How the storm-ravaged Bahamas can be a model for resilient energy

In 2017, Hurricane Irma crashed into Ragged Island at the southern end of the Bahamas. The Category 5 storm destroyed the small island and devastated its 100 residents. This was just one of multiple Category 4 and 5 hurricanes that have hit the Bahamas over the past seven years, leaving thousands homeless, destroying power grids and devastating the tourism-based economy.

One of those hurricanes was the Dorian of 2019, the largest and most devastating storm to hit the Bahamas. It killed dozens of people, left nearly 30,000 homeless and / or jobless, and caused $ 3.4 billion in damage, or a quarter of the Bahamas’ GDP. He also led CBS 60 minutes organize a special on resilient energy systems being built in the Bahamas in response to these growing storms.

The former Prime Minister of the Bahamas, the Honorable Hubert Minnis, was hoping for the transformation of Ragged Island in the wake of Irma. He said 60 minutes“After Ragged Island was devastated, I made a statement: Let’s show the world what can be done. We can be small, but we can lead the world by example.”

Through this statement, partnering with Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) to design, develop and install a solar microgrid. A microgrid is a small grid that generates electricity for local consumption and can disconnect from the main grid so that the lights can stay on when the core grid is down. The 390 kW Ragged Island microgrid provides renewable and resilient energy to every home on the island.

The Bahamas is made up of nearly 700 islands, of which around 30 are populated. Many of the smaller “Family” islands, as they are called, are now following Ragged Island’s lead. This week, CBS performed the Bahamas special again. And in just over two years, the Bahamas have become a model, demonstrating how other islands can become more resilient and reduce generation costs.

Building on the success of the Ragged Island microgrid, the Bahamas now have renewable microgrids on Highbourne Cay, Chub Cay and Over Yonder Cay, totaling nearly 6.5 megawatts of renewable energy – enough to power 300 Caribbean homes. When combined with installations on the roofs of homes, businesses and government buildings, renewable energy now accounts for 8% of generation in the Bahamas. Although it is far from the national target of 30 percent by 2030, Christopher Burgess, project director for the RMI Islands program, believes the Bahamas will achieve their goal. “The solar economy versus diesel is now closed, solar has won and it’s just a matter of implementation, the Bahamas will get there,” he says.

And the appeal of solar is growing at the same rate as the price of diesel, the islands’ main fuel for electricity. “The supply chain, global inflation and the invasion of Ukraine have caused diesel prices to skyrocket. It has actually increased 60 percent since the beginning of the year, “says Burgess.” This really illuminated what a big step the Ragged Island microgrid has been and how it can be a model not only for the rest of the Bahamas, but also for the rest of the Caribbean “.

The cost of electrifying islands

Using diesel, power generation on the Family Islands in the Bahamas is extremely expensive. “Islands have very small and antiquated power systems. That’s 30 cents a gallon just to ship the fuel, plus $ 6 a gallon to buy it, “says Burgess. And since BPL subsidizes the price of electricity on the Family Islands,”[the utility] he loses money on all those islands. There is absolutely no profit. ”

Renewable microgrids help BPL reduce subsidy and its losses. “This isn’t saving customers’ money directly on their bills right now. And that won’t happen until you hit a tipping point, ”Burgess explains. “So this is the beginning of the transition to renewable energy, which will ultimately save utility and customers money.”

Beyond the Bahamas

This wave of renewable energy is very exciting for Scott Pinder, who grew up in the Bahamas in the capital Nassau on the island of New Providence. While not considered a family island, it does remember frequent power outages. “Not a week went by without some sort of break, especially if there was some kind of time going by,” he says. “Appliances would be damaged and sometimes they would have to take us out of school because without generators, even the ceiling fans would not work and it would be too hot.”

Pinder, a civil engineer, is now RMI’s island coordinator for the Bahamas. He is currently working on numerous projects in Abaco, an island where he spent many summers as a child. These include two microgrids, one on a government complex and medical clinic in Marsh Harbor and one on a medical clinic in Coopers Town, as well as installing solar power on three primary schools.

