Caribbean to drop diesel and go green

The Caribbean is going green thanks to billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson. Better known for founding Virgin Records, Branson also owns Necker Island in the Caribbean and has been working to get the group of islands to reduce fossil fuel dependency and switch to more renewable energy sources. Earlier this month, he held a three-day conference with leaders from 13 Caribbean nations including St. Lucia, Turks and Caicos, and the Cayman Islands to discuss plans to power their islands with cleaner energy.

Powering islands is very difficult and since the development of these countries, diesel-fuel has been the leading source of energy. It’s easy to transport and since boats are powered by it, islands already need to import large supplies. So, it only seemed economical to have everything powered by the same fuel.

Now that renewable energy is no longer in its infancy and real green solutions have been in practice for years, the Caribbean can start adopting new ways to power their islands. The Carbon War Room (Branson’s anti-carbon group) and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) are working with the 13 nations to complete Branson’s project dubbed, “The 10 Island Renewable Challenge.” Essentially, it’s a plan to get all the island nations to stop using diesel and go carbon-free. Branson argues it won’t only keep the air clean and reduce greenhouse gases, but will save a lot of money. Right now, relying on diesel costs the islands five times more for electricity than what it costs in the U.S.

NRG Energy is going to help start the process in Necker Island. Branson contracted the energy company to build Necker a renewable micro-grid with solar and wind energy, as well as battery backup to supply 80 percent of the island’s energy needs within three years. His eventual goal is to have it provide 100 percent of his power. Branson said of the NRG project, “What we hope to do is use Necker as a test island to show how it can be done. The only way we’re going to win this war is by creative entrepreneurship.”

There will be some struggles to fully convert to renewable energy as the sizes of the islands propose problems. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says solar developers need about 10 acres of land to put up 1 megawatt (mw) worth of solar panels. Therefore to replace the 100 mw oil-burning generators currently powering the U.S. Virgin Islands, it would take at least 1,000 acres of land or roofs, plus numerous wind turbines to provide power at night. This is not impossible, though. On St. Croix there is currently a 1,500 acre Hovensa oil storage terminal and another 1,100 acre piece of land in the process of being redeveloped.

The good news is, this is not the first project of its kind. Already, Carbon War Room and RMI have helped Aruba build a 20 turbine wind farm that powers 20 percent of the island’s needs, and is in the process of building a solar panel park. Since 2006, due to the switch, the island has reduced its fuel oil imports from 3,000 barrels per day to 1,700, saving nearly $50 million a year.

Switching to renewable energy is only going to improve the Caribbean Islands. Initial costs to build solar parks and wind turbines will be high, but once the energy source is changed, electrical costs will significantly decrease. It’s also much better for the beautiful environment, which is the Caribbean’s best attribute. Most importantly, this project can serve as model for other countries to turn to renewable sources. Branson said, “The potential for more renewable energy across the world is huge especially in places like the Caribbean, where islands offer an excellent test bed to demonstrate and scale innovative, clean energy solutions.” There’s no set date of completion for the NRG micro-grid on Necker Island, but if you and 30 of your friends want to see its construction, you can rent out the whole island for only $434,000 per week. 

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