Saint Lucia took its first steps towards utility-scale renewable energy generation last month when the country broke ground on a landmark new solar power facility – funded, owned and operated by Saint Lucia Electricity Services Limited (LUCELEC).
LUCELEC is collaborating with solar power firm GRUPOTEC to construct a 3 megawatt solar photovoltaic (PV) farm in the south of the island. When it opens in spring 2018, the EC$20m farm is expected to generate enough electricity to power nearly 3,500 homes.
LUCELEC is right on trend. Earlier this month, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its Renewables 2017 report declaring that solar power is fast outpacing any other source of fuel. According to the IEA, solar PV grew by 50 per cent last year and capacity growth is expected to surpass that of other renewables through to 2022. “[This is] the birth of a new era in solar PV,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.
Setting the groundwork Roy Torbert, Principal of the Islands Energy Program, run by the Rocky Mountain Institute-Carbon War Room (RMI-CWR) says this upsurge in solar power can be attributed to advances in the technology combined with a greater understanding of the dangers of climate change.
“Global action around climate change has really raised awareness of the need for low carbon solutions,” he says. “There’s also increased improvement in making technology high quality and very low cost.”
Worldwide, most of the activity around solar PV is happening in China and India but the Caribbean climate makes that region a particularly good candidate for this type of power.
Not only are sun-drenched days the norm, so are devastating storms and flooding. Against a backdrop of frequent natural disasters, renewable energy has a vital role to play in providing more reliable, and less centralised, forms of power. In addition, most countries in the region are heavily dependent on imported fossil fuels and therefore at the mercy of fluctuating global fuel prices.
But while solar seems like an obvious solution for the Caribbean, the region has yet to fully embrace it. “The future for solar in the Caribbean region is quite bright,” says Torbert, “[but] land is a barrier. You have to be sensitive to the fact that on an island land is scarce. Another barrier is continued unfamiliarity with the technology. When you are investing in something it is helpful to be comfortable with the technology, to have seen it working. Solar is something new. That has slowed the uptake.”
RMI-CWR, together with the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI), helped Saint Lucia establish its solar farm project by providing technical assistance. Having worked closely on the project, Torbert says it can be a model for the region. “Saint Lucia’s farm has come in at some of the most low cost and competitive pricing the region has yet seen. This solar project really sets the groundwork, not only for additional solar in the future but also for a variety of other energy resources.”
It may be a template for the region, but Saint Lucia’s solar farm project wasn’t without its challenges. “Any new project is going to have a whole bunch of barriers,” says Torbert. “There are a lot of local stakeholders that have a high interest in solar, but have never had to review and approve a project like this before.”
It was a steep learning curve, acknowledges LUCELEC Managing Director Trevor Louisy who says assistance from international partners RMI-CWR, CCI and the global energy and engineering advisory firm DNV GL was invaluable. Stakeholders from Saint Lucia saw the initiative as a learning experience, according to Louisy who added that the country will be able to take those lessons forward into the next clean energy project. “We worked with partners like
RMI-CWR in developing capacity so that in the future we will have to rely less on those resources,” he says.
Topping the list of challenges for the solar project team was land. Specifically, how to find a site large enough for solar panels on an island where the resource is much in demand. LUCELEC settled on a property north of the Hewanorra International Airport at La Tourney, Vieux Fort but negotiations took some time as the site was owned by a government agency and last year’s change of administration slowed the process.
“Our primary obstacle was land,” says Louisy. “Renewable energy projects are very land intensive so there’s going to be competition with other sectors for that resource. Solar requires vast stretches of mostly flat land [but] because of our smaller size, land is a premium. It was important that we try to consolidate as much as we could on one site.”
Once LUCELEC had secured the site, they were confronted with another problem – how to reduce glare from the panels interfering with the airplane pilots overhead. Thankfully, this was easily resolved by altering the panels’ design.
While the farm is expected to begin feeding into the national grid early next year, both Louisy and Torbert say it will be a while before customers see any change in their bills.
“It will not be an immediate discount on everyone’s bill but it is a start to reducing and stabilizing prices,” explains Torbert. “It will dampen the effects of [changes to] international fuel prices.”
The benefits of solar may not be immediate, but they are very real. Saint Lucia’s new farm is expected to contribute 15m units of electricity a year. While this amounts to just 1.3 per cent of the current output from LUCELEC’s Cul De Sac power plant, it will make the system more resilient against a single point of failure. In addition, it is forecast to cut Saint Lucia’s fuel bill by around 300,000 gallons a year. A welcome statistic for a small island nation vulnerable to climate change and heavily reliant on diesel.
“Renewable energies are a major component in moving away from fossil fuels as much as possible,” says Louisy. “It is very important for us to be leaders in making that transition away from practices we have had in the past that may be contributing to climate change. This is an initiative that we as a company, and as a country, need to embrace.”
A BETTER WAY
Solar is just one piece of the puzzle for Saint Lucia. In 2016, the government and LUCELEC drew up a National Energy Transition Strategy (NETS) which determined that the country’s energy needs are best met through a combination of power sources. A diversified portfolio of solar, wind and diesel was considered optimal in helping Saint Lucia reach its goal of 35 per cent renewable energy penetration by 2020.
Such collaboration between a utility company and government is unusual in the region, and another way in which Saint Lucia is spearheading change. Torbert, who assisted both parties in drawing up the NETS, says he was impressed at the level of dialogue. “We really recognize the straightforward leadership from both the government and LUCELEC. They brought their own unique perspectives to the table and worked through a whole bunch of challenges to bring about a successful result.”
Louisy believes this fruitful partnership came about because everyone involved understood the gravity of the issues and had a common goal. “We are not always on the same page as government but we noted the need to ensure that the activities we undertake at this point are going to be sustainable, and will improve the quality of life of the people in Saint Lucia and, by extension, the entire region.”
It is hoped that other Caribbean countries will follow suit, especially in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria which highlighted the severe vulnerabilities in the Eastern Caribbean’s power grid systems. “There is a lot of interest [in solar power], especially after the hurricanes,” says Torbert. “There’s a long rebuilding time to think about solar and other renewable resources.”
At present, other small island nations such as Aruba, St. Vincent and Turks & Caicos are considering similar solar projects. Torbert says: “Saint Lucia’s solar farm project points to a better way for the whole region and a lot of folks are standing up to take notice.”