|Special Report: Alternative energy faces challenges in territory|
|Written by By STEVEN MELENDEZ|
|Wednesday, 20 July 2011 15:00|
“Each living area has a refrigerator, fans, no air conditioners, and we all use the same laundry,” he said. “So there’s a lot of laundry use.”
Dr. Haines, who said he is a silent partner in a solar energy company, takes advantage of the United States Virgin Islands’ net-metering programme. A set of photovoltaic cells on his house generates power while the sun shines, and when the system produces excess power, it’s automatically sold back to the territory’s Water and Power Authority at the retail rate.
“They put in a digital meter, which has two registers: one for electricity going from WAPA to me, and one from me to WAPA,” he said. “The meter reader is supposed to make two separate readings and record them.”
On a typical day, he said, his system, which has a three-kilowatt capacity, produces 11 kilowatt-hours of power. Four are used as they’re consumed, and the other seven are sold back to the utility.
“And then at night, or on days when the sun isn’t shining and I don’t make enough even for my own use, I’m just taking everything from WAPA,” he said.
At the end of each month, according to WAPA’s standard net-metering agreement, he receives a bill for the difference between the power he’s taken from WAPA and the power he’s given back to the grid. This eliminates the need to store the excess power on site, Dr. Haines said.
“I do not have any batteries in my system,” he said. “I can’t store the electricity. WAPA is my battery.”
Home solar generation isn’t necessarily for everyone, though, because of the high up-front costs involved, Dr. Haines said.
“A system to support a single-family house could cost about $10,000,” he said, explaining that he estimates it would take about 15 years for his system to pay for itself. “Compare that to what’s more commonly invested in, which is a solar hot-water system, and the cost may be approximately $1,500 to $2,000.”
In this territory, the family’s system isn’t an option. In fact, it would be illegal. Anywhere a connection to the grid is available, a 32-year-old ordinance here prohibits installing solar-generating systems except as a secondary power source, similar to a backup diesel generator.
Although Virgin Islands residents and officials generally seem receptive to the idea of alternative energy, the territory, unlike many other Caribbean jurisdictions, has been slow to take meaningful action to encourage it. For example, the VI currently lacks a plan to migrate to new sources of electricity. Nor has it implemented meaningful incentives, like duty exemptions or other forms of tax relief, to encourage businesses and homeowners to use technology like solar water heaters.
And, at a time when many countries are touting “green legislation,” old rules here discourage change.
Under the BVI Electricity Corporation Ordinance, passed in 1979, no one besides the BVIEC is permitted to generate electricity for anyone else without permission from the minister of communications and works. In considering granting such permission, the law says, the minister is to consult with the BVIEC, taking into account its plans and “giving precedence to” the BVIEC’s interests.
The ordinance is not the only obstacle to solar power in the VI. Currently, a primary solar-power system like the Haines’ isn’t compatible with the BVIEC’s system, said BVIEC General Manager Leroy Abraham.
BVIEC line workers are trained to do “dead-line work,” meaning that they disconnect power to an area of the grid before performing repairs, he said. In the current system, with 17,000 customers and individual feeder lines that can supply as many as 7,000 customers at a time, it would not be feasible to disconnect every customer potentially feeding power into the grid before beginning work, he said.
“It’s humanly inconceivable,” he said. “It’s totally impractical.”
In other jurisdictions, including the USVI and Barbados, where net-metering schemes are in place, utility crews are trained to do live-line work, meaning they can work on areas of the grid that are still electrified, Mr. Abraham said.
According to Macgregor Williams, of the MCW’s Electrical Inspection Unit, “In St. Thomas now, if there’s a particular problem in a particular area, they don’t have to shut it down.”
But deploying such a system requires coordination between linesmen, who all must be trained in the proper techniques, the electrical inspector said.
“Every individual has to be on the same page,” he said. “One simple error could cause a disaster.”
The BVIEC does plan to transition to doing live-line work at some point in the future, probably in the next ten years, Mr. Abraham said.
Until then, automatic shutoff switches that would disconnect a particular customer from the grid exist but are still quite new, he said.
“Most of those systems are very much in their infancy,” he said.
At present, the BVIEC has no objection to customers using solar panels instead of backup diesel generators, but many customers say the installation costs are too high to justify it without the benefit of net metering, Mr. Abraham said.
Walter Reich, of Butu Mountain, did install such a system at his home, with the help of Alternative Energy Systems, a Port Purcell company that provides a variety of electrical generation and hot water systems.
“Most people have generators, but we put in a solar array, basically to be our backup in case our power goes down,” Mr. Reich said. “It’s seamless. The power goes off, it kicks in.”
Mr. Reich said he would be happy to see a legal framework adopted for the territory to let him use it as his primary source of power.
