The Bahamas Launches Family Islands Solarization Program

The Caribbean island nation of the Bahamas is turning to independent power producers (IPPs), the combination of “solar plus storage” and hybrid microgrids to extend sustainable energy access, improve energy reliability and resiliency, and reduce carbon emissions and environmental footprints on four of the archipelagic nation’s 30 inhabited islands (pop. around 400,000).

State-owned utility Bahamas Power & Light (BPL), with support from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and Carbon War Room’s Islands Energy Program, recently launched the Family Islands solar energy program and issued a competitive request for proposal (RFP) to develop projects on four islands: Andros, Bimini, Eleuthera and Inagua. The islands were chosen due to projected increases in energy demand, according to BPL. Project developers need to provide complete solar energy systems solutions that encompass development, financing, ownership, operations and maintenance.

Bahamians Install Solar Panels on a Rooftop
Bahamians install solar panels on a rooftop. | Image: Eleuthera News

Development of the four solar-fueled power systems will set the stage to scale the Family Islands solar program across the island chain’s outlying islands, as well as contribute to the Bahamas achieving a national goal of renewable energy resources meeting 30% of electricity needs by 2030.

We have 17 to 18 islands that we want to put renewable energy in, so we want to make sure we move this process forward in a very structured manner. These four islands need some additional generation in the short-term. Given the load growth curves for these islands, we looked at the fact they need more generation sooner rather than later.

—BPL Chairman Donovan Moxey was quoted in a Tribune Business news report.

The challenge of delivering sustainable solar energy across an island archipelago

The Bahamas is a very difficult place to generate electricity, distribute it and sell it, even as compared to other Caribbean islands, Chris BurgessSolar Magazine Interviewee Avatar, Islands Energy Program projects director, told Solar Magazine.

It’s incredibly difficult to have to run 21 separate power systems, none of which are interconnected, 21, likely more, fuel sources, and provide reliable, affordable electricity to some incredibly energy-dense service areas, such as Nassau, as well. Just having the opportunity to look up from the operations window, much less try to do anything new and difficult, doesn’t come around often.

—Burgess said in an interview.

BPL’s longstanding dependence on imported diesel and heavy fuel for virtually all the Bahamas’ power generation poses another obstacle. Much larger scale, fossil fuel projects are being proposed and approved. News broke this past November that BPL and Shell signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that entails Shell developing a 220–250-MW natural gas-fired power plant to serve the main island of New Providence that’s tentatively slated for completion in the early 2020s, for example. New Providence’s energy consumption totals around 260 MW, according to a local news report.

“The MOU is the first step towards a desired long-term power generation pact between BPL and Shell and bringing strategic change to electricity generation and supply in New Providence,” BPL’s Moxey was quoted as saying. “The goals are to achieve cleaner power generation, lower-cost fuel sources, and a reduction in the cost of electricity generation.”

Adding to these difficulties is the Bahamas small size, its remoteness, the geographic spread of island populations and the limited resources of government and the power utility. “There really aren’t any ‘deep pockets.’ Our assistance is key because we can provide expertise, as well as resources, to help carry out a renewable energy transition,” Burgess said.

Laying the foundation for broad-based solar energy use and a renewable energy transition

The impacts of climate change, a growing record of solar-storage project developments and associated results, and the ongoing sharp fall in the costs and improving performance of solar energy and battery energy storage technology and systems are leading Caribbean island governments and utilities to establish more ambitious solar and renewable energy goals and programs.

The Islands Energy Program team has been working closely with BPL, government leaders, the Bahamas Ministry of Environment and Housing, and URCA, the Utilities Regulatory and Competition Authority, to map out, plan and implement the Family Islands solar program and projects, as well as a strategic pathway for a 100% renewable energy transition.

