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US Export-Import Bank Helping To Bring Solar Power To the Caribbean

A $6.4 million Ex-Im Bank loan guarantee for the export of solar modules from West Coast-based SolarWorld Americas to Williams Industries Inc.-Williams EverGREEN Ltd. of St. Thomas, Barbados will establish the largest rooftop solar system south of Puerto Rico while supporting jobs at three U.S. companies.

The 10-year PNC Bank loan and its guarantor Ex-Im allowed Williams Industries-Williams EverGREEN Ltd to install 1.4 megawatts of on-site solar power on 10 manufacturing, warehouse and retail sites within the Williams Group portfolio.  Nine of the 10 sites are already online, says Andre Gibson, a director for Williams EverGREEN Ltd., providing the company a net revenue gain and displacing approximately 20% of its fossil fuel-driven generation.

In addition to panels from SolarWorld Americas, a subsidiary of SolarWorld AG, the 1.4 MW system features engineering services from CH2M HILL of Colorado, and solar-system racking from Schletter Inc. US.  Although ExIm and SolarWorld spokespersons said it is difficult to assess how many U.S. jobs the deal would generate, they agreed it certainly supports all of the three firms’ existing workers in California, Oregon and Arizona.

“The Caribbean is a real potential market.  Whenever you have all of your generation with imported fuel, you’re really talking about a significantly high cost, of 30-40 cents/kwh, and with a lot of sunshine, solar is a natural fit,” says Raju Yenamandra, vice president of sales and business development for SolarWorld.  He added that local financing, however, can be problematic, and indeed the loan guarantee rates from ExIm Bank were more attractive than local rates in Barbados. ExIm bank spokesman Steve Horning said the bank wants to use the Barbados project “as a model to do projects throughout the Caribbean.”

Long a leader in solar thermal heating, with two of five Barbadian households sporting a solar heater, Barbados has demonstrated a political will to become the greenest energy user in the region over the next 15-20 years, says Gibson.  “The utility is buying the power we generate at 1.8 times the fuel charge. We started bringing sites online since June.  In August, with 5 plants, we were paying the utility 53 Barbados cents/kwh (US$0.26/kwh), and they would be paying us 74 cents/kwh (US$0.37/kwh) per site,” for a net gain of 21 cents/kwh (US$0.10) per site, Gibson said.

That tariff, known as the Renewable Energy Rider, officially ended on June 30, but Barbados Power & Light agreed to honor it until a replacement feed-in tariff (FIT) is established, probably by year-end. “Rumors are that the [fuel charge] multiple will go down at the end of the year because fuel is up by about 25%,” he said.

In parallel, however, the Barbadian Government is already changing legislation to allow it to issue Independent Power Producer licenses for large commercial installations, and will establish a second FIT for those.  Gibson said Williams EverGREEN aims to build a 10-15 MW ground-mounted plant with one of those licenses.  

Williams Industries, established in 1972, controls 13 wholly owned and 17 joint venture companies in Barbados, St. Lucia and other Caribbean islands.  The companies are active in manufacturing, electrical engineering, construction, agriculture, tourism waste recycling, real estate development, and water desalination.

Barbados accounted for approximately $3.8 million of the Bank’s worldwide credit exposure as of the end of FY 2011.  The Bank’s Environmental Export Program offers enhancements such as repayment terms of up to 18 years for eligible U.S. exports to renewable energy and water-related projects.

Other large Caribbean solar projects include AES Ilumina’s 24-MW solar facility that was announced late last year for Guayama in southern Puerto Rico.

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Marsha W. Johnston is a freelance writer based in the DC area, specializing in all areas of sustainable development, from renewable energy to agriculture and wildlife conservation.

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