“If it was something that was legal, and perhaps that you could actually sell power back to the grid, I would certainly look at that,” he said.
Road Town Wholesale, the 50-year-old grocery distributor and operator of the Riteway supermarket chain, also hoped to incorporate solar power into its operations before building its expanded Riteway store, which opened last year, said Delma Maduro, the company’s executive chairman.
“When we started the expansion programme, which was probably about four years ago, we had this wonderful idea that we would want to incorporate some solar energy,” she said.
The company, working with AES, prepared a plan to cover about 60 percent of its Pasea Estate Cash & Carry store’s roof with solar panels, she said.
“While it was going to be expensive, I think at the time there were some discussions about us being able to recover our costs in about seven years,” she said. “Given the level of investment we were making in our monthly electric bills, it could be a very useful thing.”
The company spends between $1 million and $2 million per year on electricity, she said, in addition to making “huge investments” in backup diesel generators.
“A lot of what we sell, it needs to be refrigerated, and in the event of outages, we just have to have a source to rely on,” Ms. Maduro said. “As a result, we have invested significantly in generators; we’ve had to.”
During electricity shortages a few years ago, she said, the BVIEC would sometimes disconnect power to RTW’s warehouse, knowing the company could switch over to generator power. But that led to increased fuel and maintenance costs for RTW.
In 2007 or 2008, she said, the company made initial contact with government, applying for permission to install the solar equipment.
“After a couple of follow-ups, we didn’t get the permission to do it,” she said. “Everything was cleared for us to move forward on this, except we didn’t get permission from government.”
Since then, she said, the company incorporated energy-saving measures, like LED lights and walls that admit natural light, into the new Riteway store.
“Even though we have a bigger store, about 70 percent more,” she said, “we’ve seen the electrical cost has gone down because of all the deliberate decisions to make sure that it was as energy efficient as possible.”
Ms. Maduro said the company is still “prepared to join forces and lend our voice to a call for an amendment to legislation” to make it easier to install renewable energy technology.
“I’ve wondered if one of the concerns by government has been revenue, the potential loss of revenue, with persons going to renewable energy,” she said, speculating that such fears might be overblown, with the territory’s growth expanding the BVIEC’s customer base and considering the reduced strain such moves would put on the BVIEC’s energy supply.
A petition to amend the law is currently being circulated online by the non-profit group Green VI, calling on government, to “permit and support grid-tie renewable pilot projects” and “immediately exempt renewable energy technologies from import and customs duties.”
The group plans to submit the petition to government officials and to candidates for this year’s general elections, along with legislation being drafted by the Harneys law firm to enable pilot grid-tied renewable installations, said Charlotte McDevitt, Green VI’s executive director. The petition currently has 230 signatures, according to the website.
Currently in the VI, Mr. Williams, the electrical inspector said, “there’s not an energy policy in place in terms of alternative energy.”
There are efforts within government to change that, said Angela Burnett Penn, an environmental officer in the Conservation and Fisheries Department. A policy to create a committee that would make recommendations to Cabinet about alternative energy will likely be created by the end of the year, she said.
Ms. Burnett Penn declined to give specifics about particular proposals such a committee might consider, explaining that feasibility studies would likely be conducted in relation to specific ideas, like changes in import duties or the BVIEC Ordinance.
“At this point my role is only trying to get the policy approved that would call for the committee to be established,” she said.
To some, the VI government is not moving fast enough.
“The BVI is behind our sister islands that have embraced the concept of renewable energies,” according to the petition. The petition’s authors cite the examples of Barbados, where “80 percent of their water is heated using solar water heaters;” St. Lucia, which “aims to be powered by clean, renewable energy by 2012;” and the USVI, where Governor John de Jongh Jr. announced plans to cut fossil fuel use by 60 percent in the next 15 years, through a mix of efficiency increases and migrations to alternative sources of power.
The USVI government offers residents economic incentives to install solar-power equipment. More than 400 solar water heaters have been installed under the programme, which rebates half the cost of solar equipment and offers a one-percent interest loan to pay for the other 50 percent, according to a recent statement from Karl Knight, director of the territory’s Energy Office.
“The Energy Office is currently processing another 125 applications from residents and small businesses who want to participate in that programme,” according to the statement. Much of the funding for the programme, which was first announced in October 2009, is provided by the US federal government, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Additionally, the USVI is in the process of deploying about 450 kilowatts of solar generating capacity at the Cyril E. King International Airport on St. Thomas, Bevan Smith, the previous director of the Energy Office, said at a conference in April. The system is expected to begin generating power by the end of June after “some fine tweaking,” according to a May 31 e-mail from the Energy Office’s media information specialist Don Buchanan.
