How to power a resilient future across the Caribbean

Renewable resources such as solar and wind power are in plentiful supply across the region Image: B Wills on Pixabay

Kaitlyn Bunker
Principal, Island Team, Rocky Mountain Institute
Richenda Van Leeuwen
Managing Director, African Energy Program, Empowering Clean Economies, Islands Energy Program, Rocky Mountain Institute
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  • Parts of the Caribbean are still rebuilding after the recent hurricanes, and the region as a whole is grappling with COVID-19.
  • This presents an opportunity to improve the sustainability and resilience of the region's energy systems.
  • Distributed energy resources can be the key to achieving this. Here's how.

This blog is part of the ‘Seizing the moment’ series by the Energy Access workstream of the Global Future Council on Energy. In this series, we explore how countries and regions are using the window of opportunity that has opened through the COVID-19 pandemic to recover better with sustainable energy.

Much of the Caribbean region is preparing for the hurricane season already underway, seeking to minimize the resulting damage and likely power outages. Some countries, such as The Bahamas, are still rebuilding large parts of their energy infrastructure due to prior hurricane damage, while other parts of the Caribbean continue to face their own challenges with the provision of basic electrification. All are still grappling with the effects of COVID-19.

However, the current context offers a unique window of opportunity to ‘build back better’ in the Caribbean, by promoting distributed energy resources (DERs) in regional stimulus efforts to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In a new report, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) has outlined the role that stimulus efforts can play in accelerating progress in implementing DER solutions, and the other significant benefits that these energy resources can bring. Outlined are tangible actions to address the high unemployment rates caused by the pandemic, and how new jobs can be catalyzed in the short term. Centering stimulus efforts on energy sector opportunities by using local renewable resources such as solar PV, wind and geothermal, as well as adopting energy-efficiency measures and integrating electric vehicles, can lead to near-term job opportunities with lasting impacts. Specific opportunities exist to create immediate and diverse jobs within the renewable energy sector as well as indirectly in associated industries. The types of jobs include, but are not limited to: project managers, electricians, civil engineers, electrical and mechanical engineers, plumbers, machinists, heavy equipment operators, technicians, metal workers, general construction workers, designers and salespeople.

In addition to those mentioned in the report are the community-level jobs that can be provided through investing in initial energy access for those communities that do not yet enjoy reliable electricity. This is especially important today in communities that have suffered unduly from high job losses resulting from the pandemic. While most Caribbean countries have reached full electricity access, or have reached more than 90% electrification, some communities remain without access to electricity, particularly those located in remote or rural areas, and in some cases with predominantly indigenous populations.

Haiti, with a population of more than 11 million people, remains the country in the Western Hemisphere with the lowest access to electricity. In urban areas about 79% of Haitian households have access to electricity, yet rural electrification rates have decreased. The latest statistics from the World Bank show a rate of less than 5% access, and fewer have access to reliable and stable power. The grid infrastructure is inefficient and overwhelmed and, like other countries in the region, Haiti is heavily dependent on imported fuel for power generation.

Yet the general move in the Caribbean towards more distributed energy resources (DERs) is also highly applicable in the Haitian context. Off-grid energy providers such as Earthspark International are active in Haiti and are supporting new access to electricity through building distributed renewable energy microgrids. This includes a strong focus on promoting gender equity via 'feminist electrification', although recent political challenges combined with myriad natural disasters have slowed progress. Stimulus funds aligned to support more rapid progress on electrification in Haiti will be critical to helping it address its many power needs and support progress across many of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 7, which aims to make clean, affordable energy available to all.

Several other Caribbean countries that still are not fully electrified include Belize, with an electrification rate of 99% and Guyana, which has a current electrification rate of 91%. In both countries, the DERs model is being employed as a way to reach those remaining communities without electricity access. Targeted stimuli can help catalyze more rapid electrification in such underserved communities, when combined with the utilization of advanced integrated energy-planning tools like GIS, as recommended by Sustainable Energy for All.

Electricity access by %age of population in selected Caribbean countries, 1990-2018
Electricity access by %age of population in selected Caribbean countries, 1990-2018 Image: World Bank

In Belize, a minigrid running almost completely on clean DERs is located in the largely farming community of La Gracia. Its community solar system provides power to about 45 households and helps to power the local school. Residents interviewed by RMI about the benefits of the electricity noted the improved power to households, school, and the lower monthly fuel costs for businesses. Such systems often enhance local business by facilitating an expanded range of services, such as the addition of refrigeration. They can also help enhance agricultural productivity by reducing crop spoilage and supporting irrigation, either by replacing fossil fuels, or enabling irrigation of previously rain-fed crops.

While the systems for initial electrification are often standalone solar installations or small scale mini/microgrids as in La Gracia, in recent years Caribbean leaders have spearheaded a transition to distributed local energy resources that are connected to the electricity grid at various locations. In part this has been a way to transition beyond electricity systems that have relied heavily on imported fossil fuel for power generation, to support lower electricity costs. Governments are also using their own indigenous resources as a more affordable option over the long term than continued large-scale imports of fossil fuels, as solar and battery-powered microgrids do not depend on fuel deliveries that can be disrupted during an earthquake or a hurricane. Such systems can be grid-tied but uncoupled during crises to provide 'islands of power' during hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Many best practices leading to more resilient deployment of renewable energy systems that can withstand hurricanes – as outlined in a recent RMI report, Solar Under Storm, that covers both grid-tied and rooftop solar – are relevant no matter where in the Caribbean one resides. These best practices are widely applicable everywhere in the world where renewable energy solutions are being deployed in countries and communities that suffer from high wind events.

Emphasizing clean DERs within stimulus efforts also supports the diversification of local economies by focusing on sectors beyond the Caribbean’s core economic area of tourism, including the agricultural sector. Transitioning to renewable energy can help improve farmers’ yields, minimize crop wastage through enhanced access to refrigeration in newly electrified communities, increase profitability, enhance increased business expansion, create new jobs, and in some cases enable expansion to new markets. In Haiti, which in 2018 imported food valued at $902 million, the adoption of DERs for power provision can support much needed mechanization of the agricultural sector to help enhance agricultural productivity, as well as enabling new business opportunities in newly electrified communities.

The Caribbean region has been deeply affected by the pandemic and is now tasked with adapting to new ways of doing business in a rapid manner. Targeting stimulus funds for rapid and sustained investment in distributed renewable energy solutions is therefore urgently needed both to complete the work to bring full energy access to the region, to help create new job opportunities in the short-term, and to enhance longer term economic opportunity and resilience, not only in the power sector, but across the economy as a whole.

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