few weeks ago when I went to Guadeloupe on a business visit.

We don’t.

It was my first visit to the French Caribbean island and when I arrived, the immigration officer took my passport and the documentation explaining why I was there (since I spoke no French and he no English). He looked them over, scanned the passport, handed everything back and wished me a good day (in French). That was it. No form was required to be filled out. As I approached the customs counter with my luggage, the officer smiled and waved me though. Again, no form was required.

It was an interesting experience - I was let into France faster and easier than I am let into my own country!

Now, presumably, the French are just as concerned about immigration, customs and cross-border security and social issues as we are, so the question is: how come the French Caribbean can make a paperless immigration and customs entry procedure work, even for visitors from outside their economic region, while within CARICOM, we are still engaged in an archaic paper-intensive process?

Attempting to emulate the French Caribbean in this area would hasten our progress towards making freedom of movement for CARICOM nationals a reality. It would also have the salutary benefit of reducing the region’s carbon footprint, thereby assisting in our efforts to mitigate climate change. The carbon emissions generated by the energy used for the production of the paper, its shipment, printing and distribution to all of CARICOM’s immigration departments would be eliminated.

That’s a lot of paper, printing and shipping. The CARICOM Secretariat can do the numbers on how much this would reduce the region’s carbon footprint. In fact, I know a consultant who’s available for the assignment.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


I was having a drink and a chat with a friend recently. We got to speaking about business and the subject eventually turned to energy in the Caribbean. Our discussion was interesting and wide-ranging (and, appropriately, fueled by ethanol in various concentrations).

I was taken aback when I realised that his opinion of
geothermal energy in the Caribbean was that it was some sort of little pilot-project-type thing; essentially experimental in nature, and not to be taken seriously by serious people. At one point, he even used the phrase "fly-by-night".

He himself is a successful businessman and entrepreneur and, more to the point, was quite recently on the board of directors of one of our Caribbean electric utilities. I tried to convince him that he was wrong, but perhaps our consumption of biofuels had by then affected the cogency of my arguments, and I failed.

Thinking the episode over the following day, I realised I should not really have been surprised. After all, before I started focusing specifically on Caribbean renewable energy and sustainability issues a few years ago, I didn't know what the real situation was either.

During our discussion I had pointed out to him that
Nevis is now on track to become the Caribbean's first green island, powered by geothermal energy. He was skeptical. One of his arguments was that he had never heard of Nevis as having any sort of geothermal potential.

Well, until just over a year ago, neither did I.

But never mind the inherent egocentricity of this argument (which I also failed to point out to him at the time, no doubt due to my biofuel-enhanced state), the discussion highlights a particular problem that is affecting the Caribbean, which is: that the state of information on Caribbean energy prospects and options - matters of critical national and regional importance - is abysmal.

Any discussion of issues that have the potential to impact the collective futures of nations requires an informed public. How do we make sound decisions about vital matters if we are not informed? Do we leave these decisions to our business and political leaders? Are they themselves sufficiently informed? Some of the evidence suggests not.

It’s clear to me that there's a long road ahead on this. Far more needs to be done by the various actors and leaders in this space. Paradoxically in this so-called information age, we are falling short in informing our public on energy issues.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I had the pleasure of visiting Dominica recently. En route from the airport to the capital Roseau, the signs of geothermal energy potential were everywhere – from the smell of sulphur on the rainforest air, to the sight of people bathing in hot springs along the way.

Hot spring at Wotten Waven area, Dominica
Photo: H Samuel

I’m told that the sparsely-populated, mountainous island, popularly known as “The Nature Isle” has at least 9 active volcanic areas and too many hot springs to keep track of. So it should seem to be a natural for the exploitation of geothermal energy.

Geothermal is the most important prospect for renewable energy in the Caribbean, for two reasons: First, it represents baseload power – power that is constantly available at large scale, as opposed to solar and wind, which are intermittent resources and second, it is apparently widespread throughout the Caribbean.