And, on May 18, WAPA issued a formal request for proposals to build solar generating facilities that could provide the utility with up to 10 megawatts of solar power. It is also negotiating a contract to conduct measurements to identify potential sites for wind turbines, WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr. said at the April conference.
Problems of scale
Like this territory and other Caribbean jurisdictions, the USVI does not have the diversity of fuel sources or the larger and more economical power plants found in larger jurisdictions like the mainland US or even Puerto Rico, Mr. Hodge said.
“These islands in the Caribbean were forced to find generation in small amounts,” he said. “The units that were available in these increments were oil-based units.”
The USVI currently consumes about 2.5 million barrels of oil a year, said Dr. Adam Warren, a scientist at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory who spoke at the conference, and fluctuations in oil prices affect the territory’s larger economy.
Mr. de Jongh’s goal could be achieved by eliminating 38 percent of that total consumption through efficiency gains and 22 percent through alternative energy systems, Dr. Warren said, though “multiple paths are possible.”
The bulk of the gains through alternative energy would likely come from utility-scale wind farms and from waste-to-energy plants, which would burn fuel derived from refuse for power, he said.
WAPA and the USVI Waste Management Authority signed an agreement in 2009 with the US-based Alpine Energy Group, which was to build and operate two waste-to-energy plants: one serving St. Thomas and St. John, the other serving St. Croix, according to a press release. After some controversy over proposals for at least one of the facilities to burn petroleum coke – a waste product of oil refineries like the Hovensa facility on St. Croix – the plan was amended to remove that fuel source and build a single plant on St. Croix, said May Adams Cornwall, the Waste Management Authority’s executive director.
“We need to get the waste situation under control, so it made sense to focus on that and not focus on the pet coke,” she said.
The plant will have a 16-megawatt generating capacity, she said, and will generally produce about 11 megawatts. It will burn pellets of fuel derived from waste, she said, and will help to address both rising fuel costs and problems with waste disposal.
“Most of the Caribbean islands are now looking to waste-to-energy as opposed to incineration,” she said, recommending that this territory also consider such a facility. “If you can build a waste plant, you can probably build a power plant.”
The permitting process for the plant is to resume soon, she said.
“We expect to begin construction before the end of the year,” she said, adding that the project is slated to take 18 to 24 months to complete once work begins, though she said it’s difficult to predict precisely when it would be completed.
In this territory, the options for utility-scale alternative energy are limited by terrain and by the BVIEC’s finances, Mr. Abraham, the utility’s general manager, said.
The BVIEC periodically conducts 10-year power development studies, he said, with the last conducted for the period between 2002 and 2012.
“Based on our topography, the most viable option was wind,” he said. “Most of the other options are unavailable to the BVI.”
Tortola and its sister islands aren’t volcanically active, so geo-thermal energy, as is currently being considered in Nevis, isn’t available, he said. There are no major rivers, so hydroelectric power as deployed in Dominica is out, and there’s not enough flat land for utility-scale solar, he said.
On a smaller scale, the BVIEC did install two solar-powered streetlights last year, though the corporation has yet to receive any feedback from the Ministry of Communications and Works, which has responsibility for street lighting, he said.
Waste-to-energy systems are a possibility, he added, although there may not be sufficient appropriate refuse produced in the territory.
The 2002 study identified some potential sites for wind power, though some were located in national parks, he said. He declined to provide the Beacon with a copy of the study or the portion identifying such sites, explaining that it contained confidential information.
It’s also very difficult for the utility to find the funds to invest both in expanding its additional diesel generating capacity and in alternative sources of power, he said.
“We can’t make the dual investment,” he said. “It’s just too huge.”
Most utilities that can make such an investment receive some sort of government subsidies, he said. And investing in wind power in lieu of diesel isn’t practical, since the turbines’ output isn’t consistent enough.
“We can’t put our dependency on when the wind is gonna blow,” he said.
The BVIEC, he added, has an installed generating capacity of 39 megawatts, all of it from diesel generators, which convert about 13 million US gallons, or about 309,000 barrels, of fuel to electricity each year. The peak electricity demand is now between 31 and 33 megawatts, and the corporation is in the midst of evaluating bids to install an additional eight megawatts of diesel capacity, Mr. Abraham said. He expects to break ground on the project near the end of the year or the beginning of 2012 and to have the new generators online 18 to 24 months after that.
Mr. Abraham also said he had heard some companies have spoken to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour about building their own generating facilities. The corporation would be open to signing power purchase agreements with any that get off the ground, he said.
“If their production costs are lower than our present production costs, I think it’s feasible,” he said. “I would hope that one or more of them would reach to the stage of being viable enough.”
