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We Need a Marshall Plan for Clean Energy in the Caribbean

Unlike an industrial powerhouse like Germany, for example, few Caribbean countries are in a position to fully exploit their renewable energy potential.
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Children in Georgetown, Guyana learn about solar energy during an exhibition. Credit: CREDP

In June, Lefties Food Stall, a pint sized eatery serving Barbados's signature flying-fish sandwiches, became the first snack shack on the island to be fitted with a solar panel. The nearby public shower facility sports a panel as well. So does the bus shelter across the street and the local police station and scores of gaily-colored houses on the coastal road leading into the capital, Bridgetown.

Like many other small island nations, Barbados has to ship in all of the oil that it uses to produce electricity, making power over four times more costly than it is in the fuel-rich United States. That high price has proven a boon for Barbados's fledgling solar industry.

Nearly half of all homes on the island boast solar water heaters on their roofs, which pay for themselves in lower electric bills in less than two years, and increasingly industries, like the island's small desalinization plant, are installing solar arrays to meet a portion of their power needs.

This move to solar is also being driven by tax incentives for green businesses and consumers. In an address marking the United Nations Environment Program's (UNEP) "World Environment Day" in the capital city Bridgetown in June, Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart pledged that the island nation would produce 29 percent of its energy from renewables by the end of the next decade.

That rather conservative goal, which is still over twice what the US currently produces with renewables, won't be hard to reach. Not only is the island blessed by abundant sunshine, but it also has year-round trade winds to run wind turbines and sugarcane waste or bagasse that can be used as a biofuel. The Barbados government is also looking into harnessing the energy of the tides, as well as introducing ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), a technology which employs the temperature difference between cooler deep and warmer shallow sea waters to generate electricity.

Barbados is not the only Caribbean island enthusiastic about green technology. Aruba is planning a 3.5-MW solar airport, perhaps the largest such project in the world. The Dutch-speaking island has combined wind and solar power with energy efficiency measures to cut its imports of heavy fuel oil in half, saving some $50 million a year. The volcanic islands of Nevis, Montserrat and St. Vincent have contracted with Icelandic geothermal companies to conduct exploratory projects to determine how to tap their vast geothermal potential. While mountainous Dominica already meets about half of its energy demand with hydropower.

Caribbean islands don't just have abundant resources for developing clean energy, they have compelling reasons to do so. The region is burdened by some of the highest energy costs in the world, which has retarded its industrial development and drained its reserves of foreign exchange. The islands also have fragile ecosystems like mangrove forests and coral reefs which are highly vulnerable to oil spills and pollution. And many depend on tourists, who will only flock there so long as they remain attractively clean and green.

But their best reason to cut carbon emissions is the danger that these island nations face if climate change, which is already having a big impact, proceeds unchecked. Lower rainfall in the Eastern Caribbean in recent years poses a threat to agriculture and scarce groundwater supplies. Sea level rise as well as ocean acidification and warming have killed many protective coral reefs leading to severe beach erosion and diminishing fish stocks, which depend on coral for breeding and protection. And the hurricane-prone region is being battered by increasingly frequent and powerful storms.

At the World Environment Day event in Bridgetown, the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves called climate change "the most serious existential threat in the world today." That is certainly true for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Successive storms in 2010, 2011, and 2012 ripped through the islands leading to a yearly loss of up to 17 percent of the developing country's GDP, as well as destroying hundreds of homes and killing dozens of islanders. "If my people don't get flooded out on the coast," Gonsalves observed ruefully, 'they will be washed away in landslides.'

Barbados prime minister Stuart echoed his counterpart's sense of urgency. "Since the issue involves our very survival, capitulation is not an option," he told the crowd. Stuart believes that the Caribbean should set "a shining example" for the world to follow. It makes sense: These islands that are on the frontline for climate change's destruction should also be on the frontline in cutting their own carbon emissions. They need to demonstrate how seriously they take the threat, as an example to the rest of us.

That is not yet happening. The region as a whole still lags behind the US in its percentage of renewables. But governments there are signaling that they want to change. Barbados, for example, commissioned a Green Economy Scoping Study, prepared in partnership with UNEP and released in June. The study includes recommendations on how to make the island's agriculture, fisheries, transportation, and energy systems more sustainable.

Right now, energy production in the Caribbean is anything but sustainable in the long term. Venezuela's late socialist president Hugo Chavez offered many islands loans and concessionary rates for cheaper oil. His successor has done his best to maintain the subsidies. But nobody can say how long this largesse will last, given Venezuela's current financial crisis, and it's not clear what will happen to already-stressed island economies when they are forced to pay full price for crude.

However, overhauling an island's energy infrastructure does not come cheaply. There are knotty technical challenges related to the stability of the grid that few Caribbean nations are equipped to meet. And the small scale of the demand for electricity on many of the islands makes it hard to attract international investors. Moreover, countries like Jamaica, St Kitts-Nevis, Grenada, Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda are saddled with public debts that often exceed their annual GDP. So unlike an industrial powerhouse like Germany, for example, few Caribbean countries are in a position to fully exploit their renewable energy potential.

The big industrial powers that are responsible for the problem should be lending a helping hand to the folks who are suffering the most from climate change. Loans from international development banks, as well as technology transfers and training from richer countries would go a long way. We also need to prime the pump with programs to encourage prudent investment.

But let's not think of this as charity. By helping islands in our own backyard go green, we won't just be cutting harmful greenhouse gases. We will also be learning valuable lessons in how, for example, to successfully integrate intermittent inputs from wind and solar into the power grid - a problem which has retarded our own adoption of renewables. The vulnerable islands of the Caribbean are a perfect laboratory to test out, on a small scale, solutions that can eventually be applied to our own far more complex energy infrastructure.

After World War II, America lent its economic muscle to help rebuild Europe's shattered economies through the Marshall Plan. It is time to have a Marshall Plan for clean energy - not to rebuild war torn nations, but to help protect our abused climate system from further damage. The Caribbean, blessed with a wealth of sun, wind and geothermal, is a great place to start.