Clean Sea: A Sustainable and Resilient Energy Opportunity for Islands

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on October 31, 2017
Vicky Harris
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Last week, the BBC reported, “Entrepreneur Elon Musk has followed through on his plan to boost power resources in Puerto Rico after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria.” His plan, as highlighted in our latest blog post, Design for the Utility of the Future, was to ship hundreds of solar panels and batteries to Puerto Rico to help people recover faster from the collapse of the island’s power system caused by Hurricane Maria and to build a new system from the ground up. Tesla, alongside other energy companies, is negotiating with the local government on how to best restore power to the island.

After a devastating storm season that left several islands in the dark, an opportunity exists to create a resilient and clean energy system that spans the entire Caribbean, not just Puerto Rico. A recent article from Greentech Media poignantly stated, “The Caribbean sits at an intersection of need and opportunity,” adding that the time to take action is now. This intersection refers to the urgency to restore power, the political will to explore new opportunities, and the pressure from citizens who pay high electrical bills for dirty energy that is unreliable.

Blessed with plenty of sun, wind, and water, Caribbean islands are looking to harness their own power after a summer of storms.

Microgrids on the Horizon?

What made the power grids of the Caribbean islands vulnerable to storms is exactly what makes them a perfect ground for innovation. Remote islands typically get their electricity from imported fossil fuels, which goes into a closed grid system, usually managed by a single utility because of economies of scale. This, in turn, results in some of the highest electricity prices in the world.

The small size of the Caribbean islands and their vulnerability to storms make them perfect candidates for renewable energy supported by a system of microgrids, which can operate either in conjunction with or autonomously from the main power grid. As the Greentech Media article pointed out, “Within the past six to eight months, enabling technologies—large-scale batteries, solar panels, energy monitoring and control software—have advanced technologically and fallen in price, making renewables-powered microgrids a feasible, competitive solution.”

Even before the summer of storms, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) foresaw the prominent role that microgrids could play in the future of island electricity delivery by providing “an independent energy supply and the opportunity to escape reliance on imported fuel.” In their 2Q 2017 Frontier Power Market Outlook report, BNEF analysts pointed out, “Microgrids are on the horizon as island communities provide the perfect testing ground for these systems.” The report expanded on the fact that “Energy storage companies such as Tesla, Fluidic Energy, and Electro Power Systems continued to deploy micro-grid systems in 1Q 2017. For Tesla, island microgrids represent 36% of the company’s total power storage capacity deployed to date.”

The battery storage capacity Tesla has installed on island microgrids around the world before the hurricanes hit the Caribbean was 63MWh, according to the BNEF report. These batteries are designed to store power from sunlight for use at night and on cloudy days. A microgrid that incorporates wind and solar at a larger scale is a perfect complement to a system of solar panels and batteries at the edge of the grid, which is what microgrids are all about.

Technological improvements in hydrogen production, such as Hydrogen 2.0, can take island microgrids one step further by making use of the Caribbean’s abundance of seawater to provide a clean, onsite source of power that is available any time of day or in any weather condition 24/7.

Pacing Energy Innovation to Make it Last

Clean energy microgrids are rapidly becoming a reality through governments and industry working together to think outside the box. This trend is especially beneficial for remote islands that are reliant on imported fossil fuels and suffer from high energy costs, which affect the prices of subsequent commodities and services. CleanTechnica makes a compelling case for “widespread microgrid deployment on islands.” The article quotes Mark Crowdis, president of renewable energy for GBX Associates LLC, “Caribbean Islands can pay anywhere from 36 to 66 cents for kilowatt/hour, affecting everything from electricity prices to the cost of food on the island.” For comparison, the average U.S. household pays 13.19 cents per kWh according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In the past, the most efficient way to power island grids was to import fossil fuels and have a single provider of electricity. However, recent advances in power delivery and storage technology—especially in clean, distributed energy generation—are changing the game for millions of island citizens. Happily, they are on their way to show the rest of the world how to gain cheaper, cleaner, and more resilient power grids.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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