We are at a critical juncture in the history of the Caribbean region. The existing electricity sector model was built, decades ago, upon the premise of the availability of relatively inexpensive fossil fuels. It is now obvious to all that this premise no longer exists – and the model now needs to be redesigned and the system rebuilt. But how is such an ambitious enterprise to be executed? The financial costs will be enormous, the technical and human resource requirements will be unprecedented in their scale and the need for bold, committed and focused leadership even more so.
First off, it is clear that the critical challenge that confronts us cannot be adequately met by individual action. Policies developed by individual countries in isolation will fail the region. This crisis will require the sustained, collective, focused attention of the leadership of the countries involved and the international donor community, for many years. Under this dispensation, individual countries must both agree to shoulder their share of the burden and to collaborate.
A key ingredient will be the acceptance of the real cost of fossil fuels, or more specifically, the greenhouse gases they emit – that is: the cost of carbon must be priced into the policies and legislative actions taken by the region.
Also note that although the above discussion is focused on electricity, we should consider that over the next 15 years, plug-in electric vehicles will come into their own – and our green electricity will be able to displace significant amounts of imported gasoline and thus provide a large measure of self-sufficiency in the transport sector as well.
It seems clear that all this will be hugely disruptive. There will be significant transition and adjustment costs associated with such a shift to a renewables-based regional electricity grid. Interconnected grids will be seen as a threat to the monopoly interests of the existing power companies. And if geothermal energy becomes a widespread baseload option, we face the challenge of gracefully retiring large amounts of installed diesel capacity, not all of which is owned by governments.
However, disruption carries with it the opportunity for transformation – and this transformative opportunity must be urgently embraced, for the alternative will be more disruptive still. What will oil prices be 15 years from now? No one knows the specific price but one thing is certain – it will be a higher number than today’s price. It may be much higher. If it is, and if our economies are not decisively decoupled from imported fossil fuels in the interim, the consequences for the region will be disastrous.
The above presents a scenario for electricity self-sustainability of the OECS, powered by renewable energy technology that is already available. Technically, the solution is achievable. The question is: are we going to remain a region of sun, sea and sand only for the benefit of our tourism marketing; or are we up to the challenge of putting our vast natural resources to work to achieve our long-term energy security?
About Mark Lee
Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.