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.