Working in between bouts of rain and wind on July 23, a team from the Virgin Islands firm aTec updates the solar panels on the roof of Robinson O’neal Primary School in Virgin Gorda in preparation for an inspection. If successful, the network will be among the first set up under a planned grid-tie system that officials hope will allow for customers across the territory to sell renewable energy back to the BVI Electricity Corporation. (Photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

Ever since the Virgin Islands government began supplying public electricity in the 1950s, the territory has been powered almost exclusively by diesel fuel even as other countries around the globe have begun transitioning to alternative energy.

In 2003, VI leaders devised a plan to catch up.

As a roadmap for the next ten years, their vision included using renewable sources of energy to satisfy the territory’s spiking demand.

“Unfortunately, issues more immediate in stabilising the territory’s electricity supply took precedence, which resulted in renewable energy being placed on the backburner,” Rosemarie Flax, the chairwoman of the BVI Electricity Corporation board of directors, said this month at a press conference.

In 2013, leaders regrouped, setting goals for the coming decade that were progressive and ambitious: generating 30 percent of the territory’s energy by renewable means by 2023; decreasing fossil fuel imports by 20 percent by 2021; reducing fossil fuel emissions on Anegada by 80 percent by 2021; and ensuring that 50 percent of consumers use some sort of renewable energy technology or energy conservation measures.

Three years later, then-Communications and Works Minister Mark Vanterpool unveiled an energy policy designed to serve as a roadmap toward those goals, proclaiming that the territory must “develop and move towards cleaner and greener energy opportunities.”

In the seven years since the 2013 targets were set, however, little tangible progress has been made towards hitting them.

With the exception of a few resorts on small islands and around 75 households equipped with some level of solar power, the territory is still generating nearly all of its electricity from fossil fuels in spite of various unsuccessful efforts to set up utility-scale solar arrays and to encourage homes and businesses to switch to alternatives.

But with a new report drafted after Hurricane Irma by an organisation affiliated with Sir Richard Branson, officials say the territory is now well on the way to implementing green solutions.

“The [2016] energy policy set the targets. What the [the new report] has now done … is essentially determine the strategy for achieving those targets,” BVIEC General Manager Leroy Abraham told the Beacon.

Though the report’s plan consists largely of rehashed projects that have previously failed — and most of the obstacles that doomed those efforts persist — Mr. Abraham and other officials say they are confident that dramatic changes to the VI’s energy system are on the horizon.

In his 2020 Budget Address in December, Premier Andrew Fahie doubled down on the territory’s renewable agenda, declaring, “With serious effort, the BVI can be 60 percent green by 2030,” though he added, “Technical details are being worked out.”

More recently, Mr. Fahie also has said that transitioning to a green economy will play a key role in reviving an economy decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, and he pointed to a contract to build a hybrid solar and battery microgrid on Anegada as a first step towards this new reality.

“I look forward to the successful completion of the [Anegada project], and to the continued greening of the BVI,” Mr. Fahie said last week in the House of Assembly.

Current situation

Currently, the great majority of the territory’s electricity is powered by diesel generators at the Henry Wilfred Smith PowerStation in Pockwood Pond.

After the installation of three 8.5 megawatt generators in 2017, the station has a total capacity of 57 megawatts — around what is needed to service the territory’s peak demand of 34 megawatts without frequent interruptions, according to BVIEC officials who have explained that the extra capacity allows for generators to be shutdown for repair or maintenance while others continue to operate.

Electricity generated in Pockwood Pond services Tortola and is transported through undersea cables to 11 other islands, including Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke, while Anegada produces its own energy through a small diesel-burning station.

A handful of private islands have installed renewable energy systems, but as these installations are not connected to the BVIEC’s grid, the utility cannot assess how much energy they contribute to the territory’s over-all output, Mr. Abraham said.

Lack of progressThe 2013 goals and the 2016 energy policy call for the territory to shed its outsize reliance on fuel, creating a diversified energy system powered by a mix of renewable and diesel generation. And in recent years, leaders have claimed repeatedly that the VI is making progress.

But alternative energy has proved elusive.

Generally, there have been two main efforts to tick off the 2013 benchmarks: the planned construction of utility-scale solar arrays, and legislative reforms designed to allow residents to produce their own electricity and sell it back to the BVIEC under a “grid-tie” system.

