Climate-change driven heat, hurricanes and wildfires are proving to be formidable enemies of the electric grid. A recent study from Climate Central found that more than 80% of major power outages are weather-related and that the last decade experienced an 80% increase in outages over the previous decade.
In the Caribbean, hurricanes and storms are the biggest weather threat. That’s why clean energy non-profit RMI has been hard at work in the region demonstrating the power of microgrids.
Since 2014, RMI has been active in 20 Caribbean jurisdictions and has supported more than two dozen solar and microgrid projects, according to Christopher Burgess, director of projects for the RMI Islands Energy Program. Fifteen of the projects are solar and storage microgrids.
Hurricanes on the islands have spurred new thinking about energy systems. After a hurricane causes the grid to go down, it can take months or years to restore service. While that’s happening, critical facilities – water treatment plants, water pumping stations, hospitals, police stations and cell towers – need power right away.
“What's happening in the islands where we're active is that those critical facilities are investing in solar and batteries. The microgrids are providing that critical power that they need,” Burgess said.
How to create a robust island microgrid market
To accelerate microgrid deployment in the Caribbean, RMI has been working to create a commercial market by applying philanthropic grant dollars to project development and introducing the projects to governments and utilities.
“We’re trying to create a robust market like the one that is popping up here in the United States,” Burgess said.
The solar and microgrid projects are the cheapest, most reliable and most equitable form of energy on the islands, he said. Nodes of microgrids interact with the grid every day, providing the least expensive energy plus battery storage that aids dispatchability. The microgrids can isolate from the grid during storms or outages.
“All the islands are realizing this vision that microgrids make a lot of sense for human health and safety. But then inevitably they're also making a ton of sense for being the ground zero or the original nodes of distributed energy resources,” Burgess said.
As the islands build up their energy resources from ground zero, RMI is pursuing a portfolio approach to development. The idea is to attract developers who would prefer a single transaction and mobilization, which often yields efficiency and a lower cost per watt.
Smaller Caribbean islands such as St. Eustatius, Seva and Montserrat – each with about 2 MW of load – have transitioned their entire power plants to solar microgrids and have become 80%-90% powered by renewables, he said. RMI is now working in St. Lucia with the US Trade and Development Agency to do the same. The organization is offering for bid six microgrids at six different locations. Developers will submit proposals on the entire 5-6 MW instead of bidding individually on each project.
“We want to develop them and bring them up to tendering or procurement all at once because then it attracts larger, more capitalized developers,” Burgess said.
Outside of the Bahamas, in Bermuda, RMI combined 35 smaller installations at government sites that add up to 6 MW of solar. The government has shortlisted three bidders and is expected to make a decision by July. The winning developer will own and operate the assets and sell the power to the government at a cost lower than utility rates. Each installation will include inverters that allow the systems to become microgrids.
RMI’s operating microgrids are located on St. Vincent, the Grenadines, Ragged Island and the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, and in Puerto Rico.
At these sites, microgrids are attractive because their energy costs are lower than the cost of grid power, which relies on diesel. “The incentive is economic from day one,” said Burgess. They also provide resilience and clean energy access for low-income residents.
Ready for hurricane season
RMI’s island microgrid projects – all of which are installed and operating – include:
- Microgrids at 10 Puerto Rico schools. Many of the schools had no power after Hurricane Maria struck. Now, 3,600 children study in buildings with secure electricity thanks to the installation by RMI, Save the Children and the Kinesis Foundation.
- The Community Energy Resilience Initiative, also in Puerto Rico. Five microgrids have been deployed to date – at a pharmacy, a nonprofit that focuses on prevocational education and social services, a fueling station, a bakery and youth shelter. The effort is a collaboration between the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico and RMI, with support from Enel. The aim is to foster equitable access to affordable, resilient and clean energy in lower and middle-income communities.
- Schools on the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. RMI is working with Compass Solar and the government to provide solar microgrids to three primary schools that were heavily damaged in Hurricane Dorian. The schools serve as emergency shelters for the surrounding community.
- A solar microgrid on Ragged Island in the Bahamas. The system provides power to a small fishing community, supplying more than 90% renewable energy. The project is a collaboration between RMI, the government and the national utility, Bahamas Power and Light.
- Two solar microgrids for two schools in Dominica.
- A solar microgrid on Mayreau, the smallest island of the Grenadines.A solar microgrid on Montserrat – a British territory in the Caribbean.
With the start of hurricane season, these examples of microgrids in the Caribbean shine a light on how the technology provides health, safety and resilience and can serve as the energy hub for entire islands, said Burgess.
“Instead of one big power plant, you could have two dozen microgrids that can power an entire island, but also decouple and provide critical services when needed,” he said.
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