Barbados guide 2016: Diversifying and renewing economy
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Barbados guide 2016: Diversifying and renewing economy

Renewing itself: Barbados is powering ahead with plans to transform itself into a carbon-neutral exporter of renewable energy, with wind and solar leading the way.

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When a group of four like-minded people joined forces in 2010, they had little more than a vision: to reduce Barbados’ dependence on fossil fuels and to promote energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy technology. It seemed a vague ambition, yet within a year the Barbados Renewable Energy Association (BREA) had been formed and the island’s attitude toward energy – how it was sourced, stored and used – began to change. So did the scale of its ambitions. 

In the intervening period, government agencies and ministers have signed up to support Barbados’ ambitions in the renewable energy sector. Speaking at the launch of the BREA International Conference and Exposition on June 7, 2016 – five years to the day after the agency was formed – DeLisle Worrell, governor of the central bank of Barbados, outlined plans to “explore and discuss all that we need to do to achieve sustainable energy independence in Barbados and in the rest of the Caribbean”.

Worrell told the conference: “We used to think that the greatest windfall that a country could experience was to find oil in commercial quantities.” But, he added, technology had developed rapidly in recent years, to the point where Barbados – and the entire Caribbean – could produce “all the power we need” from unlimited sources of renewable energy. 

The central bank governor noted that, had the island been carbon neutral in 2015, eliminating entirely the need for oil, Barbados would have saved $208.7 million in fuel imports alone. And had all the nation’s forms of transportation, from cars and buses to trucks and construction machinery, run on electricity, it would have cut the overall import bill by 15%. That, Worrell adds, is money that “could have been used to invest in new hotels or infrastructure. It would have increased investment by over 50%, and might have created hundreds of new jobs.”

Renewable energy is not new here: Barbados has a long and proud history in the field. Three centuries ago, the island was dotted with windmills, which helped process the sugar cane harvest. In the 1970s, local households and businesses began to install solar water heaters, making Barbados the fifth-ranked country in the world for solar water heater penetration.

Yet that is small potatoes compared with its modern ambitions. The final targets are not set in stone, but current BREA president Aidan Rogers believes that Barbados will be in a position to generate 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2033 – “and possibly,” he adds, “long before then. We really believe we can get there. We are stimulating the discussion, and aggressively moving to integrate renewables into the grid.” 

Dream taking shape

A genuinely carbon-neutral economy powered by renewables alone might still be little more than a dream. Barbados’ authorities will need to invest heavily in new technologies, from photovoltaics and wind power to new and more efficient methods of power storage. 

But the dream is slowly taking shape. At Lamberts, a tiny village in the elevated far north of the island, Barbados Light and Power (BL&P) is hoping to join forces with foreign investors to build a wind farm capable of generating up to 120 megawatt hours of power. “Lamberts is our most important in the Trents district wind power site,” says Rogers. “In order to secure the foreign capital we need these projects to be really big, capable of generating true economies of scale.” 

Another main driver of renewable power will be solar generation – a natural fit for an island that enjoys an average daily eight to nine hours of sunshine. A solar project, operated by BL&P, costing $43 million, and with an installed photovoltaic capacity of 22 megawatts, is now operational. It is situated north of the island. In addition, the number of electric vehicles registered continues to increase, with more than 160 cars on the island at end-June.

Finally, there is pumped-storage hydroelectricity, whereby water is pumped from a lower to a higher elevation using affordable off-peak electric power, before being channelled through power-storing sluice gates. “Pumped-storage is relatively old-tech,” says Rogers. “It is a simple, cheap and reliable way to store energy, given that it is just latent energy in dormant water.” It is also, he adds, “key to our entire renewable strategy, given its standing as a vital source of back-up power”.

For Barbados, there are a host of reasons to pursue a carbon-neutral path. It will boost economic output and save money. “If we can build a substantial renewable energy grid, the savings purely in terms of foreign exchange would be equivalent to an oil windfall of considerable magnitude,” says central bank governor Worrell. It would, he adds, boost annual economic growth to 5% or more, depending on how fast the country can achieve full independence from fossil fuels. A carbon-neutral economy, promising the freshest of air, would further boost the island’s resurgent tourism sector. Charging stations for electric cars and buses – more than 100 green vehicles have already been rolled out on Barbados’ roads – would be introduced, reducing and even eliminating air pollution. 

Within a few years, Worrell believes, Barbados will be in a position to export electricity to other countries across the Caribbean. That will transform this longstanding energy importer into an energy exporter, helping to strengthen government finances and hand a further boost to the island’s foreign currency reserves. 

It is an ambitious plan, yet thanks to the advent of new and cheaper forms of technology, it is also eminently achievable. For everyone on the island, from the Barbados Renewable Energy Association to the average household or small hotel operator, it is a win-win scenario. As Worrell notes: “We can produce all the power we need from renewable energy sources, and, unlike oil, supplies will never run out. In Barbados’ case we can generate all the electricity the country could possibly need from solar and wind energy.”

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