Islands Impact Update

What happened

In the fall of 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through the Caribbean with devastating fury. Their 185+ mph winds smashed buildings, downed power lines, overturned trucks, and tossed boats ashore like toys. Both hurricanes were considered among the strongest Category 5 hurricanes on record in the North Atlantic, killing many people, including 2,975 in Puerto Rico alone, and causing staggering amounts of damage.

Overnight, one storm can set island nations back decades. On Barbuda, Irma destroyed 95 percent of homes and infrastructure—including the entire electrical grid. The storms left behind a trail of destruction on St. Bart’s, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Cuba, and Dominica, in the Dominican Republic, and on Puerto Rico, the Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas, and the US Virgin Islands. Thousands of people were left homeless, without water, food, or power and facing an estimated US$50 billion in damages.

These events highlight how vulnerable Caribbean countries are. Nowhere is this more evident than in their electricity grids, which are exposed, centralized, and powered by fossil fuels. If a storm shuts down an island’s power plant, the entire island goes dark—including critical services, which are all tied to the grid.

The ramifications of the impact of these hurricanes extend well beyond the initial destruction of homes and infrastructure. Many hospitals, water treatment plants, schools, and health clinics rely solely on the grid for electricity. Some of them have on-site diesel or gasoline generators for back-up power, but run out of fuel quickly after storms—resulting in the sick and injured not getting the care they need and children being left without safe schools.

What We Committed To

During last year’s hurricane season, Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI’s) Islands Energy Program issued a call to action focused on rebuilding a resilient and renewable future for Caribbean islands. We identified the opportunity to support governments and utilities of affected Caribbean countries to rebuild their energy systems better, cleaner, and stronger, and ultimately less costly. Instead of investing much-needed capital into reconstructing the existing 20th-century electricity grid based on old technology, we worked with island governments and utilities to leapfrog ahead with 21st-century energy systems that will make the Caribbean region far less vulnerable to future storms—creating a blueprint for the electric grid of the future.

What We’ve Accomplished

RMI’s Islands Energy Program focuses on three key pillars—energy and resilience planning, project development and implementation support, and capacity building.

Energy and Resilience Planning

RMI has supported five island nations seeking to transition away from imported diesel-fueled electricity to clean energy with national energy transition strategies and integrated resource plans. These strategies and action plans have helped address macro- and micro-level barriers preventing the energy transition and unlocked dozens of renewable energy projects across the region—including several that are under construction. Following the 2017 hurricanes, increased energy system resilience has become a key objective for many island nations, and RMI’s approach to long-term energy planning has evolved to better incorporate both the costs and benefits of measures to improve energy resilience.

British Virgin Islands: The British Virgin Islands (BVI) received a direct hit from Hurricane Irma on September 6, 2017, resulting in damage to 90% of the electricity system. Following initial restoration efforts, the government and utility recognized the opportunity to transition to an electricity system that better meets their shared priorities: resiliency, reliability, low cost, environmental stewardship, and job creation. With support from RMI, they developed a Resilient National Energy Transition Strategy (R-NETS), outlining a pathway to transition from the current centralized, diesel-based electricity system to one that utilizes distributed, clean energy options. The R-NETS provides a long-term transition plan and identifies a portfolio of near-term clean energy investments for the BVI and will support the territory’s commitment to finding reliable and resilient energy solutions in support of building the BVI better, stronger, and greener.

Puerto Rico: When hurricanes Maria and Irma struck Puerto Rico, they devastated the electric grid, causing the largest blackout in American history. But the devastation created an opportunity to significantly improve the island’s energy future. Six months after the hurricanes, RMI engaged more than 75 stakeholders from across Puerto Rico to understand the current energy landscape and opportunity. The Public Collaborative forum brought together key stakeholders from the community to identify cost-effective, resilient pathways to ensure a long-term, sustainable, financially sound rebuild of the electric power system in Puerto Rico. RMI continues to support the transformation of Puerto Rico’s energy grid.

We are now advising, in part through the Public Collaborative, on the creation of new legislation to shape the privatization of the utility, modern regulatory frameworks, and an empowered and independent regulatory body. The proposed legislation notably states the goal of achieving 100% renewables by 2050. We advise many entities and have been appointed by the Puerto Rican Senate to serve on the Southern States Energy Board Blue Ribbon Taskforce.

