Monday, December 6, 2010


1.  What century are we in, again? 

Here’s an amazing fact: over the past 10 years, the retail price of electricity across the OECS has roughly doubled.  And over the same period, most of the energy-sector leaders of the affected countries have done exactly nothing about the fundamental problem.  

This makes the chances quite good that, unless things change drastically and soon, pretty much the same thing will happen again – with one important difference.

What is the fundamental problem?  The problem is that we in the OECS depend on imported fossil fuels for almost all of our energy supply – and there are two things we can say for sure about fossil fuels.  Over the long run, (a) their prices will go up and (b) at current rates of extraction, they’re eventually going to run out.  So guess what will happen to economies that don’t break their dependence on the stuff before those two trends collide?  Ok, in the long run, we’ll all be dead (as British economist John Maynard Keynes is said to have observed), but this isn’t about us.  It’s about the legacy of failure we will leave to future generations if we continue along the present path of business as usual.

Business as usual has been encouraged by the failure of our leaders to see beyond the useful Petrocaribe scheme initiated by Venezuela.  Petrocaribe should have been taken as a short-term expedient to give cash-strapped governments some breathing space to start reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, but it appears to have given some of us the impression that oil can still be had cheaply – with the net effect of increasing our dependence on oil (not to mention our debt) since the scheme was launched.

Think of a serious medical case, accompanied by intense pain.  The attending doctor will prescribe the appropriate painkillers to provide short-term relief, but will also proceed to treat the underlying illness, to ensure a good longer-term outcome.  

It’s that second part that’s not happening in our energy sector and, if this continues, business as usual is pretty quickly going to turn into economic disaster when – and this is the important difference – a future oil price crisis is accompanied by an actual supply shortage of the stuff, worldwide.  At that point, small individual islands in the OECS are not likely to be at the top of the global supply chain.  In short, we won’t be able to get enough oil, even if we can get a low-interest loan to pay for it.

There are a few bright spots: Nevis and Dominica have shown the necessary vision and leadership to actually treat the fundamental problem and are forging ahead with geothermal and wind power projects, some of which are already generating green energy for their citizens.  The other governments are at various stages of either making actual plans to move forward, talking about moving, or simply carrying on with business as usual.

So, let’s summarize.  The OECS energy sector is ending the first decade of the new century, still largely stuck in the old one.  If this continues, our economic development plans and programmes are ultimately useless: it won’t matter how many hotel rooms, airports, highways and mobile phones per thousand people we can boast, because without a secure, reliable and affordable supply of energy, none of these things will matter.  Ten years into the new century, the OECS is staring disaster in the face if our energy sector leaders don’t start following the example of the real leaders – the ones who are looking at the next 50 years, and taking their people towards a truly sustainable energy and economic future.

2. The Electric Vehicles are coming!

On Nov 17th the Chevy Volt (a gasoline-electric hybrid) was named “Car of The Year” by not one, but two of the most prestigious auto magazines in the US.  Less than 2 weeks later, the European car folks named the all-electric Nissan Leaf as Europe’s 2010 “Car of the Year”.  

The electric car is going mainstream.  Pretty soon, it will be just as easy to buy a hybrid or an all-electric as it is to buy a gas or diesel vehicle now.  What will happen in the Caribbean?

More than half of all fuel imported to the OECS goes into the transport sector.  Three-quarters of that energy is actually wasted, due to the inherent inefficiencies of burning liquid fuels in gasoline and diesel engines.  So, just imagine the huge economic and environmental benefit if we could replace that gasoline and diesel with electricity generated from steam that comes from a hole in the ground?

Pretty soon, that’s going to be happening on Nevis.  Their geothermal power plant, scheduled to be producing power by 2012, will make Nevis the first viable electric vehicle location in the Caribbean.  So ten years from now, when the rest of the Caribbean is yet again struggling with crippling fuel prices (this time quite probably accompanied by actual fuel shortages), some Nevisians will be happily driving around, getting the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon of fuel, without importing a single gallon of fuel to do so.

3.  A home-grown Social Energy Innovation enters the Global Stage

In July 2010, GE, one of the world’s largest companies, launched their Ecomagination Challenge, a global competition to find and fund the world’s best ideas to power the 21st century smart grid, backed by a US$200 million venture capital fund.

The contest attracted over 3,800 ideas, submitted from more than 150 countries.  One of the submissions was Welectricity, an innovative social network for energy efficiency conceived in and launched from St Vincent & the Grenadines.  And, as the post below reports, Welectricity received an Ecomagination award for consumer innovation, winning the “Best Idea for the Millennial” prize.  Read more here, and have a productive and green 2011!