U.S. Virgin Islands Push Into Clean Energy

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling, always looking to bring you interesting cleantech reading, is proud to repost this article courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Author credit goes to Bill Scanlon.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to pay energy bills there.

The tiny U.S. territory in the Caribbean has just 110,000 residents, all the beach, surf, wind and sun you’d ever want, but energy prices that are four to five times higher than are paid in the continental United States.

The idyllic view of the coastline on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, on Skyline Road near the capital Charlotte Amalie isn't spoiled by a 10-kilowatt photovoltaic system Credit: Don Buchanan, USVI Energy Office

Like many islands on earth, the USVI are almost 100 percent dependent on imported oil for electricity.  Residents pay about 47 cents per kilowatt hour to light their homes and run their appliances. Imported oil is even used to desalinate the water because there is so little fresh water available other than what residences catch on their roof in the form of rain water.

But USVI Gov. John P. de Jongh Jr., working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the U.S. Department of Interior, has vowed to transform energy use dramatically.  In January, at his State of the Territory address, he announced the goal of reducing use of fossil fuels by 60 percent in the next 15 years.

That’s huge, and a great challenge, and just possibly a blueprint for how to achieve those similar reductions on the mainland.

“What we’re attempting to do is integrate every large portion of renewable energy into our system,” said Karl Knight, the director of USVI’s energy office, who also is a board member of the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority.  Think of it as a pilot for how to integrate renewables as a large proportion of the grid.”

To get there, a half dozen different technologies need to be implemented, and energy efficiency will have to become a rallying cry.

A Recipe for Energy Savings

That’s where NREL’s scientists and engineers are helping.

The United States, New Zealand, and Iceland are three of the leading actors in the international partnership, Energy Development in Island Nations (EDIN), and for the United States, its Virgin Islands territory was a natural fit.

“We wanted to help USVI particularly because the governor was very committed to transforming the energy infrastructure, as was the CEO of their utility,” NREL’s Adam Warren, who heads NREL’s EDIN program, said.

NREL has helped USVI — its government, utilities and public and private groups — to map the renewable energy potential, and to determine how to get to a 60 percent reduction by 2025. Early on, NREL produced a major technological report on grid integration, transmission and distribution.

“We think 60 percent is very realistic,” Knight said. “The government established that goal in collaboration with NREL and the Island Nations global partnership. They challenged Gov. deJongh to be aggressive in his goal-setting and he took them up on it. We established the aggressive goal because we spend so much on  The only thing that people in the Virgin Islands talk about is the size of their electric bills.”

The high rates have hurt low-income residents and have been a deterrent to economic investment, Knight said. “If the rate is going to be 40 cents a kilowatt hour or more, it shapes the type of business that’s willing to locate in the Virgin Islands,” he said. “Our total dependence on oil for power generation in an era of expensive crude oil is having a huge impact.”

USVI burns 2.6 million barrels of oil each year to generate electricity and desalinate water.

The recipe to achieve a 60 percent reduction:
2 percent biomass
3 percent landfill gas
3 percent solar
6 percent wind
8 percent waste-to-energy

38 percent energy efficiency

At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), we focus on creative answers to today's energy challenges. From fundamental science and energy analysis to validating new products for the commercial market, NREL researchers are dedicated to transforming the way the world uses energy.