RMI, in partnership with Save the Children and the Puerto Rican Department of Education, is supporting resilient solar microgrids for public schools, with one completed in Orocovis and eleven more planned and prepared. At the same time, with local partners Resilient Power Puerto Rico and with generous donors, we are advancing procurement processes to bring forth resilient clean-energy microgrids across communities and small-to-medium businesses. A pilot project is slated for early 2019.

Barbuda: Barbuda received a direct hit from Hurricane Irma in September 2017, resulting in the destruction of 100% of the electricity system and over 95% of housing and other structures. Following initial restoration efforts, the government, utility, and people of Barbuda recognized the opportunity to transition to an electricity system that is better prepared for climate change and the ferocious storms of the 21st century. With support from RMI, the utility (APUA) developed a new power system design that consists of Category 5-resilient solar and battery generation. The new solar and battery storage system will be funded by United Arab Emirates (UAE) and will provide a long-term, reliable, and resilient energy solution for the future of Barbuda.

Belize: In Belize, RMI partnered with the Government of Belize and Belize Power and Light to develop the Consolidated Project Plan (CPP)—a roadmap that outlines how to meet the electricity needs of Belize and its consumers over time. Providing access to reliable, affordable electricity is a priority for all parties. The CPP will ensure that sustainable options for electricity are pursued, while harmonizing the efforts of the national utility (Belize Electricity Limited), the government, and the regulator. RMI is also advancing plans to increase electrification in remote communities in Belize. These efforts are both critical steps for Belize in its efforts toward fostering sustainable production and distribution of energy, minimizing the cost of energy in the local economy, mitigating the impacts of external shocks, and creating a national culture of energy efficiency.

Project Implementation Support

Renewable projects are especially critical in the face of hurricanes—they usually pull power from a local grid (instead of from a centralized power supply source, often located miles away). In 2018, we made progress on the following projects:

The Bahamas: In The Bahamas, we made progress with several renewable energy projects. Ragged Island is the first renewable energy microgrid in The Bahamas (designed to withstand Category 5 hurricanes). Construction is slated to begin June 2019. Anatol Rodgers is the first renewable energy project for a government building in The Bahamas, with construction scheduled to begin before the end of the year. The National Stadium Solar Parking Canopy is the first solar project for the local utility, Bahamas Power and Light (BPL). The 1-megawatt (MW) project will reduce costs and provide clean energy to the country’s National Sporting Complex.

Barbuda: In Barbuda, where the entire electricity system was destroyed by Hurricane Irma, a new power system with resilient solar and batteries is in the country’s energy plan. Construction is scheduled to begin in July 2019.

British Virgin Islands: In the BVI, we partnered with the local utility, BVIEC, to plan and de-risk their first renewable project with a 3–5 MW solar and battery solution. Construction will start in June of 2019. We also completed a prefeasibility study for an 8–12 MW integrated microgrid, a government rooftop and car-park solar canopy and a ground-mount solar photovoltaic (PV) project. The next phase of the process will begin in November 2018.

Montserrat: The first renewable energy project was awarded on October 1, 2018 and construction will begin this year. This first project is significant as it is a first step toward the full transition of the electricity sector on the Caribbean’s Emerald Isle. Montserrat is one of the only islands in the Caribbean to legislate a 100% transition away from fossil fuels (in both the electricity and transportation sectors).

Turks and Caicos: In the Turks and Caicos (TCI), RMI worked with the local utility, Fortis TCI, to procure a 1 MW solar PV project—the first utility-scale renewable energy project in the country. Construction is scheduled to begin next April. This project marks a major milestone for the territory, since it is the first large-scale renewable energy project there, with the recently added benefit of built-in resilience.

Saint Lucia: In parallel to RMI’s work on the National Energy Transition Strategy, we worked with the local utility, LUCELEC, to complete a 3 MW solar PV project. This is the island’s first utility-scale renewable energy project and it came online August 2018. The next planned project is a 10 MW solar project that will be constructed next year. A 3 MWh battery project has been developed and prepared for a request for proposals (the island’s first energy storage project).