The various studies that have been done of the geothermal potential of the Eastern Caribbean over the past two decades all basically say the same thing – that there appears to be significant geothermal potential in the region – and, crucially: that it appears to be far greater than present demand for electricity.

So if large geothermal resources are proven to be available on a few strategically-located islands (say Nevis in the north, Dominica in the middle and Grenada or St Vincent in the south), power can be made available via undersea transmission lines to the others, thereby creating an interconnected, renewable and sustainable electricity network spanning the Eastern Caribbean.

So (the inevitable question): why isn’t there more geothermal being used in the Caribbean? The region's only geothermal plant is in Guadeloupe, with an installed capacity of 15.5 MW, which is reported to provide close to 10% of Guadeloupe’s electricity demand.

As is the case with many RE technologies, a major issue is the up-front cost. Geothermal energy in particular is affected by this because, notwithstanding sulphurous valleys and hot springs: in order for a geothermal power plant to be built, specific explorations (geological, geochemical and geophysical studies, drilling a few holes through rock to depths of several thousand feet, etc.) must be carried out – and they are very expensive. For example; the recently-concluded exploration that established Nevis’ geothermal potential is reported by the developer to have cost US$8 million. The power plant construction is estimated at US$45 million, to install 11.6 MegaWatts of power, which can supply Nevis’ existing electricity demand (currently about 9 MW).

These costs sound high, but they actually represent an economic and environmental bargain (in a subsequent post, we’ll dig deeper into some details of the economics of geothermal vs diesel power on these islands).

The Nevis power plant construction is
reported to be going ahead, so it looks as though Nevis will indeed become the Caribbean’s first green island. Meanwhile, Dominica is not far behind; there are two separate geothermal explorations proceeding on the island. One is funded by the European Union; the other is being carried out by the Nevis project developer. One or both of them could bear fruit; this would create the central point for geothermal electricity generation in the Eastern Caribbean. Then all we would need is another in the south and the foundation for the creation of an entire string of green islands would be in place.

Dominica’s geothermal explorations could be concluded by mid 2010, but significant hurdles exist. If her geothermal resources are proven, Dominica’s mountainous terrain will challenge the builders and increase the cost of building a power plant and the transmission lines required to get the power to end users. Then there are the technical, economic, business and political challenges of designing and building an interconnected Eastern Caribbean power grid.

But these challenges will pale in comparison to the legacy of failure we will leave if we continue a business-as-usual-with-a-few-incremental-improvements approach.

That time has passed.

More information on geothermal energy can be found


Monday, March 23, 2009


I saw my first green flash for 2009 a few days ago. Most Caribbean people know what the green flash is. It’s the fleeting change of colour of the last sliver of a setting sun at a clear horizon – from red to green – and it’s gone in an instant.

The (totally exaggerated) green flash depicted in the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”. The first of the “Pirates” series was filmed in St Vincent & the Grenadines and other Caribbean islands.
Photo: Wikipedia

Later that night, I wondered: is there a green flash at sunrise as well? I’m not a morning person, so I would hardly know. But I figured there should be, since the physics of it (as far as I can tell) would be the same.

In any case, here’s a prediction about solar energy in the Caribbean: sunrise is coming and we’re about to see our green flash. That’s because as oil prices climb back to uncomfortable levels; as energy policy in the Caribbean adjusts to the new global reality; as technology continues to improve and prices continue to fall, electricity generated by photovoltaics will become very popular in these parts.

Photovoltaics (PV) is the name for the process by which light is converted directly to electricity by a solar cell. We’ve got lots of PV-powered devices around already. Look at a pocket calculator. Instead of a battery, it’s got a solar cell on the front that provides the electricity it needs. The same basic technology, on a larger scale and with a few additional devices, is already being used to power homes and businesses worldwide.

