Renewed Leadership for Renewables and Climate-Smart Infrastructure

CEOs and energy leaders from Caribbean utilities recently met in Barbados for the CARILEC Chief Executive Officers and Leadership Conference, co-hosted with the Barbados Light and Power Company Limited (BLPC).


This year’s conference was attended by a record-setting 180 utility CEOs and energy leaders under the theme: Leadership in an Age of Disruption – Managing the 3D’s: Digitalisation. Decarbonisation. Decentralisation. 


One of the key take-aways from the corridors of the Conference was that the renewable energy revolution is not something of the future – it is happening right now in the Caribbean.


Jules Kortenhorst, the Chief Executive Officer of Rocky Mountain Institute, served as the keynote moderator with opening remarks by Sir Richard Branson. When asked by Mr. Kortenhorst what he thought to be the number one thing utility leaders or CEOs can do to move faster with their own renewable energy endeavours, Sir Richard Branson replied:


“Be bold. And start now. […] Many of you have piloted small amounts of renewable energy in your systems. Now is the time to launch new projects, and push your teams to deliver lower cost systems that maintain grid reliability through storage or other means. You have the resources you need to move faster- and now begins the challenge of walking that path.”


In an interview with Renewable Energy Caribbean, Mr. Kortenhorst offered his explanation for this paradigm shift, describing how the dramatic reduction in the cost of renewables (especially solar, wind and battery storage), international commitment galvanized around the Paris Agreement, and last year’s destructive hurricane season all demonstrate that “we have got to build much more resilient and sustainable energy systems than we have done in the past.”


Renewable energy has taken off across many Caribbean islands. In terms of solar energy alone, over half of Caribbean utilities already own or operate solar PV as part of their generation mix (Burgess and Goodman, Solar Under Storm, 2018). More than 225 MW of solar is installed across rooftops, parking canopies, and large tracts of land throughout the region. However, upscaling these successes and designing climate-smart energy infrastructure still remain key challenges for the sector, especially after the 2017 hurricane season.


As described by Mr. Kortenhorst, one way to design climate-smart energy infrastructure is not to treat the grid “as one beast”; but a collection of smaller systems which can operate independently if one part is hit by a large hurricane. Another option is to lay the transmission lines underground wherever possible, thereby offering greater protection from storms. 


Mr. Kortenhorst also recommends leveraging renewable technologies that are more appropriate to long term resilience; for example, solar energy is relatively inexpensive and, if constructed in the right way, robust against hurricanes. After the destruction of the 2017 hurricane season, some solar systems on islands such as Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Barbuda, suffered catastrophic damage; whereas different solar PV systems, such as ones installed in the British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, and St. Eustatius, weathered the storms and continued producing power. 


SolarUnderStormTo this end, Rocky Mountain Institute undertook a new study, Solar Under Storm: Select Best Practices for Resilient Ground-Mount PV Systems with Hurricane Exposure, to identify the root causes of solar PV system failures in the face of hurricanes, and make concrete recommendations for building more resilient solar PV systems overall.


For those planning to add new solar projects, learning these lessons will not only preserve their assets in the face of extreme weather events, but ensure greater resiliency for the communities they power.