Caribbean islands are turning to solar to keep the lights on as the hurricanes get stronger



CNN

When Hurricane Fiona slammed into Puerto Rico in September, it triggered an almost island-wide blackout as high winds from the storm blasted the fragile power grid.

Carlos Ramos spoke to CNN as he helped his friends clean up their flood-damaged beach house in Salinas. Ramos said most of his neighbors in Aguas Buenas, in the island’s central mountain range, were among those who lost power in the hurricane.

But the house of Ramos retained power.

Frustrated by the rising cost of electricity and the ever-looming threat of power outages on the storm-hit island, the 59-year-old retired bank clerk installed solar panels in his home.

“All my neighbors were saying I was crazy for getting solar panels,” he told CNN. “Now they are sitting in the dark. It was the best investment.”

World leaders are in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, this week for the United Nations COP27 climate summit, where they are negotiating solutions to the climate crisis and bargaining over how to help developing nations transition to clean energy and pay for extreme weather disasters.

But as they do, millions of people are already dealing with the impacts.

Among the regions that have long withstood these devastating impacts are the Caribbean islands, where sea levels are rising and hurricanes are becoming more intense.

But Caribbean leaders, residents and even utility companies say they are tired of waiting for world leaders to bail them out. Experts and residents tell CNN that the islands are now enthusiastically adapting on their own through grants, phasing out fossil fuels and promoting clean energy across the region, to better prepare them for the worsening impacts of the climate crisis.

“We don’t have the luxury of sitting around waiting for the planet to reach an agreement,” Racquel Moses, CEO of the Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator, told CNN. “We waited and tried to do our best with the resources we have. But we don’t see enough momentum and we continue to take losses.”

Last year, the Bahamas successfully deployed a solar-powered microgrid that supplies renewable energy to every home on Ragged Island, a small island community devastated by Hurricane Irma. Category 5 swept across the Caribbean in 2017, displacing thousands and leveling power grids.

Ragged Island’s electrical project was designed so that the next time a storm hits and knocks down the power system, the 390-kilowatt microgrid can disconnect from the mains and keep the lights on for the residents.

The success of that project has created a ripple effect throughout the Bahamas, said David Gumbs, director of the Islands Energy Program at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit group that is working to scale up clean energy programs for reduce global emissions. The country has now rolled out even more microgrids to other islands, totaling nearly 6.5 megawatts of renewable energy across the country, which is enough to power about 300 Caribbean homes.

“The project is definitely a success,” Gumbs told CNN. “We are in the transition phase. There are now a number of islands that are champions of great initiatives.

Moses said 2017’s back-to-back hurricanes — first Irma, then Maria — were the turning point for the Caribbean, where residents and government leaders said they could no longer afford to wait and “be mere targets, hoping” that rich countries would save them from the climate crisis or stop its acceleration.

“We are already under threat,” Moses said. “You just saw Hurricane Fiona and what she did, not only to the Caribbean islands, but also to the United States – the most powerful economy on the planet – yet responding to billions of dollars in damages will be problematic.”

The Caribbean islands contribute minimally to the climate crisis — less than 2 percent of planet-warming emissions, Moses said — yet they’re on the front lines when it comes to climate disasters.

And in addition to flooding, fallen trees, bad roads and damaged infrastructure, rising utility prices have become unsustainable, Gumbs said.

“When you pay four times as much for electricity and your income is four times less than the median income in the United States, it just creates such an inconvenience for people,” he said. “And those are the people we fear falling behind.”

Gumbs experienced the wrath of Irma himself on his home island of Anguilla, where he was the CEO of the island’s utility company at the time. Now with RMI, he has overseen this energy transition in the Caribbean region, redesigning the electricity grid to be fossil-free and climate-resilient.

“There’s a huge opportunity,” Gumbs said. “We’d like it to happen on a large scale, to turn the whole system into renewable energy tomorrow, but there are some hurdles to doing that.”

At COP27, money is the biggest debate. Developing nations are putting increased pressure on the world’s wealthiest countries to help them recover from climate disasters. The negotiators will also discuss the current pledge of climate finance to help developing countries adapt to climate change and the clean energy transition – a $100 billion a year pledge that rich countries have yet to maintain.

A woman walks down a street in Saint-Martin on September 11, 2017, after Hurricane Irma.

But even then, Gumbs said it’s hard for low-income countries to “tap” into those funds: “It just takes years to get the money,” he said. “It’s always a problem, but there are different ways to overcome it.”

On Tuesday, RMI and investment fund Lion’s Head Global Partners launched a new Caribbean Climate-Smart Fund to accelerate the shift to clean energy. The initiative intends to expand the islands’ access to resilient clean energy, which proponents say would help Caribbean nations not only adapt to a warmer future but also save millions each year in utility costs.

Gumbs said the fund will include more than $150 million in philanthropic money and be spread across more than 20 Caribbean islands.

Trees damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico in September 2017.

Charlin Bodley, manager of the global south for RMI, said rich countries need to look beyond reducing their climate emissions – which she says is the “easy part” – and consider how they will support small island nations suffering the consequences of their use of fossil fuels.

“There is a level of support that is needed,” Bodley, who lives in St. Lucia, told CNN. “It’s really, at this point, a matter of survival for the Caribbean.”

And as Caribbean islands see clean energy as a solution to weathering disasters but also saving on electricity costs, Moses said momentum and political interest across the region is growing and island governments they turn to groups like RMI and other nonprofits for grants to further their clean energy goals.

But Gumbs said they still need more clean energy programs, educational resources for residents, as well as access to funding from grant agencies. For him the solutions are ready. He said the Caribbean could be just the model that would convince both rich nations and the private sector to invest in solutions through climate finance.

“Climate smart funds provide a vehicle to eliminate much of the problem,” Gumbs said. “It’s important to bring people in with these solutions and we’re going to do that in a way that’s sensitive to the local environment.”

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