So far, neither effort has produced the desired results.

There are no solar farms in the territory, in part because previous attempts were crippled by a lack of suitable land and a disconnect between governmental and BVIEC priorities.

And although some residents and organisations have connected solar systems to the BVIEC’s grid, most of these systems are technically illegal, and none are earning credit from the utility for the power they produce, a chief incentive for investing in such technology.

At some upscale resorts in the VI, homeowners buy energy directly from the development and are therefore able to sell excess electricity back to the development’s grid.

For the wider public, however, high costs and a dearth of personnel qualified to connect solar panels to the grid have stunted the proliferation of residential solar in the territory.

Rebuilding stronger?

After Hurricane Irma devastated the territory in 2017, leaders doubled down on their renewable-energy promises, pledging to rebuild the power grid stronger and greener.

As part of that effort, the government enlisted the Rocky Mountain Institute, a United States-based clean energy organisation affiliated with Sir Richard, to advise on how to build from the rubble an energy system powered by renewable, resilient technologies.

RMI’s suggestions for moving forward are laid out in the Resilient National Energy Transition Strategy, a 68-page document publicised last year that takes a broad look at the VI’s energy situation and proposes a plan for reaching the 2013 goals.

The strategy was drafted after RMI evaluated the VI’s infrastructure and consulted with representatives from the BVIEC and other government agencies, and it is designed in large part to make the territory more resilient in the face of future natural disasters or other threats to power production.

Working from late 2017 to early 2018, the team forecasted the territory’s future energy demands, tried to establish alignment between stakeholders on energy goals, and reviewed previous studies in order to determine which paths forward were worth exploring.

The team then tested the performance of five hypothetical energy-generation scenarios, with RMI overseeing much of the data-gathering and analysis required of this process while Virgin Unite, the charitable arm of Sir Richard’s Virgin Group, funded the project along with“other individual partners,” according to the RNETS report.

That is not Sir Richard’s only connection to the project.

In 2014, RMI merged with the Carbon War Room, a non-governmental organisation founded by Sir Richard and other entrepreneurs in 2009 that tries to find market-based solutions to climate change.

Though many of the RNET Strategy’s recommendations centre around projects that had been previously attempted and abandoned, Mr. Abraham said the document’s publication signifies a momentous step because it brought all stakeholders together in agreement on a single strategy for reaching the renewable targets.

“What actually made that document … binding on everyone,” Mr. Abraham said, “was when this new administration, following being elected, … actually took it through the [legislative] process and said, ‘Okay, we’re committed to this strategy.’”

According to an online version of the report, it was approved by Cabinet on Feb. 6, 2019, before the new government took office, and laid before the House of Assembly on June 3, 2019, although the House never debated the document or voted on it.

Utility solar

The RNET Strategy advises moving forward with utility-scale solar arrays, but if the past is any indication, those efforts will be easier said than done.

Throughout the past decade there have been at least two proposals to construct such arrays in the VI, but high costs and difficulty acquiring the proper land have so far presented insurmountable road blocks.

In 2014, a proposal to install solar panels on various government buildings and lands yielded bids from four companies — Caribbean Energy Opportunities, Alternative Energy Systems, NRG Energy Inc., and Main Street Power Company Inc. — ranging in cost from about $23.5million to $31.6 million.

At the time, government was eyeing the Central Administration Building, H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, the senior section of Elmore Stoutt High School, Bregado Flax Educational Cenre Secondary Division in Virgin Gorda, and Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport as potential sites for the installations, Mr. Abraham said.

Virgin Islands schools have previously been considered as suitable sites for utility-scale solar projects. In 2014, four companies submitted bids ranging from almost $24 to 32 million to erect solar panels on buildings in the territory including the senior section of Elmore Stoutt High School, the Bregado Flax Educational Centre Secondary Division, and Hamilton Lavity Stoutt College. (Photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

However, the government’s plans for an airport expansion were in flux, and it was unclear how potentially leasing the airport or reorienting the runway would affect where the panels were laid, so government removed the airport from the list of potential sites, Mr. Abraham said.

“That made the project no longer viable,” he explained.

Without the airport, which had the greatest amount of flat land and was intended to house the largest cluster of panels, government scrapped the project, Mr. Abraham said.

However, he added that the RNET Strategy established abroad consensus among government and utility officials that should help eliminate some of the roadblocks that stymied the proposal.

