Island in the Sun: Saint Lucia Goes Solar

The public residence of the Governor-General of Saint Lucia, a small island nation, is about to get an upgrade.

As a part of reaching the nation's target of generating 35 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, the Government of Saint Lucia is partnering with the nonprofit Solar Head of State to install a solar PV system on the roof of Government House - Saint Lucia's equivalent of the White House.

The installation team prepare to install the final panel. Photo Credit: Solar Head of State

Saint Lucia is currently largely dependent on dirty diesel generators for energy but has dreams of revolutionizing its economy through a transition to solar, wind, and geothermal sources of energy, and this 5.4 kilowatt grid-tied installation is part of that. Dr. Gale Rigobert, Minister of Sustainable Development for Saint Lucia, said, "The commitment of Saint Lucia to transit from dependence on fossil fuels to more renewable sources of energy is demonstrated here by this project to install solar panels at the Governor General's official residence." The Government House installation serves as an emblematic step in that shift from diesel generators to renewables.

To be clear, Saint Lucia's carbon emissions are miniscule; it emits just 0.0015 percent of global carbon emissions. However, Saint Lucia has good reason to be concerned about climate change. Small island developing states are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and stronger and more frequent tropical storms. Due to this vulnerability, islands including Saint Lucia have been influential in conversations about climate change; Saint Lucia was one of a group of 15 climate-vulnerable countries that became the first to ratify the Paris Agreement in April 2016. And the Maldives government famously held an underwater cabinet meeting ahead of the 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen to highlight the plight of small island developing states.

But apart from climate change, one of the most important impacts of this project is that it will help to reduce the cost of electricity in Saint Lucia -- which is currently very high. This problem of high electricity costs is common for most island nations due to high dependency on imported diesel, which is expensive to import because of low economies of scale and high shipping costs.

This theme was recently featured on a recent episode of The Energy Gang podcast. On the podcast, Leslie Labruto, director of the Clinton Climate Initiative's Islands Energy Program noted that, on average, costs of electricity per kilowatt hour are up to three or four times more expensive in island nations than in the United States. She also explained that islands can spend up to 20 percent of their GDP on oil expenditures, compared to eight percent in the United States. This poses a serious constraint on economic development. In addition to the challenges expensive electricity causes for industries including manufacturing and tourism, individual households also feel the impact.

A Saint Lucian cultural performance takes place to celebrate the inauguration of the system. Photo credit: Solar Head of State

While the initial cost of installing solar is expensive, this installation is expected to pay itself off in three to five years. After this, there are many benefits of generating free electricity with an expected system lifetime of 25 years, and the financial savings can be invested elsewhere.

In addition to the installation on Government House, the Government of Saint Lucia, in collaboration with the local electricity utility LUCELEC, is currently completing the bidding process on its first utility scale installation: a three-megawatt solar PV facility that will power five to eight percent of national energy demand.

The installation team attached the panels to the racking. Photo Credit: Solar Head of State

Solar Head of State encourages the adoption of solar PV on prominent government buildings. In doing so, they help world leaders serve as role models in environmental stewardship. The installation at Government House in Saint Lucia is the first project that Solar Head of State has been involved with, but the idea of heads of state installing solar is not particularly new. Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed became the first 21st-century solar head of state when he put an 11.5-kilowatt solar system on his Presidential Palace in 2010. The Obama Administration installed solar panels on the White House in 2013, making it the third U.S. Administration to do so (the other Administrations to do this were those of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush). Environmental activist and founder Bill McKibben says, "Every head of state that goes solar casts a vote for the future."

Solar Head of State assembled an international consortium of project donors from across the clean energy sector to carry out the project. Major contributions were received from California-based solar installation company Sungevity and from the California Clean Energy Fund. Panels were donated by manufacturer Trina Solar and inverters from Enphase Energy. Support was also received from Elms Consulting, a London-based strategic consulting firm working to accelerate sustainable development on islands, and Gravity Farm, a group focused on facilitating sustainable energy and agricultural projects. Australian firms Wattwatchers and Solar Analytics provided system-monitoring expertise and equipment. The engineering and construction was donated by British Virgin Islands based Free Island Energy and Saint Lucian company Noah Energy. Strategic partners include the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Carbon War Room, and the Clinton Climate Initiative.

Starting with Saint Lucia, Solar Head of State's smart solar roll-out is focused on five small states in the Caribbean this year and early next year. Later, the campaign will be looking to expand to Asia and the Pacific islands towards the end of 2017 and beyond.

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