St. Lucia Breaks Ground on First Utility-Scale Solar Energy Field
More good news on the solar front, and what better place to capture the power of the sun?
The Caribbean region has become a focal point for renewable and distributed energy advocates and companies in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. St. Lucia was spared Irma and Maria’s worst this past month, but that doesn’t mean the hurricanes did not take their toll, or galvanize the island nation leadership’s intention to enhance energy security and resiliency.
The island nation’s power utility, St. Lucia Electricity Services Ltd. (LUCELEC), and solar energy systems developer GRUPOTEC on Sept. 29 broke ground on a 3-megawatt (MW) solar farm – St. Lucia’s first utility-scale renewable energy project. Located outside of St. Lucia’s Hewanorra International airport outside the main southern city of Vieux Fort, GRUPOTEC will install 14,900 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and associated system components in order to generate emissions-free electricity sufficient to power nearly 3,500 homes while offsetting 3,800 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
In addition to anticipated reductions in the cost of electricity, the utility-scale solar field sets St. Lucia on a path towards energy independence. The Hewanorra solar PV power field is also expected to reduce the Eastern Caribbean island nation’s vulnerability to tropical storms and hurricanes and enhance energy resiliency – the ability to withstand and/or recover from the impacts of hurricanes or other natural or man-made disasters.
Tropical storms, hurricanes, centralized grids and fossil fuel dependence
Nestled between St. Vincent and the Grenadines to the south and Martinique to the north, St. Lucia’s reported 2010 census resident population of nearly 166,000 live on a tropical island volcanic in origin that spans an area of 617 square kilometers (238.23 square miles). St. Lucia is one of the Caribbean island that comprise what’s known as the Lesser Antilles islands, more specifically the southern extenson of the Lesser Antilles known as the Windward Islands. That positions it at the southern end of the so-called Caribbean “Hurricane Belt,” the broad-based area across which tropical storms and hurricanes often travel as they make their way west and north from southeast Atlantic Ocean waters off the coast of West Africa.
St. Lucia relies almost entirely on diesel fuel for power generation (>99%), as do nearly all island nations and territories throughout the Caribbean. That leaves them subject to high and volatile energy prices, as well as the chronic challenges of paying for diesel fuel imports and trying to mitigate the human and environmental impacts of diesel and fossil fuel use. In addition, Hurricanes Irma and Maria once again exposed the weaknesses and fault lines associated with the conventional model of centralized power generation coupled with long-distance transmission and local distribution grid infrastructure.
Government, business, civic and environmental leaders in St. Lucia and across the Caribbean have been mulling over projects and plans that would move them away from fossil fuel dependence and centralized power grids and towards energy and power infrastructure centered on locally abundant distributed renewable energy resources for years now. Progress has been made, but a variety of factors, from logistics and technical capacity to opposition from entrenched, typically state’-owned or sponsored utilities, have proven to be difficult to overcome.
St. Lucia's first utility-scale solar PV facility
The Rocky Mountain Institute, Carbon War Room and the Clinton Climate Initiative have been instrumental in seeing St. Lucia’s first utility-scale solar power project through to groundbreaking. Joining with Netherlands-based distributed energy technology and project development specialist DNV GL, they provided technical assistance throughout the long project development process.
That included assisting LUCELEC develop and carry out a bidding process that attracted experienced utility-scale solar project developers with genuinely strong interests in the project, evaluating proposals and facilitating contract negotiations. RMI, Carbon War Room and the Clinton Clmiate Initiative also helped LUCELEC manage an open, international procurement process to help ensure the utility-scale solar PV project meets, if not exceeds, international standards and best practices at the lowest possible cost, RMI highlights in a news release.
“LUCELEC’s efforts to add utility-scale renewable energy to its generation mix began as far back as 2002. It’s been a long, and sometimes challenging road since then. It is, therefore, extremely gratifying to finally break ground on this 3 MW solar farm today,” LUCELEC’s Managing Director Trevor Louisy said.
LUCELEC and the Government of Saint Lucia jointly developed the Eastern Caribbean island nation’s National Energy Transition Strategy (NETS) in 2016. The national strategic plan provides a 20-year energy “roadmap” informed by technical analysis from RMI, Carbon War Room and the Clinton Climate Initiative that sets out the pathway for creating an electricity sector that’s sustainable, reliable, cost-effective and equitable, according to the project partners.
Maximizing use of locally abundant renewable energy resources in a distributed network without one single point of failure was one of the key facets of St. Lucia’s National Energy Transition Strategy. Building out of utility-scale solar power generation and distribution to achieve the least-cost mix of power generation resources, in turn, is a key means of doing so. The 3 MW Heneworra solar farm marks St. Lucia’s first step along this path.
LUCELEC and GRUPOTEC signed the contract to build the utility-scale solar power field in June 2017. Construction is expected to be completed by spring of 2018.“Caribbean nations like Saint Lucia overwhelmingly rely on imported fossil fuels for electricity generation,” said Jesse Gerstin, Director of Programs and Policy at CCI.
“The solar farm is the first step in building a more resilient power system that generates electricity from a local, renewable source and reduces Saint Lucia’s dependence on imported diesel. This could also help the country recover more quickly in the case of an extreme weather event, such as the recent hurricanes that have devastated neighboring islands.”
RMI and Carbon War Room was able to offer Saint Lucia project guidance thanks to the support of the UN Global Environment Facility in partnership with the United Nations Development Program. Financial support from the government of Norway facilitated the Clinton Climate Initiative’s participation.