Greening the paradise: renewable energy in the Caribbean

While the Caribbean territories depend mainly on energy imports to fuel their needs, the island of Bonaire is to produce 100% of its energy from renewables by 2015, showing the opportunities and challenges the West Indies faces on the road to energy self-sufficiency. Given the region’s vast and varied resources, it will likely be only a matter of time before its renewable energy capacity soars.

The 27 sovereign states, overseas departments, and dependencies that together form the exotic holiday destinations of the Caribbean have historically relied on fossil fuels, oil in particular, to supply the energy needed for their predominantly agricultural- and tourism-based industries. Many of the incumbent utilities are monopolies which operate with traditional business models that are highly reliant on the price of crude oil.

Having seen its only power plant burn down in 2004, the Caribbean island of Bonaire, part of the Dutch Antilles, has revealed plans to invest in a hybrid wind-diesel power plant, which will comprise an 11MW wind farm supplemented by a 14MW diesel power plant, including a 3MW energy storage system. However, the island wants eventually to produce 100% of its energy from renewables, and within five years’ time is hoping to replace the diesel with bio oil from salt water algae grown on the island.

While the Caribbean harbors great potential for renewable energies, this potential must be tailored to the specific needs and locations of the many individual territories. Opportunities for hydro and wind power, solar thermal and photovoltaics, geothermal energy, and biomass from bagasse and wood waste are in plentiful supply across the region. However, the lack of awareness and knowledge of renewable technologies, hesitant utilities, and slow and conservative energy policy development have so far hampered the greater uptake of renewable energy. In addition, the threat of hurricanes, disagreements over the use of land and funding problems have created barriers preventing a move away from carbon fuels.

The Caribbean Community’s Caribbean Renewable Energy Development Program is now aiming to address these problems by bringing together politicians, utilities, and investors from around the region. Funding has also been made available recently through the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank.

Not only would the increased use of renewable energy reduce carbon emissions and consumers’ dependence on fossil fuel price volatility, it may also help economic development through employment opportunities and training, and create competitors capable of taking on the monopolies in the different territories. As other energy self-sufficiency initiatives, such as Denmark’s island Samso, have been proved possible, Bonaire’s project should be watched closely by other Caribbean regions and islands, and considered a trial for their own future energy development plans.

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