The sorry state of renewable energy

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Above: Solar Panels by Markus Gann/DepositPhotos

BitDepth#1105 for August 08, 2017

At the Telecommunications Authority of T&T’s (TATT) open forum on July 20, the discussion about the role of renewable energy as a source of power for telecommunications took a backseat to conversations about the very real challenges facing energy conservation in this country.

Each speaker had a different perspective on the issues, but there was widespread agreement about several core issues.

The biggest bear in the room was the cost of energy in T&T. Our energy is cheap, by far the lowest cost in the region and renewable energy initiatives tend to be driven less by altruism and environmental consciousness than they are by simple economics.

Whatever cuts costs gets the love and there hasn’t been much heart for renewable energy, in dramatic contrast to more focused efforts in other Caribbean nations.

Anita Hankey’s name appears early in the exhaustive report on the status of local renewable energy initiatives produced by the IDB (PDF here).

Hankey, Team Lead of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries, seemed to be continuously biting back more severe comments during her contribution to the open forum.

But she did allow herself a moment of frankness, saying of the National Energy Policy after a contemplative pause, “That is a question that should be directed to the Minister of Energy.”

“We have perpetuated a culture of waste over time because of the cheap price of energy,” Hankey said.

Dr Thackwray Driver speaks at TATT’s Open Forum on Renewable Energy for telecommunications. Photo by Mark Lyndersay. Click to enlarge.

Dr Thackwray Driver, President and CEO of the Energy Chamber offered an engineer’s perspective on examples of that waste, including a very specific proposal to make better use of the power generation technologies in use today to tighten up the spill of energy within those systems.

“We are making a simple thing more difficult than it needs to be,” he said.

An issue that’s apparently more tangibly evidenced by the rather grim reality that a 150 per cent tax allowance for energy companies to invest in power saving technologies has never been accessed.

Andre Escalante, Managing Director of Energy Dynamics Limited pointed to an even more pressing issue for companies concerned about energy use, the poor state of energy efficiency in most local buildings.

“In T&T, we waste energy because it’s cheap,” Escalante lamented, “we waste, we waste, we waste. It’s a hard sell for renewable energy.”

“Get a good consultant before you plan or spend any money,” he advised.

Andre Escalante.Photo by Mark Lyndersay. Click to enlarge.

Escalante noted the need for more continuous monitoring and management of energy efficiency measures, for programmes to seal buildings more efficiently to limit energy loss, for repairing energy management systems and for timing energy use.

These measures, he insisted, can pay their own costs in less than a year and deliver faster returns than the longer term savings brought by bigger initiatives like solar panels, which have a ten-year arc for realising energy savings.

“Something as simple as shutting down computers and turning off lights in offices is stymied by culture issues.”

“People don’t want anyone to know when they leave for home early, so they leave the lights and computers on and hit the road to beat the traffic.”

Escalante recalled a conversation with a facilities manager who had given up on making energy conservation happen in any meaningful way because of those challenges.

“The leadership is not there,” Escalante said, “the desire is not there.”

“Until Dr Rowley goes to an international conference and realizes that the document that the country has signed onto (the Paris Agreement signed in 2015) is not being met, then nothing will happen.”

Courtenay Mark is the acting GM of T&TEC and did not speak at the TATT forum, but in his substantive role as Assistant GM of Engineering has led research into renewable energy use in T&T.

It’s worth noting this because depending on geography, geology and other natural specifications, different renewable energy resources work better in different islands.

Mark confirms that solar and wind generated energy are the best renewable energy resources for T&T.

Regarding the challenges of energy conservation, Mark noted that: “Clearly there is a need for a public awareness program, targeting household users and school children.”

“A publicised energy conservation program starting with State buildings and similar facilities would assist in this regard. The relatively capital high price for renewable energy will not hurt customers initially as the contribution from renewable energy will blend it’s cost with electricity from natural gas with little negative impact on the ‘weighted average’ price per unit of Electricity.”

Anita Hankey. Photo by Mark Lyndersay. Click to enlarge

According to Anita Hankey, there have been definite steps forward in the implementation of renewable energy production and energy conservation.

Energy audits have been done on eight government buildings and the government is working with the Bureau of Standards on specification for photovoltaic modules.

Thirteen community centres have been fitted with solar powered lighting on their grounds and 21 schools have been fitted with solar panels and three pilot projects in this fiscal year will add solar LED lighting to public facilities.

During Caricom’s “energy month” in November, the Ministry plans to stir discussion around issues related to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Work continues on a regional energy efficiency building code and the removal of at the Clean Energy Conference on June 8, the government committed itself to a 15 per cent reduction in carbon emissions and a ten per cent reduction in energy use by 2020.

Legislative review began in 2016 with energy stakeholders, including the RIC in a process chaired by the Attorney General.

One critical issue will be the rethinking of the role of customers on the grid when they are able to put energy back into the system.

According to Courtenay Mark, “Renewable energy at the household level would flow in both directions causing the domestic customer to be redefined according to the existing legislation to be a Generator. This would be very cumbersome to administer as each installation would now have to become a licensed generator requiring Presidential consent.”

That’s as clear an indicator as any that renewable energy and energy efficiency requires planning that’s both national and individual in scale if we are to move beyond the addictive teat of State subsidized energy supply.