Coxheath proposal

Four years later, in 2018, a company called Caribbean Alternative Energy was closing in on a deal with the BVIEC to setup a three-megawatt solar field on a plot of Coxheath land that CAE was leasing from a private individual.

Under the proposed agreement, CAE would own the solar grid and then sell the harvested electricity to the utility, Mr. Abraham said.

However, efforts to negotiate a workable price fell flat.

“We hadn’t arrived at an agreement in regards to the commercial elements of the project,” Mr. Abraham said.

The negotiations were difficult largely because of the territory’s limited capacity for accommodating a large-scale solar project, he explained.

Limited land space

Installing such arrays works best on sizable, flat plots of land.

Besides Anegada, which is only about 28 feet tall at its highest point, such land is rare in the VI.

Therefore, any slice of land large and level enough to accommodate solar panels is likely to be priced at a premium, Mr. Abraham said.

“With solar PV, it’s based on economies of scale,” he explained. “The best projects are ones that are in the tens of megawatts, … but unfortunately the BVI doesn’t have that sort of landmass nor the energy load for an installation of that size to be installed here.”

Though no solar panels have been erected in Cox Heath and government has not invited tenders to install them, the BVIEC is still studying how to make the project affordable and likely will tackle it again soon, Mr. Abraham said.

He added that no tender process was undertaken for the previously proposed project because the BVIEC “cannot conduct a tender process on property that it does not own in some way, shape or form.”

In the Caribbean

The issues that bedeviled the solar-array projects in this territory are not unique to the VI: Island nations across the Caribbean have experienced similar problems.

Difficulty finding investors is one of several reasons the region as a whole has lagged on its renewable energy targets, according to Penny Bowen, community and public relations specialist at the Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Efficiency.

“Member states continue to be challenged by limited access to funding and finance for investment-intensive renewable energy projects,” she explained.

Although the Caribbean accounts for only about one percent of the globe’s carbon emissions, relative to its size and population it is “the most highly carbon-intensive region” in the world, according to Dr. Ulric Trotz, deputy director and science advisor of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre.

Many islands lack the land space to house a large-scale solar array, and there is little incentive for investors to sink funds into a small project that would provide a minimal return, Dr. Trotz explained.

“Investors aren’t attracted to these small investments,” he said, adding, “We have to find a construct that allows to attract the level of investment that we think would answer the problem.” Here in the VI, one potential investor recently pulled out.

Along with preparing the RNETS report, RMI tried to broker funding for one of the projects outlined in the action plan, according to Justin Locke, a senior director and contributor to the report.

But a tentative deal involving a “philanthropist” fell through, Mr. Locke said.

Asked if this philanthropist was Sir Richard — who couldn’t be reached for comment — Mr. Locke said that he couldn’t divulge that information.

He also declined to elaborate on why the philanthropist withdrew funding.

“We’re not at liberty to communicate that,” he said.

The RNETS report also recognised the difficulty of scaling out renewable projects in the territory.

“Without proper mechanisms and new business opportunities in place to compensate BVIEC for incentivising [energy efficiency] and distributed solar … deployment, BVIEC’s ability to remain solvent and effectively provide basic services could be compromised,” the report states.

Thus, the report’s authors advised the government and the BVIEC to explore new business opportunities such as an energy-efficiency cost recovery programme as well as performance incentives and a service through which the utility would offer electric vehicles to customers.

A path forward

Despite some of the remaining obstacles that have stalled the installation of utility-scale solar, Mr. Abraham said he is confident that change is coming soon.

During a July 17 press conference, the BVIEC announced that it had awarded a contract to Power52, a United States-based solar installation company, to build an approximately $4.7 million hybrid solar and battery storage grid on Anegada.

According to Mr. Abraham, completion of this two-megawatt project would bring Anegada “very close” to its goal of reducing fossil fuel emissions by 80 percent by 2021.

The idea of an Anegada solar array is not new, however.

In 2013, then-Deputy Premier Dr. Kedrick Pickering articulated an “Anegada vision” that included the construction of a solar farm that would power a water desalination plant and provide enough water for a golf course.

Having received technical advice from Sir Richard and a team of renewable-energy experts affiliated with him, Dr. Pickering said at the time that he hoped to issue a request for proposals by the end of the year.

But it is unclear what became of that project.

