Several Caribbean nations committed on Thursday to start replacing diesel generators, the most common means of producing electricity on islands, with renewable sources like wind, solar or the earth’s heat.
|Sir Richard Branson|
The countries, which have already taken steps toward developing the new energy projects and include St. Lucia, Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands, signed the pact at a multiday meeting organized by the Carbon War Room, a nonprofit organization that Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, established to fight climate change.
As part of the effort, Mr. Branson announced on Tuesday a deal with the independent power producer NRG Energy to install solar and wind power on Necker Island, a private enclave he owns, to cover about 80 percent of the power needs. Islands throughout the Caribbean have extremely high electricity costs, and the new renewable projects can help reduce them sharply, he said.
“What we hope to do is use Necker as a test island to show how it can be done,” he said in an interview. “The only way we’re going to win this war is by creative entrepreneurship,” to make the price of clean energy cheaper than that of energy from fossil fuels.
“What we’ve learned in the renewable world is everyone wants to save the world,” said David W. Crane, NRG’s chief executive, “but very few people want to pay more for energy.”
The cluster of nations, like islands elsewhere, have lacked access to low-cost power because of the small size of the market — the British Virgin Islands’ population, for example, is around 31,000 — and a dearth of up-to-date infrastructure and equipment, said José María Figueres, a former president of Costa Rica who is now president of the Carbon War Room. On many islands, he said, a longstanding supplier has a virtual monopoly over the system.
Lynn Tabernacki, managing director of renewable and clean energy programs at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, said that persuading banks to lend money for energy projects had been a challenge because the projects were often too small or they lacked standardized contracts and regulations. She has been advising developers and government officials to help clear those hurdles.
The effort at the Carbon War Room — which aims to sign up 10 islands looking to move away from diesel without turning to natural gas — started with Aruba.
There, a wind farm is up and running, and more are on the way. There are also plans for solar arrays and experimental storage systems involving underwater compressed air and flywheels, said Peter Lilienthal, chief executive of Homer Energy, a technical adviser to the Caribbean program.
The British Virgin Islands is looking into using waste-to-energy plants and has already started changing streetlights to more efficient LEDs. It has also created a climate change policy and is establishing an environmental trust fund that would be financed by fees or taxes collected from residents and visitors, said Kedrick D. Pickering, deputy premier.
St. Lucia has been testing the use of solar on various buildings, but it also plans to explore wind and geothermal development, said James Fletcher, minister for sustainable development and energy.
“With our economy, with the level of unemployment that we have, if you can create some more green jobs, if you can reduce some of the expenditures that we’re seeing right now, particularly on oil, it would increase the island’s economic competitiveness,” he said,
The Necker Island project still needs the approval of regulators in the British Virgin Islands, but it seeks to establish a microgrid made up of solar, wind and battery technologies. It is also to include energy-efficiency and control software to help reduce overall energy use and balance supply and demand on the grid.
Mr. Crane said NRG would pursue similar projects throughout the Caribbean and, eventually, in the United States once the costs came down.
Mr. Lilienthal said that creating microgrids fueled by renewable energy is still too expensive for most of the United States, but that it made sense for the Caribbean and remote places like Alaska.
“There’s tens of thousands of islands burning diesel fuel that’s really destroying their economies because it’s so expensive,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”