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In storm-battered Bahamas, solar microgrids hint at a carbon-free future

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Why hurricane-hit Caribbean islands may be the testing grounds for the future of renewable power

A group of politicians in suits attend to opening of a new solar carpark facility in the Bahamas.
Bahamian politicians at the opening of a 1-megawatt solar-powered car park in Nassau, the nation’s main island, part of a larger plan to bring renewable energy to nation.
Courtesy Rocky Mountain Institute

With climate change bringing rising seas and stronger storms, islands in the Caribbean are on the front lines of changing weather patterns, as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and, most recently, Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas have shown. These islands could also be on the front lines of combating climate change: A new effort to build and deploy solar-powered microgrids—independent, self-sufficient, renewable means of power generation—could turn the Caribbean into a testing ground for the future of green infrastructure and clean power.

“Islands have been deemed the victims of climate change,” says Justin Locke, senior director at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which is leading an effort, the Islands Energy Program, to install these new solar power systems. “But they’re really in the process of flipping the script and being solution providers, showing the world that change is possible.”

For the last six years, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) has been working in the Caribbean on clean energy solutions. The sustainability-focused nonprofit has focused efforts there because “there’s a certain set of ingredients,” says Locke.

First, these islands have an incredibly high cost of electricity: a series of small, separate land masses that typically rely on imported diesel fuel, they have energy costs three to four times those found in the United States. In addition, they have high costs for infrastructure, since it’s costly to build new transmission grids for each island, as well as plentiful solar resources. Decentralized energy systems, such as solar power, make sense both practically and financially.

“This is currently the only region where the entire renewable energy economy—solar plus batteries—is comparable or even cheaper than fossil fuels,” says Locke. “That’s why we see the Caribbean as ground zero in the global energy transition.”

Caribbean governments have been leading the charge. Currently, roughly 225 megawatts of solar capacity has been installed across rooftops, parking canopies, and large tracts of land, and solar is the fastest growing source of power for many Caribbean islands.

Building a greener future in the Bahamas

Right before Dorian, RMI and the Bahamian government, in partnership with one of the local utilities, Bahamas Power and Light, had finished installing a $2 million solar microgrid on Ragged Island, one of the nation’s smaller islands, which had its power grid knocked out by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

With the ability to store energy when the sun is out and distribute energy at night or during any disruptions, a microgrid consisting of solar panels and batteries was able to generate 97 percent of the island’s power. Everything in the new grid is built to be resistant to a Category 5 Hurricane, the strongest type of storm (the extra reinforcement only adds about 5 percent to the total cost). That means it’s green, doesn’t rely on fossil fuels or other fossil fuel infrastructure (the ports, boats, roads, and trucks that deliver fuel), and saves money. The utility expects the upgrades will pay for themselves in five years by delivering cheaper electricity.

The delay in getting Puerto Rico’s power grid online after Maria highlights the advantages of decentralized green power. The U.S. commonwealth had complicated energy distribution systems, running power from generating plants on the south of the island, through mountainous terrain, to population centers in the north. The aging grid makes it harder to bounce back from a potent storm. With distributed solar, power would come back, even before relief and repair crews arrived.

In the wake of Hurricane Dorian’s destructive path through the Bahamas in August, the nation’s government has asked RMI to help update the power system. Before the storm, they had installed a 1-megawatt solar-powered car park in Nassau, the nation’s main island, that will power the adjacent Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium. By adding charging stations to the solar-generating infrastructure, RMI hopes to create a “mutually reinforcing” green grid, driving more clean energy investment.

“Our vision is to deliver world-class renewable energy technology to meet the needs of a developing and expanding 21st century economy,” Bahamas Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis told the Caribbean Journal.

The Bahamian government aims to generate 30 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030.

A big push to bring solar to the Caribbean

In addition, RMI has prioritized work on Abaco, which was the site of incredible destruction from Dorian90 percent of all infrastructure, including the energy system, was wiped out—and plan to install a microgrid on the island. It’s one of five islands that will receive similar systems as part of a new $2 million campaign, which will replace an old diesel fuel-centered system with the next generation of energy systems. Another parallel campaign will encourage smaller, residential-sized solar installations on the Family Islands, a chain of 700 smaller Bahamian islands.

Locke says this is just the beginning. More than $100 million in near-term infrastructure upgrades and investment have been eyed in the surrounding region.