About two years later, the BVIEC requested that government increase the size of the leased property at the Anegada power station to make room for a renewable energy apparatus, Ms. Flax said at the press conference.

And in the R-NETS action plan, the authors note that before they commenced their work, “previous studies [had] shown the potential to convert the existing diesel electricity system to a hybrid microgrid containing solar PV, wind, diesel and battery storage.

Grid-tie challenges

Meanwhile, residents who want to outfit their homes or businesses with renewable systems continue to face hurdles, despite recent legislation meant to facilitate the process.

Until 2015, many alternative systems were effectively banned across most of the territory. The BVIEC Ordinance 1979 allowed alternative energy technology like rooftop solar arrays only for backup power or in areas not served by the BVIEC grid.

After years of urging from Green VI and other activists, the House of Assembly amended the law in 2015 to allow residents and businesses to install personal renewable systems and sell energy back to BVIEC’s grid.

But the amendment did not include provisions regulating installation, which requires a specialised skill set.

To that end, three years later the House of Assembly passed the BVIEC Renewable Energy Regulations, which established that electricians must obtain a certain qualification from the minister of communications and works — known as a “Class E” licence —before overseeing the interconnection between home and grid.

The below graphic shows the progression of residential solar laws in the Virgin Islands, which have thus far failed at their intended purpose of allowing customers who produce excess energy to sell it back to the BVIEC. (Photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

Most renewable systems setup before these regulations took effect are neither connected to the grid nor operating legally, Mr. Abraham said.

“So BVIEC intends to start writing to these customers to appraise them of the associated penalties [which] exist under the law should they fail to regularise these systems,” Mr. Abraham said of homes outfitted with solar panels.

However, Chris Fletcher, operations manager at aTec, a local solar provider, said some of the existing systems are in fact connected to the grid.

But because they don’t meet the criteria established by the 2018 regulations, they don’t export power back into the grid, and they must comply with the new rules before they can do so, he explained.

Additionally, certain private developments, such as Oil Nut Bay and Little Dix Bay, buy energy from the utility and then “submeter” it to their residents, creating something akin to their own microgrid, Mr. Fletcher said.

The solar panels on this house above Little Dix Bay, which were rebuilt after Hurricane Irma, power the entire residence. Because the homeowner is connected to the resort’s private microgrid rather than the public electricity grid operated by BVIEC, he is able to sell excess energy he produces back to the resort, and pays zero dollars on his monthly electricity bill. Although regulations exist for BVIEC customers to set up similar systems of their own and get paid for their excess electricity, none have yet been able to take advantage of the new rules. (Photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

Because these homeowners pay the resort and not the BVIEC for their energy, they are able to sell any unused electricity they produce back to the development, he added.

Mr. Abraham did not respond to a request for further explanation about the legality of systems currently tied in to the BVIEC’s grid.

Pilot project

Recently, there also have been attempts to install solar systems that do operate in accordance with the new rules.

In partnership with the government and Green VI, the Youth Empowerment Project in Fat Hogs Bay installed solar panels in July 2019 as part of a pilot programme to study the practicality of the 2018 regulations.

Though the system was intended to feed power back into the public grid, it was turned off after failing an inspection in December, said Green VI Executive Director Charlotte McDevitt.

In the Virgin Islands, stakeholders have long struggled to construct large-scale renewable energy projects, and longstanding regulations have made it difficult for homeowners and businesses to connect solar systems to the territory’s energy grid. Officials say the tide will soon turn, but the solar panels on the Youth Empowerment Project, a pilot programme to examine the practicality of the territory’s solar rates and regulations, are currently turned off after failing an inspection in December. (Photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

Because YEP is the only VI entity that has submitted an application to the BVIEC for a grid-tie connection, the utility does not have an accurate count of how many private renewable systems exist in the territory, Mr. Abraham said in January.

Mr. Fletcher estimates that the number could be around 75.

Other obstacles

Even though the 2018 regulations cement the territory’s “full legal framework” to support residential renewable technology, several hindrances remain, including a lack of qualified technicians to make the connection between home and grid, Mr. Abraham said.

“Most of the persons I’ve spoken to, they’ve asked, ‘Who can I go to?’” he explained.

Private electricians can obtain the required Class E licence, but aTec owner Dana Miller said the process is slow: He was not awarded his provisional licence until last November, about a year after submitting his application.

