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Why Trinidad and Tobago should go solar

By Ian Smart

I spent two years in Sydney, Australia, at the University of New South Wales completing my Masters in photovoltaics and solar energy and working for a renewable energy company. That experience was a real eye-opener for me as I came to appreciate the tremendous potential and power of solar energy both for generating electricity and heat.

The university I attended had an entire school dedicated to harnessing this power technically and more importantly to creating the right energy policy to stimulate the growth of this sector.

There is a common misconception that solar is not ready to compete with fossil fuels and more research needs to be done before it can be deployed but from what I have seen first hand, this is not the case.

The Australian Government created a small regulated renewable energy market in 2000 to increase deployment of new renewable energy to a target of 9500 giga watt hours within ten years to 2010.

However after a short period of time the market started to perform much quicker than was anticipated. This was due to increases in the price of energy and also climate change which was reducing the water supply.

The water supply affects energy supply if the energy is produced from a hydro electric plant. The less water there is in the storage reservoir the less energy there is to power the turbine when the water is released. The water supply also affects energy produced from coal because water is necessary for cooling the furnaces. Without this water the furnaces would over heat and would have to be shut down.

All this translated into higher demand for solar electric generation which does not require water.

In addition the market price per unit watt paid to solar electric generators increased.

I also studied the energy policies of Germany that created a system that allows homes to export energy they generate back into the grid. The price per unit watt generated is paid by the utility companies at a higher rate than that which they charge for the energy which they provide from their power stations. Therefore in sunny months it is possible for homes to get a net gain which translates to energy credits which can be cashed in.

This strategy has resulted in Germany having the largest uptake of solar energy in Europe.

In developing countries in Asia solar is also spreading organically because financial institutions began to recognise solar modules as collateral security for micro loans.

If payment are missed then the solar modules are repossessed. I should also mention that our neighbour Barbados has the highest uptake per capita for solar home hot water systems in the Caribbean due to tax incentives. They are second in the world only to Israel.

This silent revolution has been occurring even before the price of energy rose to the high levels today.

The dramatic rising price of oil is a result of the world reaching the point where supply and demand for oil are now on par. At this point rising spikes in the oil price can occur due to speculation about the weather or rumors of war in oil producing countries.

Another important fact for the future of oil prices is the concept of global peak oil. Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. We are currently at the edge of the plateau of peak oil. Any time period after this point will result in slowing of economic growth.

From what I have seen political will is one of the biggest barriers to the proliferation of Solar energy.

I think that Trinidad and Tobago is well poised to take advantage of our sunny location (11 degrees north of the equator) and increased wealth from our natural gas sales to diversify into Solar energy.

The benefits will translate into less strain on the utility grid, long term energy security and higher rates of employment than in the oil and gas sector, long term cost savings for individual homes, and it will reduce the energy subsidies that the government provides to our electricity supply. The less natural gas we use for domestic consumption the more we can export.

My basic message is that if all these countries can do it so can we.

Now is the time to make the switch to solar before the price of the components that comprise a solar panel increases resulting in the increase in price of the solar panels themselves. Sustainable development must be the guiding force for a progressive country. I honestly believe that we can become the first nation on earth to be totally solar for residential and commercial buildings if we try.

Below are definitions of two key words used:

Photovoltaic: conjunction of the old Greek word “photon” meaning light and “volt”, the force that makes electrons move hence electrical energy derived from sunlight.

Renewable energy: energy obtained from sources that are essentially inexhaustible, unlike, for example, the fossil fuels, of which there is a finite supply. Examples wind, biomass, geothermal, solar.

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