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Musings of an Energy Nerd

A Caribbean Island Transitions to PV

On St. Eustatius, the local utility has installed a new PV-plus-battery system to supply 23% of the island’s electricity

Rated at 1.89 megawatts, this solar facility on the island of St. Eustatius supplies 23% of the island's electricity. Phase 2 of the project will raise that percentage to 50%.
Image Credit: Images #1 and #2: Martin Holladay

Most of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from power plants that burn coal or natural gas. Although an increasing percentage of our electricity comes from photovoltaic (PV) arrays and wind turbines, there are two problems with these renewable energy sources. First, electricity generated by PV arrays or wind turbines is still somewhat more expensive than electricity generated by fossil fuel plants (although the cost of solar and wind continue to drop). And second, solar power and wind power are intermittent, so some type of energy storage system is necessary if these sources of power are ever to replace fossil fuel plants.

These days, electric utilities are operating in a rapidly changing regulatory and economic environment. As the price of solar power and wind power continue to fall, investments in solar and wind facilities are looking better all the time, while past investments in coal plants and nuclear plants are beginning to look, in retrospect, like big mistakes. Moreover, an increasing number of countries are establishing goals to reduce the use of fossil fuels, and some are even establishing carbon taxes that effectively increase the cost of coal and natural gas — tipping the scales in favor of solar and wind.

As fossil fuels become more heavily taxed, and renewable energy sources get cheaper, eventually the cost lines on the graph are going to cross. At some point, solar and wind power will become the preferred sources for electricity.

In fact, on small islands, the lines have already crossed.

A hike to the top of an extinct volcano

My wife Karyn and I recently spent a weekend on the island of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean, enjoying two of our favorite pastimes: snorkeling and hiking. St. Eustatius is part of the Netherlands.

On our second day on St.…

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7 Comments

  1. Skip Harris | | #1

    Will phase II be in a different location?
    Putting some distance between installations adds some issues, but might ameliorates several others:
    >Cloud shading will be more likely to reduce/increase output of entire system
    >Hurricane damage may only affect a single system
    >Resiliency: grid damage may not cut off all island power
    >Distributed storage and generation equate to distributed grid loading....probably not a issue for a grid this small.

    Exciting stuff! If an island can create a grid that runs mostly or entirely on renewables, mainland naysayers will have fewer legs to stand upon.

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Skip Harris
    Skip,
    The Phase 2 arrays will be adjacent to the Phase 1 arrays. This makes sense -- it will reduce the need for new cables connecting the PV arrays to the other components of the system (the diesel generators), since new cables were installed already with Phase 2 in mind.

    Below, I'll attach a photo taken on November 26 by Wiebke Krueger, showing the status of Phase 2. Work is just beginning.

    Concerning the feasibility of a grid that uses 100% renewables: There are no technical hurdles to this approach. The only issue is cost -- and costs are dropping. (For a variety of reasons, including costs, it doesn't make sense to aim for a grid that is 100% renewable energy. But grids that are larger than Statia's grid would certainly benefit from including some wind turbines. Moreover, on some Caribbean islands, it may make sense to develop geothermal resources or to consider using generators that depend on the difference in temperature between deep seawater and seawater near the surface.)

    .

  3. Andy Kosick | | #3

    Not a pilot project? Despite
    Not a pilot project? Despite the unique situation, everyone involved here has got to understand the gravity of what they're doing. Any energy nerd worth their salt is sure to be tickled pink to see this happening, I know I am. I'd say the balancing act they're fine tuning on this island is what every utility in the world is going to be doing before long, whether they like it or not. There's much to be learned here, I hope they're taking good notes.

    Would you say the island is good about managing electrical usage as well and do you think that will change as it get less expensive?

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Andy Kosick
    Andy,
    I'm glad you are tickled by the project on Statia; so am I.

    I didn't spend enough time on Statia answer your question about electrical usage. Since electricity costs 35 cents per kWh, we can imagine that most residents of Statia are aware that wasting electricity is expensive. I saw plenty of CFL bulbs.

    But people are people -- even when electricity costs 35 cents per kWh, there are always some customers who haven't yet gotten religion, and I'm sure there are opportunities for cost-effective measures to reduce usage.

    As I predicted a year ago (see Lakesideca in the Cheap Energy Era), we may be facing a future in which electricity is both cheap and clean. When that day comes, there will be much less of a moral imperative to reduce our use of electricity.

  5. Nathan Kipnis, FAIA | | #5

    Similar to Block Island's Offshore Wind Farm
    Islands running diesel fuel for power are excellent places for renewables. Block Island off of Rhode Island also used diesel for power, at something around $0.55/kWh. They now have the U.S.'s first offshore wind farm because of that.

    I know the economics aren't exactly the same, but these types of locations are the lower hanging fruit examples. They will be great places to study to see how well they are working and what can be done to keep making them better and more cost effective. Good economics are a no brainer, and these systems should only be getting more cost effective over time.

  6. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Response to Nathan Kipnis
    Nathan,
    Do you know whether the Block Island project includes any battery storage?

    Plenty of locations around the world have large PV facilities or large wind facilities. The revolutionary element (seen now in Statia) is the inclusion of battery storage.

  7. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    The PV facility survived Hurricane Irma
    According to Aurél Kenessey, "Saba and Sint Eustatius survived [Hurricane Irma] relatively well. The highest windspeeds were (“only”) 170 km/hour and rain was only 30 mm. On these islands almost everyone has electricity again, and the production (diesel and solar) were unharmed.

    "Sint Maarten is a disaster though. The electricity plant needs roof repair before all diesels can be switched on. The main office of the electricity company is completely destroyed. The high voltage lines are 85% underground, but the last stretch to homes is above ground and highly damaged. Actually, 91% of building have some damage, of which 1/3 is destroyed. So, for 1/3 of the buildings electricity is of no use anyway."

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