A typical home PV system would consist of roof-mounted solar panels, connected to an inverter (a device that converts the direct current produced by the solar panels into an alternating current, which is the same as the electricity that you buy from your electricity company). The inverter is connected via a switch to the main circuit breaker panel that distributes electricity to the house.

So if you had a PV system installed at home: depending on the size of your system, its type (whether it had battery storage or not) and the amount of direct sunlight available at the location, your entire electricity needs could well be supplied from the sun!

This sounds great; so the question is, again (this question will be coming up a lot on this blog): why isn’t more of this renewable energy technology being used in the Caribbean?

There are two basic problems: the first is that the technology is expensive. A PV system of 2.4 peak kilowatts (kWp) capacity, enough to power my own two-occupant home in St Vincent (my electricity demand is pretty low – did I mention I’m an energy efficiency consultant?) could cost up to US$15,000 installed. On the other hand, electricity in these parts is also expensive and we’ve got great sunshine, so I would expect my system to pay for itself in 7 to 10 years or so. After that, I would be making my own electricity – for free.

Essentially, PV works out well on an individual scale, once the matter of the up-front cost can be sorted out. But in the Caribbean, there’s another issue: the utility connection. The best way to use PV is as a grid-connected system. This means that your PV system is connected to the electricity company’s system, so that whenever your system is not producing enough electricity for your needs, the difference comes from the electricity company. At those times when your system is producing more electricity than you need (eg: when it’s a bright sunny day and no one’s at home), the extra energy will actually go into the electricity grid and be used by someone else. You pay for any electricity you use from the grid and the electric company pays you for any electricity your system supplies to the grid. This grid connection and payment arrangement, called “net-metering”, is a well-established practice worldwide.

The problem is that electric utilities generally will not encourage this sort of thing on their own initiative, so what is needed are government policies that encourage customers to invest in PV and laws that require the utilities to work with customers that want to go green. This is exactly what happens in the countries with significant PV use, and what is not happening in the Caribbean – with a couple of exceptions.

Two of the bright spots are found in Grenada and the US Virgin Islands. The utilities in these countries have taken a progressive approach to the matter and as a result the numbers of grid-connected systems are growing nicely (I’ll try to get some actual numbers on this for a future post).

So, the bottom line is there’s no mystery here. PV is not some esoteric, experimental technology that’s not ready for real-world use. It is a well-established (and rapidly-growing) renewable energy technology, in use all over the world, even in not-so-sunny places as Germany and Japan, two of the world’s biggest PV users. We need to use more of it. To do this we need creative ways of dealing with the up-front costs of PV for prospective customers, and we need government policies and net-metering laws, directed at getting the utilities on board.

Meanwhile, PV prices are falling, and sun is shining!

You can find lots of detailed information on PV here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaics

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


The sun is our largest source of energy, but solar energy contributes less than 1% to global energy consumption. In the Caribbean we probably use a similar percentage. In other words: pretty close to zero.

Solar energy in the Caribbean basically refers to two things: solar thermal energy for water heating, and solar photovoltaics (PV) to directly generate electricity from sunlight. Of these, solar thermal easily accounts for the vast majority of our use and our only serious user is Barbados. In fact, Barbados is a world leader in solar thermal energy, as it is estimated that the island has the second highest number per capita of solar water heaters in the world!

Solar water heaters are simple devices that are cheap, effective, easy to install and maintain. And the Caribbean has plenty of the free fuel all year round, so a solar water heater pays for itself quickly, typically in three years or less. So, why is there so little use of solar water heating in the Caribbean? I think the reason is mostly due to a combination of three factors, one economic, one cultural and one related to government policy.

The first is that demand for hot water is higher in richer countries, particularly those with large tourism sectors, but many of the islands of the Caribbean are not quite in that category (yet).

The second is that in some of our countries there is a strongly-held belief that bathing in cold water is intrinsically better for the body. This belief has maintained a demand for cold water even as per capita incomes have increased.

