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.