Solar Panel Against a Blue Sky with a Picture of the Flag of Bahamas

The Ministry of Housing and Environment provides regulatory oversight of the Bahamas nascent alternative energy sector, while URCA the regulatory authority for electricity and telecommunications sectors. “All this is new. The Electricity Act of 2015 put URCA into place, opened up the country to renewable power generation and allowed independent power production,” Burgess explained.

The new legal and institutional framework and open, competitive power market has been well received according to the spirit of the law, according to Burgess. That said, they haven’t had time to mature and there is ambiguity regarding certain aspects of the Bahamas’ Residential Energy Self-Generation program, which includes a net metering aspect for grid-connected residential solar energy systems. “There hasn’t been exponential uptake of rooftop solar. We’re working with the government, URCA and BPL to remove barriers,” Burgess said.

Solar plus storage: Cheaper than natural gas, coal and diesel power

The Islands Energy Program team hasn’t found an instance yet “where importing natural gas, diesel, propane or other fossil fuel for power generation is cheaper than the combination of solar plus storage or other renewable energy systems,” Burgess highlighted. “Solar really is the least-cost option in the Bahamas today. On a kilowatt-hour (kWh) by kilowatt-hour basis, solar’s your best, but you need to add battery energy storage capacity in order to reach higher levels of penetration,” he noted.

“Nassau’s [the Bahamas’ largest city] is a pretty big grid, and it can take a fair bit of solar without storage,” Burgess continued. “There’s a big daytime grid peak, and even bigger and longer evening peak when people come home, turn on their air conditioners and plug in their phones and other electronic devices.”

Aerial View of Solar Panels Amongst Coconut Trees on the Paradise Island

Accounting for less than 1% of electricity on the Nassau grid, a high penetration of solar and other distributed, intermittent forms of renewable energy isn’t a worry at present and won’t be for quite some time, Burgess points out. An interactive, two-way grid is required given any grid-connected distributed solar or renewable energy, however, he added.

“Studies have shown that the New Providence grid (which serves Nassau) can take at least 8 megawatts (MW) of solar without worrying about storage. It’s certainly part of a least-cost, 100% renewable energy pathway, but you really need much, much higher solar-to-grid penetration or much more rooftop solar [before it becomes a pressing issue],” Burgess said.

Solar energy growth and reducing power generation’s carbon emissions and environmental footprints

Island nations contribute very little to the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions fueling climate change, but they’re among the most vulnerable to rising sea levels, the increasing frequency and intensity of storms, saltwater intrusion of freshwater sources and loss of land area due to erosion.

The Bahamas has been taking steps to end the state-owned utility’s energy monopoly and reduce the energy sector’s carbon and environmental footprints in line with national and international greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change goals. Government leaders have earmarked $170 million for renewable energy financing in the 2019–2020 budget.

Prime Minister Hubert Minnis’ administration in late May announced it will invest $8 million to rebuild public infrastructure and buildings on sparsely populated Ragged Island in the southern Bahamas.

Ragged Island was left nearly uninhabitable when Hurricane Irma struck nearly two years ago. In addition to allocating government funds to rebuild a school, medical clinic, administrator’s office, Post Office, court, police station and accommodations, the PM announced the government would issue a request for proposals (RFP) to develop a 390-kW solar-storage microgrid on the island. Announcement of the project award is expected soon and the system is expected to go live before year-end.

In late March, the PM inaugurated the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) energy facility in the nation, a 925-kilowatt (kW) parking lot canopy system designed to provide emissions-free electricity for the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium. “The energy generated from these solar panels will feed into our national grid, and as I understand it, will offset some of the electricity usage of neighboring schools,” the Prime Minister was quoted in a Jones Bahamas news report.

The Bahamas and the United Arab Emirates (Uae) Signed Agreement to Build Solar Parking Lots
Image: Bahamas Trade Info

The Bahamian government owns and manages property rooftops, parking lots and green spaces, on which solar power projects could be developed. Several projects that capitalize on that solar power potential are underway, Jones Bahamas points out.