While renewable energy professionals have complained about the difficulty of obtaining licences to install renewable systems, and BVIEC officials have cited this as a primary barrier to widespread residential solar in the territory, a new collegiate training programme aims to fast-track students who want to become certified solar installers. (Photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

But in January, government unveiled a programme with the potential to significantly increase the number of qualified VI electricians. At a press conference at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, Power52’s non-profit branch signed a memorandum of understanding with HLSCC agreeing to a three-year partnership to provide Virgin Islanders with solar technician training.

By the end of the course, students will be ready to sit for an exam that will allow them to become Class E certified, but classes have yet to begin.

The VI is not the only Caribbean jurisdiction that has struggled to implement its renewable vision because of a lack of qualified personnel, according to Ms. Bowen.

“An additional barrier to meeting the indicated target includes the inadequate capacity (both wo/man power and specialised skillsets) to support the task ahead, and limited access to relevant and up-to-date information and data,” she wrote.

High costs, low incentives

Besides the challenges involved in setting up residential grid-tie connections, many residents are discouraged by prohibitive costs, including a 20 percent tax on imported solar panels, said Mr. Miller, who oversaw the installation of YEP’s system and many other renewable projects in the Caribbean.

During the 2020 Budget Address in December, the premier announced that for one year his administration would lift taxes on the importation of materials for solar panels, wind turbines and hybrid vehicles — a claim he has since repeated multiple times.

Such duties, however, have yet to be lifted, and officials from Mr. Fahie’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Mr. Miller continues to pay a 20 percent tax on his imports, he said.

“It is critical that this duty be dropped to zero to even begin establishing a real solar market,” Mr. Miller said.

Tariff rates

And because of how the BVIEC structures its rate for energy generated from residential systems, residents might not see a return on their investment until 10 or 12 years after installing a solar system, Mr. Miller said, adding that such delays deter many low-income homeowners from making the investment in the first place.

Based on BVIEC’s current “feed-in-tariff,” the utility would pay 15 cents per kilowatt hour produced, but it charges 30 cents per kilowatt hour taken from the grid, Mr. Miller said.

Despite the absence of grid-tie systems in the territory, and the persistent problems facing residents interested in the arrangement, Mr. Fahie has promised that opportunities will come soon.

“By the end of 2020, instead of you paying BVIEC for electricity, it can be the other way around if you go green,” Mr. Fahie said in February in the House of Assembly.

Other options

The RNETS report also looks beyond grid-tie connections and utility-scale solar arrays.

The authors, for instance, call for a greater push for energy efficiency in households and businesses across the territory, suggesting that compact-fluorescent lightbulbs and incandescent lightbulbs be switched out for LED ones; that inefficient refrigerators be replaced; and that hotels pursue “integrated lighting, cooling and solar-water-heating strategies in a programme supported by BVIEC.”

Energy storage

They also urge the BVIEC to explore the possibility of investing in energy storage technologies, the costs of which have dropped markedly in recent years.

“It is now an accessible option and should be pursued in the BVI,” the report states.

Lastly, the report suggests that the VI study the potential of using wind turbines to produce energy.

Determining whether or not such a project is economically sound would take about a year of measuring wind speeds at various points in the territory in order to pinpoint “the optimal sites for wind-power investment,” according to the document.

Future plans

Although the ongoing efforts have yet to achieve the energy transformation that successive governments have promised, Mr. Fahie has assured the public that his administration can get the job done.

Officials hope the Anegada project will break ground by November 2021, and in late May the BVIEC invited expressions of interest for a consulting firm to assist in drafting an “Energy Transition Plan” through which the territory would “achieve 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035 and 100 percent renewable energy for all uses by 2050.”

Additionally, Mr. Fahie plans to commence a series of public awareness sessions to educate residents about how to participate in the territory’s renewable economy, and to hire an energy expert to liaise between the Premier’s Office and BVIEC, he said.

Covid-19 pandemic

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Fahie said he plans to prioritise a “green agenda,” installing solar street lighting and developing skills in the renewable sector.

“When things get back to normal after this pandemic crisis, the BVI would be powered by clean, renewable energy resources from the sun, sea and wind,” he said in April. “But we have to do the work now.”

Moving forward from the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, Premier Andrew Fahie intends to make the development of renewable energy a pillar of the Virgin Islands economy. (Photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

 


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