Photo by Fidel Neverson
Energy Resilience and the Volcanic Eruption in St. Vincent and the Grenadines
On April 9th, the La Soufrière volcano erupted in St Vincent and the Grenadines and has continued to spew harmful ash and gas across the nation and to neighboring countries. An estimated 25,000 citizens have been displaced, the entire agricultural sector destroyed, several villages deeply impacted, and electricity has been at times intermittent. Scientists have stated that eruptions could continue for weeks or even months.
Natural disaster situations like this one highlight how much the energy sector underpins our economies and societies. Access to consistent electricity not only powers our daily lives but provides critical services and connection to others in times of distress.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines at the Forefront of Clean Energy Transition
St Vincent and the Grenadines and St. Vincent Electricity Services Limited (VINLEC), the national utility, have a long history of utilizing renewable energy for electricity generation. Hydropower has been a part of the generation mix since the early 1950s, and in the late 1980s it represented half of the electricity produced by the utility.
In recent years, VINLEC has encouraged customers to install grid-connected solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind energy systems, while also pursuing their own new projects. In 2010, VINLEC commissioned an in-house technical team to undertake a pilot project, designing and installing a 10 kilowatt (kW) solar PV system on one of its office buildings. The success of this project has led to VINLEC investing in additional solar PV projects, with a total capacity of 584 kW. Additionally, to date the company has facilitated the interconnection of approximately 2 megawatts of customer-owned installations.
RMI partnered with St. Vincent & the Grenadines’ government and VINLEC in 2017 to create the country’s National Electricity Transition Strategy which included its first integrated resource plan. We also led project implementation efforts for a solar and storage microgrid on the island of Mayreau, supported solar and storage project de-risking on Union Island, and assisted with the execution of the Argyle International Airport solar PV project.
Why Volcanos Need to be Part of the Energy Resilience Dialogue
In recent years, there has been a strong regional dialogue around how to build local resilience to hurricanes. However, the Caribbean has 19 active volcanoes and volcanoes must be part of the resilience discussion moving forward.
Following the eruption in St. Vincent, solar panels were covered with ash and became inoperable due to the clouds from the eruption. The few that maintained electric output had access to an energy storage solution. Even those systems lost power within a few days. With water supplies being limited and the length of the ongoing eruption unknown, washing off the panels is not an immediate option.
While solar has many benefits including low operational costs compared to fossil fuel options, it is not immune to challenges. Diversifying to use multiple resources for electricity located in different places can limit the risk of failure in any one part of the electricity system. This is exactly the pathway St. Vincent and the Grenadines has been forging as it adds distributed solar and energy storage to existing hydro and diesel generators, while exploring other resource options as well.
For St. Vincent and the Grenadines to meet their local priorities for the electricity sector, the optimal pathway includes a diverse mix of resource options sited in various locations throughout the country. This can create a grid that is both reliable when operating as a connected system during normal times and resilient when operating as separate segments to provide power for the most critical needs during a disaster.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines is already on this pathway and has shown strong leadership in the Caribbean region in implementing their energy vision. The ongoing volcanic eruption highlights the need to move faster and prioritize clean, distributed energy resources located at critical infrastructure to ensure that greater resilience is built ahead of any future disasters—and to broaden our thinking on resilience in the Caribbean to include impacts from volcanoes as well as hurricanes.
How to Support St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Rebuilding and recovering from a major disaster can take years, if not a decade or more, and the economic and societal impacts from the eruption are not yet fully known.
Numerous regional organizations and agencies have launched campaigns and call-to-actions to support St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Delivering essential services and goods to the community is critical. Two campaigns to consider include the Organization for Eastern Caribbean States Emergency Response campaign and Go Fund Me for evacuee relief supplies.
RMI, in partnership with Global Emergency Relief, Recovery and Reconstruction (GER3) and other like-minded organizations, formed a consortium that will support St. Vincent and the Grenadines with rebuilding their energy system alongside the government and VINLEC. This work will build upon St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ existing leadership in implementing resilient, clean energy options that will benefit residents.
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Fidel Neverson is an electrical engineer and senior project manager with the RMI Islands Energy Program. He is a lifelong resident of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. On April 9th he felt and witnessed the impacts of the La Soufrière volcano eruption and in the days since has experienced the enormous effects that this event has had on his country.
Kaitlyn Bunker, is a principal with RMI’s Islands Energy Program. She has been supporting and working with partners on the ground in St. Vincent and the Grenadines since 2016, and is committed to supporting the country in building back better.
All photos in this blog were taken by Fidel Neverson.