How Caribbean Islands Are Leading the Clean Energy Transformation

When most people think about Caribbean islands, they envision white sand beaches and coral reefs. But for people like us who work on combatting climate change, what first comes to mind are rising sea levels, extreme storms, eroding coastlines, and other consequences that these islands face. They are on the frontlines of global warming.

To address these challenges, Caribbean countries have traditionally focused on adapting to the changes by building sea walls and breakwaters, retrofitting buildings, and improving drainage. But more recently, in an exciting development, they have shifted the focus to address the root of the problem by transitioning from climate-polluting fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. Such a dramatic, economy-wide transformation isn’t easy, but it’s critical to protecting vulnerable island nations and our planet from the dangers of climate change.

Blueprints for a Low-Carbon Future 

Caribbean countries, as well as other island countries in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, have started developing scalable blueprints covering the technical, economic, financial, and regulatory aspects of a renewable energy transition. These countries are also developing the creative business models needed to encourage action.

To do this, the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) and Rocky Mountain Institute—often recognized as Rocky Mountain Institute-Carbon War Room (RMI-CWR)—in partnership with Caribbean Electric Utility Service Corporation (CARILEC), have been working with more than 10 Caribbean countries to accelerate and guide their energy transition.

Each country follows the Islands Energy Playbook—a six-step guide tailored to local needs— that was developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and RMI-CWR.

In Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, an archipelago nation, the team is working to provide a modern, more reliable, and cheaper energy supply to communities in the isolated Grenadine islands through high renewable penetration microgrids. In Saint Lucia, we are helping a privately owned utility and the government work together to chart a joint vision for the island nation’s energy transition. In Montserrat, an island devastated by a volcano more than two decades ago, we are working with the government to redesign and rebuild the entire energy system. In Colombia, we are working with an isolated indigenous population on the island of San Andrés to plan and implement their vision of a clean energy future.

A Standard and Replicable Approach 

Across these projects, the CCI and RMI-CWR teams have identified four key steps and considerations that every economy, regardless of size, can follow for a successful transition. Many of these may seem intuitive, but they are not always implemented in practice.

  1. Have an inclusive plan.

Getting the government, utility, and community stakeholders aligned around a core vision and implementation strategy is important for preventing avoidable setbacks and charting a low-cost pathway forward. Making sure that everyone has a voice is especially important when the energy supply is moving from a centralized, out-of-sight system to a decentralized system where energy assets become part of the landscape. The plan should be based on a strong understanding of the technical parameters of the electrical grid as well as the underlying economics of the electricity sector.

  1. Stakeholders need to act quickly.

Even small steps can help build momentum to move the energy transition forward. The large-scale and complex nature of energy transitions can often divide and paralyze stakeholders, so acting on the agreed upon plan fast will help prevent things from stalling. Of course, this takes leadership at multiple levels.

  1. Utility companies must step out of their comfort zone.

Utilities do what they know (diesel-based electricity generation), and they do it well. But with new technologies reaching the market at much more affordable price points than traditional fossil fuel generation, these companies are seeing new opportunities.

For example, battery storage is a game changer for renewable energy because it enables intermittent renewable energy sources to deliver sustained and reliable power throughout the day. In other words, battery storage allows us to use solar power when the sun is not shining and wind power when the wind is not blowing. In the past two years alone, the cost of large-scale lithium-ion battery storage has dropped over 60 percent, which has made renewable technology systems more cost-effective than traditional fossil fuel systems. Island countries are testing and deploying these new systems at scale.

  1. Collaboration is critical.

No single stakeholder can transition an island country’s energy sector alone. This transition requires collaboration among island stakeholders, outside knowledge and technology providers, and most importantly, other islands going through similar journeys. During this process, islands are building the requisite expertise to operate and maintain these new energy systems, and in turn, create new industries and jobs.

The insights gleaned today will ultimately shape how the rest of the world scales renewable energy. It’s an important step in the global fight against climate change, and Caribbean countries are emerging as the climate champions our world so desperately needs.

Jesse Gerstin is the Clinton Climate Initiative’s director of programs and policy.

RMI-CWR’s Islands Energy Program is made possible by the support of the Global Environment Facility in partnership with the United Nations Development Program. CCI’s work is supported through government aid funding from Norway.

Image courtesy of iStock.