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines: RMI partnered with the utility to develop a 5 MWh battery, the island’s first energy storage project. We also supported the engineering and construction oversight for the Argyle Airport Solar Project (500 kW), the country’s largest solar project to date. Lastly, we partnered on Mayreau’s microgrid project, which is the country’s first solar and battery project. 

Capacity Building & Thought Leadership

When natural disasters impact island nations, it is critical for utilities to have a platform to rapidly assess the impacts, communicate with affected utilities, and mobilize the required resources to match the need. In addition, it is imperative that the lessons learned from the responses are captured and disseminated. More importantly, it is critical to establish response plans and build local capacity to respond to disaster events in order to minimize the loss of life and impacts to the economy.

Capacity Building: In July of 2015, RMI launched CAREC in partnership with the Caribbean Electric Utility Services Corporation (CARILEC). CAREC is a Caribbean-wide online community of practice that enables renewable energy practitioners from island nations to collaborate with their peers around common challenges to implementing renewable energy projects and realizing the energy transition. To date, CAREC has 1,050+ members from over 40 countries. Following the hurricanes, CAREC served as a valuable tool for communication to coordinate the hurricane response. CAREC partnered with the utilities from Turks & Caicos, Sint Maarten, Grand Bahamas, and Anguilla to collect lessons from the 2017 hurricane season and to compile disaster-recovery best practices. In order to institutionalize the coordination function within CAREC, a disaster management and communications working group was created and will be utilized as a tool for a tailored disaster management curriculum and discussions between utilities.

In addition to these important initiatives and projects, sharing lessons learned from the hurricanes, and ensuring governments and utilities have access to the information they need—RMI has published the following documents: 

Thought Leadership: In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, some utility-scale PV systems survived virtually unscathed while other suffered extensive damage. The findings of a study of these systems were published in Solar Under Storm: Select Best Practices for Resilient Ground-Mount PV Systems with Hurricane Exposure. The report analyzes the root causes of solar-system failures from hurricanes and presents clear recommendations for building more-resilient solar power plants. The report provides guidelines and standards to enhance the ability of ground-mount solar PV systems to withstand Category 5 hurricanes. It has been featured in PV Magazine, Bloomberg, and Renewable Energy Caribbean and adopted by the Organisation of the Caribbean Eastern States (OECS) and Anguilla’s utility, ANGLEC, for all future solar installations.

Critical facilities, like hospitals and schools, are vital components of a resilience strategy for all Caribbean islands. We highlighted a path for governments and utilities to redefine resilience. View Part One and Part Two-Critical Facilities: Where Government and Utility Services Redefine Resilience.

Minigrids and microgrids are being embraced globally at a rapid rate. RMI’s forthcoming Microgrid Casebook 2.0 will profile three different island microgrids, located in the Pacific and Caribbean.

What’s Next

Despite the advances that have been made in the region post-Irma and Maria, there is still much that needs to be done to build stronger and more resilient power systems throughout the Caribbean. RMI intends to keep working with key government and utility partners with a focus on integrating resiliency into energy planning and project preparation processes. Key upcoming projects include:

Energy & Resilience Planning

Energy and resilience planning remains vital to our partners and the region, now more than ever. 

British Virgin Islands: Developing an aggregated set of resilient renewable energy projects identified in the R-NETS, which will go out for public tender early next year.

Belize: RMI is supporting the development of 12 renewable energy microgrids. We will also soon share the results of a joint energy planning effort.

Bermuda: RMI will support the Government of Bermuda, the Regulatory Authority, and the utility BELCo in advancing an energy and electric-vehicle transition that meets the needs of Bermuda. The project is focused on the deployment of large-scale solar PV and electrification of the public bus system. The lessons learned will be captured and shared with other utilities via the CAREC platform.

Turks and Caicos: Working with the local utility, Fortis TCI, as well as the Government of Turks and Caicos, to comprehensively evaluate the near-term and long-term clean energy investment options for TCI’s power system.

Project Implementation Support

Our partners’ project pipelines consist of a variety of climate-resilient projects. 

