I recently wrote about how hard it is for small island states to embrace renewable energy, even though they tend to have the most expensive energy prices in the world. While it might seem obvious that tropical islands ought to be able to make use of solar power, in reality it is very difficult to incorporate variable power sources into a small grid. Consequently, small countries that market themselves to tourists on the basis of their sunshine are, ironically, stuck with fossil fuels.
One exception is Barbados, which committed to 100% renewable energy in 2016. Building on that initial commitment, they now plan to eliminate fossil fuels altogether and reach zero carbon by 2030 – making it one of the most ambitious energy transition projects in the world.
So how are they planning to do it?
For a start, Barbados already has one low carbon feather in its cap: it’s a genuine world leader in solar hot water, in the top five globally for solar hot water systems per capita. This dates back to 1974, when a forward thinking government began promoting it in response to the energy crisis. There are now over 50,000 solar hot water installations in Barbados, for a population of 287,000 people. That has kept gas consumption low, and provides a very good platform to phase it out.
That expertise in solar hot water also forms a good foundation for building out solar PV, with plenty of companies set up to work on rooftops, and houses oriented in the right direction to capture the sun. The current target is for 35,000 solar installations, either ground-mounted or on buildings. These will all have to meet storm proofing standards to make them resilient to the region’s hurricanes. The first grid-scale solar farm opened in 2019, and a feed-in tarriff was introduced the same year.
Complementing that solar power will be wind, energy from waste and bio-energy, including waste from the sugar cane industry. Bagasse, the waste from sugar harvesting, provides half the electricity in Mauritius, an island state on the other side of the world.
Integrating wind and solar power will also need energy storage. The current strategy is low on specifics at the moment, but that may include batteries – and the government has already stipulated that a process needs to be put in place for recycling them. Pumped hydro could also be a big part of the solution, as it has been in many other locations.
This month Britain announced that it will stop selling new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. The plan in Barbados is of a different order of magitude – by 2030 they plan to ditch the sale of petrol and diesel itself. Instead, they will prioritise sustainable mass transit, electric vehicles, and retro-fitting existing fleets for electric power or biofuels. The Transport Board took delivery of its first 33 electric buses earlier this year. A local company called Megapower has made good progress on a national charging network for electric cars, and the usual problems of range anxiety do not apply in the same way in island states.
Despite progress so far, it’s fair to say that this is all a very tall order, especially considering that when Barbados first announced its plan for 100% renewable energy, it was essentially starting at zero. There are many unanswered questions, including around possible exploitation of fossil fuels for export. It remains to be seen whether it can be funded, or whether existing institutions are up to the task of a decade long transformation.
However, the high energy prices paid by island states mean that the savings from renewable energy accumulate fast. The government, which is moving to 100% renewables on all its own buildings, is already saving millions of dollars a year on its electricity bill. Since fossil fuels are imported, eliminating them in favour of locally produced renewable energy all helps to keep wealth circulating within Barbados. It may yet prove impossible, but it’s an impressively ambitious vision and I look forward to seeing how it goes.
- Feature image by Allen Watkin