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Solar Comes of Age in Virgin Islands

Over the past year, Virgin Islands residents, businesses and government facilities have been going solar like never before. The federally-funded, Energy Office grants that helped fund many solar energy projects are no longer available. But even without rebates, some solar photovoltaic (PV) dealers in the Virgin Islands report that business remains brisk and residents continue to call and ask how they can get PV systems installed at their homes. (Belle Caribe, St. John, below)

The economics of having a PV system in the Virgin Islands are looking better and better as fossil fuel becomes more costly. After all, once the system is paid for, the power generated is pretty well free. While the initial investment remains a problem for some, the amount of up-front capital needed to go solar has gotten smaller since the initiation of the net-metering program in the territory a little over five years ago. Also the announcement of the closing of Hovensa has sparked additional interest in alternative energy. Kelly Gloger, Managing Partner, Solar Delivered, says, “We have seen a quadrupling of monthly sales since the January announcement that Hovensa would be closing.”

Gary Udhwani, CEO of Eco Innovations, says, “Systems have come down so much in price that the rebate does not make any difference anymore.”  He adds that he believes the rebate program was to get the solar business off the ground and that it accomplished that.

Instead of buying batteries for storage, residents in the net metering program can send excess power to the Water and Power Authority and retrieve it when they need it—essentially using WAPA as their battery. About 100 residents are now taking part in the net-metering program. The program is limited to 20-kilowatt (kW) systems for residential customers and 100-kW systems for commercial customers. In the aggregate, WAPA is allowing net-metering systems to total 5 megawatts (MW) on St. Croix and 10 MW on St. Thomas.

WAPA must set limits on renewable generation because of the need to maintain the stability of the power distribution system as increasing levels of renewables are brought online. Unlike traditional sources of energy, which are constantly available or “dispatchable,” wind and solar resources are intermittent in nature. So when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, keeping the lights on becomes more of a challenge—especially for small island grids.

Presently, those 5 MW and 10 MW limits seem a long way off, but they may well become a concern for WAPA in a year or two. Just six years ago, the Nature Conservancy’s 7.9-kW PV system in Little Princess on St. Croix was recognized as the largest in the Virgin Islands. Now, it is not even close. Installation of systems larger than 8 kilowatts have become weekly events in the islands.

Something else new is that residents, with just a couple clicks of the mouse, can get real-time data on how PV systems are producing in the Virgin Islands. The Energy Office has a Web page that provides links to pages providing that information. The webpage is located at: (http://www.vienergy.org/AAenergy/pages/solar%20power.html). For example:

  • The Enphase Energy (https://enlighten.enphaseenergy.com/public_systems) website features a clickable map that links to information about 24 different solar system installations in the Virgin Islands, including present power production and the history of power production at each site. Also displayed is information about how much pollution is being reduced by using the solar panels instead of burning fossil fuel to produce the power. People concerned about the environment may be pleasantly surprised by how much carbon offset their neighbors have achieved.

For people who want to know how much power is produced by the largest PV system in the islands, the one at the Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas, they can go to http://www.alsoenergy.com/satcon/PowerLobby.aspx?sid=26542&source=Satcon&lang=en-US.  This system is estimated to produce enough electricity to save the Port Authority roughly $900 a day on its WAPA bill. Rough calculation, shows the system producing about 644,000 kWh’s per year.

  • Students at the St. Croix Educational Complex will have such a tool available to them when they return to classes in the Fall. One World Sustainable is donating a 1-kW PV system and will be installing it at the school this summer.

Although wind energy market has not taken off as quickly as the solar market in the Virgin Islands, it too has seen growth, and there is a site where residents can get real-time data on an active wind project. The data comes from the turbine installed at the St. Croix Reformed Church. That site is located at http://stcroixreformed.org/our-wind-turbine/.

For more information on renewable energy options and other Virgin Islands energy issues, go to www.vienergy.org or call 713.8436 on St. Croix and 714.8436 on St. Thomas or St. John.



Category/ies:Regional Articles.
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