Puerto Rico: Developing a comprehensive initiative to direct funding to support renewable microgrid projects across the island. We’ve worked in partnership with funders to develop a new initiative, received feedback from charrette working group members, and are preparing the administrative structure for the project (e.g., recruiting Puerto Rican stakeholders to administer the program and evaluate microgrid projects).

Puerto Rico Schools project: Save the Children, the Department of Education, and RMI partnered to bring power in the form of solar microgrids to 12 Puerto Rican schools. The first school to pilot a microgrid opened its doors September 28. RMI’s effort will help turn these schools into centers of resilience and support their continued operation during power outages.

The Bahamas: Focusing on resilient solar and storage solutions for the outer islands, or Family Islands. Following the deployment of the Ragged Island solar-plus-storage microgrid as the first project example, the Government of The Bahamas and BPL will work with RMI to scale solar and storage solutions for the rest of the electrified Family Islands. This will consist of 20 MW of solar and 75 MWh of battery storage. The project will run from Q3 2019 through 2020.

Microgrids for critical facilities: We have an opportunity to install Category 5 hurricane-resistant solar and storage microgrids for critical facilities such as schools, shelters, water treatment and pumping stations, hospitals, and clinics in select Caribbean countries. This will enable us to aggregate hundreds of turn-key installations for critical facilities—at or below current tariff rates, making this both a commercial opportunity and a public health and safety opportunity. In the process, it will jump-start the deployment of decentralized energy resources in the Caribbean region, which has the opportunity to scale to over 20 countries. On average, there are approximately 20–30 schools, one to two water treatment plants, eight to 15 hospitals and clinics, and 20–40 shelters on a standard island in the Caribbean. Aggregating these facilities into an integrated solar and storage microgrid deployment is critical to achieving commercial scale.

Barbuda: RMI will work with the government and the United Arab Emirates to fast track the solar-plus-storage microgrid that was developed during the planning phase.

Capacity Building: CAREC membership has surged and regional engagement has increased—illustrating the value of collaborating to fast-track clean energy implementation.

CAREC members convened in Miami in September for the first CAREC conference, focused on energy resilience and independence. CAREC offered numerous trainings as well as collaboration opportunities. CAREC will formalize its disaster-management working group to focus on disaster-communication best practices and disaster-recovery best practices. This will begin with a private group of communications officers and disaster management officers.

CAREC is also co-creating Caribbean-specific protocols and utility knowledge. Technical working groups will be established to collaboratively identify and share outputs with the entire community. The objective is to draw on the strength of experts from neighboring countries to solve local challenges and expedite the implementation of renewables.

Lastly, in partnership with the Caribbean Resiliency Working Group led by CARICOM, we will work on the integration of resiliency into the energy systems planning process. In an effort to more formally incorporate resilience into energy planning processes, RMI is filling the gap between the theoretical ideas that exist on resilience, and the quantitative metrics that are needed for robust energy planning processes. This is being done by developing a cost-benefit framework for a range of methodologies that incorporate resilience in energy planning processes. Preliminary results will be presented to the CARICOM Resilience Working Group to fine-tune the work plan to ensure that the results and findings from the process are most beneficial for energy stakeholders in the various CARICOM “countries.”

In the News

CBS, “Storm-Ravaged Caribbean Is Eyeing Solar But It Won’t Come Cheap”

Greentech Media, “One Year After Maria, Puerto Rico’s Energy Future Still in Limbo”

Reuters, “In British Virgin Islands, Hurricane Whips Up Green Energy Transition”

Caribbean 360, “A Solar Farm Opens In Saint Lucia”

CNN, “Meet the Puerto Rican Sisterhood Reinventing the Islands Future After Maria”

RMI’s Islands Program is made possible by generous support from the Global Environment Facility, Virgin Unite, Open Society Foundations, Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation, Energy Foundation, Builders Initiative, Sally Mead Hands Foundation, Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, Eldred Foundation, Kinesis Foundation, Alice and Fred Stanback and the generosity of individual donors.

Help Us Drive Impact Faster

As we celebrate the progress that has been made in one year’s time, a new hurricane season is underway. While the region has made significant progress, many projects require funding to continue.