Mr. Abraham said he was unsure of the state of the various proposals. Natural Resources and Labour Minister Omar Hodge did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The BVIEC is also participating in a study exploring possibilities for connecting this territory, the USVI and Puerto Rico to form an electrical grid, Mr. Abraham said, though he declined to comment further, citing confidentiality.
The corporation has also had discussions with West Indies Power, a corporation that has proposed a Northern Caribbean power grid that would distribute electricity generated from a potential geothermal plant in Nevis, he said.
In the meantime, electricity officials encourage residents to install solar water heaters, which Messrs. Abraham and Williams said will ultimately save money over plug-in alternatives.
Other alternatives are available to some of the territory’s resorts, which lie off the BVIEC grid and thus aren’t subject to the corporation’s statutory monopoly.
At the Peter Island Resort and Spa, two wind turbines, each capable of producing 200 kilowatts of power, were installed last spring, said Mark Bugge, the chief financial officer of Peter Island 2000 Ltd., the resort’s developer, but the turbine blades were damaged last August by Hurricane Earl.
“It wasn’t the wind per se that we feel caused the damage; it was actually the turbulence,” he said.
The turbines have since been replaced and, as of May 23, were “up and running, and we are going through various tests to assure optimisation,” he said.
“The blades are designed to Category Three hurricane standards, and the company that provided the blades went through another round of testing of the new blades,” he said. “The manufacturer had stepped up to the plate.”
The rest of the resort’s power requirements, which peak at roughly 700 kilowatts, is supplied by “three highly efficient [diesel] generators,” he said. Peter Island aims to conserve power both through technology and usage reduction, he explained.
“Every room doesn’t need to have a light on during the day when someone’s not in there,” he said as an example. “For us, paying $3.50 a gallon for diesel, when it could easily spike to $4.50 or $5, that variability that we can’t control is something that we’re trying to be responsible fiscally about.”
Wind power also figures into plans for Mosquito Island, which Sir Richard Branson has said he plans to make “the most eco-friendly island in the world.”
Cables may be run from turbines on Necker Island, which is also owned by Sir Richard, he told the Beacon in March.
And on Cooper Island, the Cooper Island Beach Club is working with AES to collect data in advance of installing its own 15-kilowatt capacity wind turbine, said manager Andy Murrant.
“The average it would probably give you is eight kilowatts,” Mr. Murrant said, which would add to the 10 to 14 kilowatts of electricity and the hot water already produced by Cooper Island’s solar panels.
“We’ve got a battery bank system” that allows energy to be stored for use in the evening hours, he said. “When [the batteries] get down to a certain level, the generator kicks in automatically.”
The panels can provide up to 75 percent of the resort’s electricity demands, he said, and save about $4,000 a month in diesel fuel. They also save employees’ time, since it takes staff members about six hours to take a boat to Tortola, load diesel fuel in 55-gallon drums, return to Cooper Island and pump it back out of the drums.
“The great thing with the solar array is it’s maintenance-free,” he said, explaining another source of savings over the diesel generators. “There’s no moving parts on it.”
The resort also aims to be environmentally friendly in other ways, providing food waste from the kitchen to a local pig farm and using biodegradable soaps and shampoos, Mr. Murrant said.
“It’s great for tourism,” he said. “At least 60 percent of people look at your environmental issues before they book.”
The Oil Nut Bay resort on Virgin Gorda hopes to build its own solar-driven power “microgrid” and still integrate with BVIEC’s systems, said Dr. Larry Oswald, the resort’s environmental team leader.
“We are going to make it mandatory that everybody must install a solar array on their home” capable of generating between three and five kilowatts of power, Dr. Oswald said. “When there’s excess, it would be put on the Oil Nut grid system to supply power for the rest of the community.”
An automatic transfer switch would disconnect their system from the larger grid in the event of a BVIEC outage, he said.
Dr. Oswald added that standards propagated by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have made such systems safe in the US.
“The IEEE stepped in before solar arrays really got to be popular,” he said. “They saved the day.”
IEEE Standard 1547, published in 2003, requires that distributed generating systems, such as home solar installations, stop sending power to the outside world if any abnormal conditions are detected on the grid.
Oil Nut Bay hopes to demonstrate a pilot system to the BVIEC, Dr. Oswald said, and is currently pursuing government permission to do so.
“We have to show them that one, it’s absolutely safe and two, it’s going to be to their benefit, not only from a financial perspective but from a safety and security perspective: Their grid is going to be much more stable and dependable,” he said. “If I was a betting man, I would bet that we’re going to be able to convince them.”
This special report first appeared in the June 9, 2011 newsprint edition.
|Last Updated on Friday, 22 July 2011 09:03|