The third factor – government policy – I think is the most important. Faced with several alternatives for doing a particular thing, consumers will not necessarily make the most economic choice. For someone who is building a house, an electric tank water heater priced at $1500 may seem a more attractive proposition than a $3200 solar water heater, never mind that the total cost of the electric heater over ten years will be far greater than that of the solar heater. But if the government provides an incentive for homeowners to spend the extra money up front (and provides some assistance enabling them to do so) then the right economic decision is encouraged.

This sort of government policy intervention has been the missing link in the region thus far.

This is unfortunate, because the fact is whether a country is rich or not, it just makes sense for it to save on its energy import bill by any reasonable means. And what could be more reasonable, in countries where sunshine is clearly abundant, than reducing the consumption of imported diesel fuel by replacing electric water heating with solar? This is no exaggeration: any government that takes this particular matter seriously could make a huge difference – just as the government of Barbados did decades ago.

Barbados, which is relatively rich and with a large tourism sector, got off to an early start with a solar water heating industry dating back to the 1970s (the decade in which the term ‘global energy crisis’ was coined). On the other hand, equally-rich Trinidad & Tobago may well have had significant demand for hot water, but locally-produced oil and gas has made electricity so cheap that no one bothers much what it’s used for.

The basic outline of the Barbados model was summarised in a paper published in 2000 by Professor Oliver Headley, the late dean of solar energy in the Caribbean. He advised that

"A crucial factor in creating the market was the provision of fiscal incentives by the Barbados government under the leadership of (then) Prime Minister Tom Adams. A householder could apply the cost of his water heater against his income tax for the year. The success was remarkable: 23,388 solar water heaters were installed in Barbados over the period from 1974 through 1992."

He goes on to note that
“In terms of avoided imports of fossil energy, the solar water heaters reduce annual imports by 33,000 tonnes of fuel, a saving of about $6.5 million US if one assumes a price of US$25 per barrel. These are the savings that the solar water heater industry achieves for Barbados, with its population of about 260,000. If solar water heating were applied over all the territories of the anglophone Caribbean, with a population of 5 million, to the same extent as in Barbados, savings would be US$125 million per year.”
These are compelling numbers and some Caribbean governments have taken notice, but few (if any) have engaged the matter as seriously as did Barbados’ government. Other incentives can be applied as well. For example: to defray initial costs, banks should be encouraged to automatically finance solar water heaters in new mortgages, and to rewrite existing mortgages to finance replacement of electric heaters.

The above things need to be done – and I believe they eventually will, for the simple reason that rising fossil fuel costs over the long run, coupled with our increasing awareness of the need to reduce carbon emissions, will accelerate adoption of this simple renewable energy technology that is perfectly suited to our region, dependent as it is on tourism for its economic vitality.

But for now, the proverbial rainy day is here. The current global economic crisis is deepening, and will probably get worse for us for a while before it gets better. In the very short term, don’t expect any significant increase in the use of solar energy. As the world emerges from this recession, the use of solar thermal energy in the Caribbean will grow.

What about photovoltaics? We’ll talk about that next week.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


We hear about renewable energy a lot, but what is it, exactly? And how come we use so little of it?

These days, we often hear about renewable energy. Actually, I take that back; in the Caribbean we hear less about it now than we did six months ago when oil prices were approaching $150 a barrel – but that’s a discussion for another time. What I mean is: renewable energy is very topical right now. It seems to be the Next Big Thing, the oncoming wave of a brave, new world that is green, clean and eminently desirable to us all.

So what exactly is it? Renewable energy is energy from sources (like sunlight, wind, flowing rivers, etc.) that are replenished by natural processes. This is in contrast to non-renewable energy, as in fuels such as gasoline, diesel and kerosene, which are derived from crude oil, which cannot be replenished once it is extracted and used.

