February 20, 2012

US Virgin Islands Launches 15-Year Energy Policy to Reduce Fossil Fuel Use 60%

Targeting new, emerging technologies in locations and environments where they can make the greatest impact makes a lot of sense, and when it comes to renewable energy, island communities, cities, and states fit the bill. A clean, renewable energy movement is afoot in Hawai’i, where proponents are laying out a path to a 100% renewable energy future. A similar initiative is underway in the US Virgin Islands.

Like Hawai’i, the USVI — at great and increasing costs — depends on oil imports to produce most of its electricity, nearly 100% of it in the case of the USVI. As a result, the Caribbean island territory’s 110,000 residents pay some $0.47 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for electricity — some 4-5x more than consumers in the continental US. USVI residents also depend on foreign oil to produce freshwater via seawater desalination.

USVI Governor John P. de Jongh Jr. and his administration are trying to change all that. Working with the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Interior Dept., de Jongh has crafted a planning framework, the goal of which is to reduce fossil fuel use on the islands by 60% in the next 15 years.

The USVI depends on tourism for some 80% of its economic activity. Tourists from other climates tend to really like their a/c. That makes reducing fossil fuel usage even more of a challenge, one that requires active support and participation all along the electricity production and consumption value chain — from consumers to power producers. Not the least among them is efficiently integrating a mix of intermittent, renewable energy resources into the grid and assuring a ready supply of high-quality electrical power. Another key aspect of achieving the program’s aims is winning lasting support from the islands’ residents and businesses.

The rewards are numerous, substantial, and lasting, however. Success in the USVI would not only yield multiple, long-term benefits economically, socially, and environmentally, but it would also lead to replicating the means and methods in the continental US.

“What we’re attempting to do is integrate every large portion of renewable energy into our system,” said Karl Knight, director of USVI’s Energy Office and a board member of the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority, in an NREL press release. “Think of it as a pilot for how to integrate renewables as a large proportion of the grid.”

NREL has worked with USVI government, utilities, and public and private groups to map the island territory’s renewable energy potential in order to craft a workable plan that would result in renewable energy resources meeting its electricity needs by 2025. The plan calls for building out a mix of six different technologies. By far, the single largest source of potential fossil fuel reduction will come from another source, however — energy efficiency improvements.

The high cost of using oil to produce electricity and freshwater has put increasing strain on residents’ pocketbooks, low-income residents, and retirees, in particular. Their reduced personal income and spending has also constrained economic development.

“If the rate is going to be 40 cents a kilowatt hour or more, it shapes the type of business that’s willing to locate in the Virgin Islands,” Knight elaborated. “Our total dependence on oil for power generation in an era of expensive crude oil is having a huge impact.”

The USVI burns 2.6 million barrels of oil every year to generate electricity and desalinate seawater. Reducing this 60% by 2025 can be achieved by the following mix of renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements, according to the USVI-NREL plan:
2 percent biomass
3 percent landfill gas
3 percent solar
6 percent wind
8 percent waste-to-energy
38 percent energy efficiency

“We think 60 percent is very realistic,” Knight said. “The government established that goal in collaboration with NREL and the Island Nations global partnership. They challenged Gov. de Jongh to be aggressive in his goal-setting and he took them up on it. We established the aggressive goal because we spend so much on energy. The only thing that people in the Virgin Islands talk about is the size of their electric bills.”

Improving the energy efficiency of the USVI electric utility is the most cost-effective, “low-hanging fruit” that should be taken advantage of, explained NREL’s Karen Petersen. Other measures that “will help immensely” are as simple as turning off lights in buildings and lowering the air conditioning in tourist hotels. “We’re working to create a whole cultural shift,” Petersen said. “They’re very conservative in their use of energy because of need, but it doesn’t necessarily revolve around an environmental ethic.”

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