Every year millions of tourists flock to the Caribbean to enjoy the region’s year round sunshine. Despite being blessed with beautiful weather, the region is only now taking concrete steps to turn the sun into more than just a tourist attraction and make solar power an integral part of their development plans. As it stands, outside of Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean remains deeply dependent on imported fossil fuels for both energy and transportation. It has been cited that the region is home to some of the world’s most expensive energy costs—resulting in a high level of economic vulnerability due to ever increasing energy prices. The high cost of energy importation has led to high levels of debt and has taken away funding that could otherwise go to social services, infrastructure, and poverty reduction programs.
While the region has caught an important break through the preferential terms of the PetroCaribe program initiated under Hugo Chavez, it remains to be seen how long this program will exist in its current form. The importance of PetroCaribe to the Caribbean cannot be overstated, as David Jessop, the Director of the Caribbean Council said, “If it were not for the energy lifeline that [Venezuela] has provided to every Caribbean nation other than Trinidad and Barbados, much of the region would by now be in economic free fall.” Despite these benefits, it would be wise for the region to try and bring about the cultivation of indigenous sources of energy to lessen their dependence on imported energy and vulnerability to changes in the regional geopolitical situation.
The privatization of many electrical companies in the region has historically led to a general aversion when it comes to the implementation of renewable energy technologies (RETs). While the infrastructure is expensive to implement, in the long term, organizations such as the United Nations Development Program have stated that it will definitely result in long term benefits for the developing world.
Despite the costs, opportunities are emerging for the development of RETs across the region. Significant projects have been announced for Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Jamaica has recently announced that it plans to undertake a pilot program in which it will implement the construction of “several zero-energy/energy-plus” buildings, which can produce surplus energy beyond the building’s immediate needs. If the program is successful it can be rolled out across the region. In addition, it was announced last year that Jamaica would also be the host site for the Caribbean’s largest solar energy plant, generating 60 megawatts of electricity.
While RETs such as solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, biomass, and hydro may not be able to bring about total self-sufficiency, but in combination with energy conservation and greater efficiency they can help to reduce the sky high costs associated with the status quo of imported fossil fuels. The recent opening of a new joint venture between Barbados and Trinidad further signals the possibility for regional opportunities in RET manufacturing. The new plant will specialize in the production of solar water heaters in addition to traditional PV solar panel systems.
Given the numerous challenges faced by Caribbean nations, such as their high dependence on imported goods, geographic isolation, lack of natural resources, high indebtedness, and small and vulnerable economies, action must be taken in regards to the indigenous production of energy. It is incredibly important for the Caribbean to take advantage of RETs—despite the short term cost, they hold the potential to transform the fortunes of the entire region. It is one area in which Caribbean leaders have more space to act than others. It may not be ideal, but it is certainly better than staying with the status quo.
Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA blogger focusing on the Caribbean. For more from his blog, "The Other Side of Paradise," visit nacla.org/blog/other-side-paradise. Edmonds is a former NACLA research associate and a current PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is studying the impact of neoliberalism on the St. Lucian banana trade. Follow him on twitter @kevin_edmonds.