A report by Dan Nosowitz for New York Magazine.
The islands of the Caribbean are not a monolith, but they do have one thing in common: sunshine, and, aside from Trinidad and Tobago, a general lack of domestic fuel sources. Entrepreneurs and governments alike see an opportunity there, one that takes advantage of what the Caribbean has and sidesteps the expensive things it does not. A solar-powered electric car revolution is in its very early stages in parts of the Caribbean, but it makes an awful lot of sense.
Founded in 2013, a company called Megapower works in Barbados to set up a network of solar-powered charging stations, as well as selling electric cars. They’ve sold 300 of those cars, and constructed 50 charging stations, since then, according to Reuters. On the company’s website, Megapower calls the Caribbean “possibly the best place in the world for the mass adoption of EVs.” It’s not alone in that optimism.
There are plenty of reasons why solar-powered chargers and electric cars make sense in the region. Much of the Caribbean, even the rainier islands, still averages eight or nine hours per day of sunshine; some — like Aruba, Curaçao, Turks and Caicos, and Anguilla — average fewer rainy days than San Antonio, Texas. The conditions for solar power might not be quite as good as, say, the Mojave Desert, but renewable energy sources are promising enough that many governments are setting ambitious goals. Trinidad and Tobago wants 5 percent of its peak electricity demand to come from renewable sources by 2020; Dominica, Grenada, and Guyana are aiming for 90 percent by 2030.
That’s important because the Caribbean is deep in a fuel hole. A whopping 87 percent of the entire power generation in the Caribbean comes from imported fossil fuels, and because so much of the region’s fuel comes from faraway sources, electricity costs are four times higher than they are in the United States. The economies of these islands are basically at the whim of global oil prices; the island of Dominica has a 15 percent variation in its real GDP growth based entirely on fluctuations in oil prices.
The Caribbean has some other reasons to be enthusiastic about electric cars powered by a solar electric grid. The islands, on the whole, are small and low in elevation. Only Cuba and Hispaniola (the island made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic) are larger than 10,000 square miles; the vast majority of islands in the Caribbean are smaller than 250 square miles, including Saint Lucia, Barbados, Curaçao, Granada, and Grand Cayman. Many are fairly flat, with isolated peaks at most. (Jamaica is an outlier, with the Blue Mountains.)
This combination makes them ideal for electric vehicles in ways that, just for example, the U.S. is not. Most electric vehicles have limited ranges, with some only offering a hundred miles or less per charge. The higher-end vehicles can go further; the Nissan Leaf boasts 151 miles per charge, the Chevy Bolt 238 miles, and the Tesla Model S 315, but with still-long waiting times for a full charge, that’s about all you’re getting in an individual trip. That’s not great for hour-plus-long commutes from American suburbs, but for smaller islands with fewer hills to climb, that sort of range is just fine.
With so many obvious positives for electric cars in the Caribbean, you might wonder why they aren’t more common. One major obstacle is incredibly high import tariffs on cars, which can add as much as 100 percent of the American price. A Nissan Leaf costs about $30,000 in the U.S., says Reuters; in Barbados, it’ll run you $50,000. The governments don’t want to discourage electric cars, but auto tariffs are an incredibly valuable source of revenue for countries that, in most cases, need the money. “The biggest obstacle to developing a greener presence are very high import duties on EVs and related equipment,” writes the Caribbean Council in an article on the subject.
But the movement is shifting in the direction of both solar panels and electric vehicles. Megapower has had success in Barbados and will be expanding, it says, to other islands. Cayman Automotive began selling electric vehicles — mostly scooters and motorcycles — in 2009, and has expanded to cars like Tesla’s line, along with several solar charging stations. Finding that solar power is much more resilient in the face of hurricanes than the old power grid, more and more countries and islands are installing solar grids for their most important facilities. Electric vehicles are coming — it’s just a matter of when.