The available renewable energy types are (in alphabetical order):
  • Bio-energy (energy of plant and animal origin)

  • Geothermal energy (energy derived from the earth’s heat)

  • Hydro energy (energy from river flow)

  • Ocean energy (energy from marine sources)

  • Solar energy (energy from sunshine)

  • Wind energy (energy from wind)

In the Caribbean, we use bio-energy, geothermal, hydro, solar and wind in varying degrees but overall, our use of renewable energy is very small in relation to our total energy consumption. For example, most of our energy use is in the form of electricity and in the English-speaking Caribbean (total population 6.3 million) only about 3% of electricity is generated from renewable sources; the other 97% being generated by petroleum products. Compare this to the opposite situation in Costa Rica (population 4.2 million), which generates 98% of its electricity from renewables, or Iceland (population 300,000) which generates 100% of its electricity from renewables!

There are several advantages to using renewable energy. The first is that in general, renewable energy resources are so vast as to be inexhaustible. For example: the amount of solar energy absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land mass in one hour is more than the total energy consumed by all of mankind in one year! The global wind energy resource is far less plentiful, but is still 50 times more than existing global consumption.

The other major advantage is that most forms of renewable energy are considered to be free. If you install a wind turbine, you don’t have to pay for the wind that turns it to produce electricity. A diesel-powered generator on the other hand requires a constant supply of fuel that must be purchased with hard cash.

In addition, renewables are considered to be ‘green’ or at least carbon-neutral, as their use does not result in increasing greenhouse gas emissions, which have been implicated in causing global warming which leads to climate change.

This last point has become increasingly important over the past two decades, as the world has become aware of the looming climate change crisis. Because fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) are net emitters of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, whereas renewables are not, renewable energy is truly sustainable – it is essentially endless, cheap and using it won’t harm the planet.

Clearly, this is where our energy future lies, so the question is: if this stuff is so great, why aren’t we all like Costa Rica or Iceland? Well, unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. Although the world is slowly moving towards using more renewables for our energy supply, there are several barriers to the widespread adoption of RE. In general, these are cost, policy, technical and educational barriers, which we will discuss in later posts. But first, here’s an interesting question: Will the world ever return to 100% RE use?

I say return because renewable energy was once the only energy used by mankind! Up to the early 18th century, fuel wood, water-wheels and windmills were the world’s sources of energy. But by the middle of that century, widespread fuel wood scarcities had sparked increasing interest in abundant coal. By the end of the 19th century natural gas and oil had come into their own and over the next 100 years, the fossil fuels had almost entirely displaced renewables. Today, renewable energy accounts for only about 7% of total global energy consumption.

The supreme irony here is this: increased global dependence on fossil fuels, which we now seek to reverse, occurred for sound technical, economic and environmental reasons. Increasing population pressure and use of wood for fuel in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries had led to massive depletion of forests in England, Europe and other countries. Coal, and later gas and oil, coupled with the development of the technology to use them efficiently, presented better and cheaper alternatives – and thereby averted a global environmental crisis. Now, we're in the same position but with the roles reversed, as we recognise that our rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels has brought us to the verge of another environmental catastrophe – and renewables are needed to save the day!

One moral of this story is that not all renewables are created equal: some are indeed better than others and the viability of renewables also depends to a large extent on where you are. So next we will look at the various types of renewables and their applicability to the Caribbean. We’ll start with solar energy, since it’s currently at the top of our poll on renewable energy types.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Let’s talk about renewable energy and sustainability in the Caribbean.

What is renewable energy? Why don’t these islands use more of it? What are the relevant options for us? How can we all do more to benefit from it? What is the role of government? Why is this important anyway? These are just some of the things we need to talk about.

We’re running a poll at
that asks which is the most promising renewable energy option for the Caribbean.

To date, solar energy is the option of choice for respondents, followed by geothermal energy and wind energy. Ocean energy, biomass, hydro and biofuels bring up the rear.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at these issues, starting with a general review of renewable energy. I hope you’ll join the discussion.