“BPL is now planning solar systems plus battery for critical sections of Abaco to reduce generation costs and provide the ability to decouple from the grid to keep critical segments online, such as hurricane shelters, clinics and government services during and after hurricanes. ”Says Pinder.

Burlington Strachan, chief operating officer of BPL and also a member of RMI’s Energy Transition Academy, says BPL is investing in microgrids not only to help the Bahamas meet the national renewable energy target, but also to improve energy security and reduce the costs of producing electricity in the country.

The two microgrids in Marsh Harbor and Coopers Town will provide a total of 3 MW of solar power and over 4 MW / hour of battery storage, saving BPL $ 1 million annually, while providing significant energy resilience and emergency power. to health clinics and critical government facilities. And the three school systems will reduce schools’ energy costs by minimizing interruptions to school activities due to power outages. Additionally, one of the schools will have a system large enough to be used as a community hurricane shelter.

Solar under storm

David Gumbs is no stranger to hurricanes. Gumbs, a principal in RMI’s Global South program, grew up and still lives on the Caribbean island of Anguilla.

In 2017 he was huddled in his bathroom hoping to survive Hurricane Irma. At the time, Gumbs was also the CEO of the Anguilla Electricity Company and had to figure out how to restore electricity on the devastated island. “For the past 20 years, I have seen Category 2 and 3 hurricanes every two or three years. So, we’d be without electricity for a week, “he says.” But a Category 5 hurricane like Irma, which happens every 10 to 20 years, can leave us without electricity for at least 100 days. ”

Unfortunately, Category 5 hurricanes are becoming more frequent. That’s why Gumbs agrees that the Ragged Island microgrid could be a model for the rest of the Caribbean. Although Ragged Island is small, its previous generation system was typical of an island grid, with a centralized generation plant and distribution system going in different directions across the island. “Now with the microgrid, Ragged Island is more resilient because you have two power systems, so it allows you to power at least part of the grid in the event of a hurricane,” he says. “Although the distances are not the same on the larger islands, the concept is the same. And other islands can follow that trail ”.

However, even solar panels can be destroyed by hurricane force winds. That’s why the systems in the Bahamas were built to withstand the high winds, heavy rain and prolonged flooding of Category 5 hurricanes. Following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, RMI sent teams to the Caribbean to assess root failures. solar photovoltaic systems and the key success factors of surviving systems. The teams then developed a list of recommendations for increasing the resilience of the system. These recommendations have become a predefined set of best practices in the Caribbean. The Ragged Island microgrid was the first to be designed according to those standards.

The recommendations include both technical and political approaches. The solar panels are now bolted to the frame instead of using clamps to prevent them from lifting in strong winds, the foundations are reinforced with double struts, and the systems are reviewed by structural engineers. And policy recommendations are also applied. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States has adopted best practices from RMI’s work in its Building Code. And the Caribbean Development Bank uses the recommendations as part of its underwriting process for solar project financing.

According to Pinder, “Ragged Island has been the test bed for the design and installation of microgrids to the standards that we hope will withstand a Category 5 storm. There have been lessons learned and we are now looking to do more in the country. In fact, all microgrids installed since then have been built to those standards.

Accelerate the energy transition

These renewable energy systems are providing more than just resilience. “The people of the Bahamas have been suffering from poor service and exorbitant prices for many years,” says Pinder. “These projects not only provide us with reliable electricity, but by feeding renewable energy back into the grid, they will help stabilize and lower the price of our electricity.”

“Ragged Island was just the beginning,” says Strachan. “With the right internal and external support, combined with new and improving technology, the energy landscape and future of our multi-island nation can truly change for the better in many ways.”

And that journey can extend to the rest of the Caribbean and beyond.

Courtesy of © 2021 Rocky Mountain Institute. Published with permission. Originally published on RMI Outlet.


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