SAINT LU­CIA GOES SO­LAR

Con­struc­tion be­gins on Saint Lu­cia’s first so­lar power farm as the is­land em­braces the world’s fastest grow­ing al­ter­na­tive en­ergy source

The Star (St. Lucia) - Business Week - - FRONT PAGE - BY CATHER­INE MOR­RIS, STAR BUSI­NESS­WEEK COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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.”

OVER­COM­ING OB­STA­CLES

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.

LONG-TERM BEN­E­FITS

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.”

A di­ver­si­fied port­fo­lio of so­lar, wind and diesel was con­sid­ered op­ti­mal in help­ing Saint Lu­cia reach its goal of 35 per­cent re­new­able en­ergy pen­e­tra­tion by 2020.

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.”

Ex­ec­u­tive mem­bers of LUCELEC, Grupotech, and RMI-CWR in La Tour­ney, Vieux Fort

To­tal Cost to Op­er­ate Com­pared Against Re­new­able Gen­er­a­tion (Source – Rocky Moun­tain In­sti­tute – Car­bon War Room (RMI-CWR))

LUCELEC Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor Mr Trevor Louisy

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