The Bahamas Ministry of Environment and Housing in February contracted Woslee Construction to begin building out a rooftop solar installation at the Anatol Rodgers High School. In late March the Ministry issued a Request for Qualifications to project developers for the installation of a roof-mounted solar PV system at the T.G. Glover Primary School and a ground-mounted PV system to power the Office of the Prime Minister.

Helping develop renewable energy road maps and capacity across the Caribbean

In addition to the Bahamas, the Islands Energy team is in the midst of assisting Caribbean island governments and utilities in five other jurisdictions craft and carry out clean, renewable energy transition: the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Belize, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Turks and Caicos.

Three pillars support the program. The first is strategic planning that enables island governments, private and public-sector enterprises to undertake national clean energy transition programs and projects. The result is the blueprint of a least-cost pathway for capital investment that identifies and motivates governments and utilities to invest in “no regrets” solar and other distributed renewable energy systems, energy storage and smart grid technologies. The ultimate aim is to make the transition to an energy system 100%-fueled by local, renewable energy resources, Burgess explained.

The second pillar supporting the Islands Energy team’s approach is staying with and assisting governments and utilities as they design and implement solar and renewable energy policies and programs. Significantly, this includes the institution of open, transparent and competitive solar and renewable energy project development mechanisms and the building out of initial projects.

We don’t just walk away upon delivery of a plan. We stay with the government and utility, work with them hand in hand and step by step, from initial development on through procurement, construction and commissioning to develop their first project, be it utility, or rooftop solar or battery storage.

The Islands Energy Program team’s third pillar is supporting development of programs such as the Family Islands ‘solarization’ program. The program, according to Burgess, is important for a number of reasons. As significant as it is to the Bahamian economy, Nassau is a small city, he pointed out. That said, it’s dense in terms of its energy needs—think how much electricity’s required just to power the Atlantis resort and casino on Paradise Island, for instance.

Reconciling trade-offs and resolving conflicts of interest

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Those characteristics led Shell to propose investing very large sums of capital to build out a 220–250-MW natural gas power plant. “It’s still early days. There’s no PPA [power purchase agreement] but there is some early agreement that Shell’s proposal is worth a look,” Burgess commented.

Distributed solar electrification projects and programs such as the Family Islands Program just don’t come with that same economic scale or energy footprint. That said, the combination of solar plus battery energy storage makes the most sense economically, offers more in the way of energy resiliency and conveys substantial long-term benefits when it comes to social and environmental health and quality, Burgess highlighted. “Citizens want and businesses need low-cost power, and often the government winds up subsidizing that. We have to find a way to alleviate the burden of fuel costs,” Burgess said. The Bahamas “will be able to do that on Ragged Island, for example, where solar will provide 90% of electricity generation. And that’s driven by pure economics and a least-cost approach.”

More broadly, across the Caribbean, the Islands Energy Program team has found that “island governments to be very ambitious [with regard to carrying out renewable, clean energy transitions], particularly in international forums. They’re on the front lines of sea-level rise and climate change,” Burgess said. The message and initiatives don’t resonate as well with utilities whose vested interests and capabilities are fundamentally challenged by the liberalization of power markets and the emergence of low-cost, decentralized solar and other renewable energy systems, however.

That said, projects underway across the six Caribbean islands the Islands Energy Program team is working on demonstrate that reconciling the trade-offs and conflicts of interest is possible.

Many of these jurisdictions want to be highly sustainable and highly renewable, and they’re full of extremely confident, intelligent and dedicated people, but they lack the experience or internal capacity to replace a centralized energy grid and system that’s been in place for fifty years or more and realize 100% renewable energy transitions.

“These strategic plans are important because they align goals in a format agreeable to the key parties. They’re signed off by a government chief executive or cabinet, so they provide a foundation for sound policy and regulation, and they’re also signed off by utility executives and boards,” he concluded. comment↓


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