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Can Small Islands Show the World How To Fight Climate Change?

Island populations may bear the brunt of climate change more than other populations, so it should be no surprise that some islands have ramped up efforts to convert to non-fossil fuel energy sources. In the brief span of five years, the U.S. Virgin Islands have cut their oil consumption by 20 percent.

St. Croix is set produce 25 percent of its power from wind and solar by late-2014. Its quick progress may indicate that converting to a low-carbon economy across the developed world may be easier than many suppose. Energy prices in the U.S. Virgin Islands (V.I.) are high, but they are no higher than what energy prices should be elsewhere if external costs of burning fossil fuels are factored in, such as pollution and climate change.

First, it must be noted that the Virgin Islands economy had already been devastated partly due to the volatility of the fossil fuel market. In 2012 the islands’ largest employer, the Hovensa oil refinery, closed up shop, taking away over 2,000 jobs. It left behind little more than a huge scar on the south shore of St. Croix — acres of unused refinery towers now stand in an area that once had been a pristine mangrove shoreline.

In December 2013, the V. I. Energy Office Director Karl Knight stated that the islands’ utility was burning 11 percent less fossil fuel than it was just three years ago. This resulted from energy efficiency measures and the beginning of the renewable energy onslaught. In 2014, grid-tied renewable energy projects for residential and commercial customers reached 5 MW on St. Croix and 10 MW in the St. Thomas/St.John District. The utility will soon be purchasing power from a 4-MW solar installation on St. Croix; Toshiba is building the project, which was recently purchased by NRG Energy. It is expected to be online in early November. 

These projects did not happen without the commitment of island residents and its government, nor did they happen overnight.

In 2007, the Energy Office and V.I. Public Services Commission agreed to establish a net metering program. Net metering allows a utility customer to sell excess energy he or she produces back to the utility. The program did not take off immediately, with only a handful customers took advantage of it throughl 2010. Then the high-cost of oil kicked in permanently, a green project (EDIN) commenced, and $32 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funds (commonly referred to as stimulus funds) came to the islands.

The V.I. government, U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Department of the Interior established the EDIN project, which set the goal of reducing fossil fuel consumption 60 percent by the year 2025. The project put the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in position to give technical assistance to the islands and help planning efforts. The Virgin Islands’ government was in charge of implementing changes, and the stimulus funds allowed it to do so.

Project leaders developed an energy roadmap that covered several areas, including community education, and most programs were very successful. However a major failure of the program was transportation. The island’s mass transportation system (bus system) remains poor, and it failed to initiatie plans for programs like carpooling. A small amount of rebate money was allocated to residents that bought efficient vehicles, but it only covered the purchase of about 25 vehicles. The Energy Office plans to focus on transportation solutions in the upcoming year utilizing information from the NREL studies.

Some projects were established quickly, such as a $3 million, 448-kW solar array installed at the St. Thomas airport. A $50,000 grant program was set up for non-profit institutes intended for renewable energy or energy efficiency projects. Fifty non-profits benefited from the program, such as a church that installed solar panels and day-care center that established energy-efficient air conditioning and a solar water heater.

The Energy Office and the Department of Labor also initiated a solar installer training program. Residents who installed solar water heaters were given a rebate covering 50 percent of the costs. These projects kick-started the commercial market for renewable energy. They showed residents that renewable energy works.

The utility, the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA), was able to install LED streetlights, and the Public Works Department installed LED traffic lights and solar lights on the boardwalk in St. Croix's Christiansted.

NREL's technical guidance enabled utility-scale solar projects like the 4-MW project on St. Croix, and a similar installation has already broken ground on St. Thomas. In total, the utility has signed agreements to purchase 18 MW of solar power. NREL also directed a wind study project, which found several feasible wind project sites, and the government will allow developers to bid for them in the near future.

Since these projects, the net metering program has taken off. The program set a 5-MW limit on St. Croix and 10 MW on the district of St. John/St. Thomas. These limits were put in place because grid stability was and still is a concern, and have already been reached, which has government officials scrambling.

The territorial legislature this summer enacted a feed-in-tariff program to replace net metering, but it doesn’t take care of grid stability concerns. The government is currently considering microgrids and energy storage facility proposals, but action will be much more difficult without stimulus money and NREL's guidance. The Virgin Islands government is deeply in debt, much of it because of its own energy costs, and it will have few resources to devote to projects. But this won’t stop residents and businesses who see the economic advantage of alternative energy.

The utility has also undertaken additional cost-cutting measures including waste heat recovery boilers and reverse osmosis systems to desalinate water. Last year it signed an agreement to enable it to convert from burning oil to burning propane. Although, this switch little pleases residents concerned about CO2 emissions and climate change, it may bring down energy costs.  Other efforts on the utility’s part include studying the possibility of grid interconnection with Puerto Rico and signing an agreement with a biogas company that proposes to produce 7 MW of power through King Grass.

Major setbacks and delays have occurred throughout this transition, and much work still remains to be done. Anyone who has spent time on Caribbean islands knows that the infrastructure is not on par with the infrastructure in most of the developed world. But much has been accomplished in this small territory, and it has overcome many barriers. These accomplishments may be a lesson for politicians in other parts of the world.

The Vi.I transformation over the past five years is profound. It shows that a lot can be done in a short time when the problem gets the focus it deserves. The goal the islands set — cutting fossil fuel 60 percent by the year 2025 — once appeared huge. Now many are saying: “We can do that. We can even do more.” 

Lead image: Palm tree sun via Shutterstock

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