Richard Branson Wants Caribbean Islands to Swap Diesel for Renewables

Dirty diesel is the most common form of electricity generation throughout Caribbean island nations, but that will change if billionaire Richard Branson has anything to do with it.

Branson is using his private island in the British Virgin Islands, Necker Island, as a test bed for a microgrid that will run on renewable generation. The project on Necker, which is supported by NRG Energy, is not just an exercise in bringing renewables to the region at any cost. It aims to make renewables affordable to island economies.

“What we’ve learned in the renewable world is everyone wants to save the world,” David Crane, NRG’s chief executive, told The New York Times. “But very few people want to pay more for energy.” The average price of electricity in the Caribbean is about four times higher than it is in the mainland United States.

The push for clean energy is the core mission of the Ten Island Renewable Challenge led by the Carbon War Room, a nonprofit founded by Branson. The problem for most islands is that the upfront cost of renewable technology and storage is relatively expensive given that most island nations have small populations. Because the projects are relatively small, compared to projects in the US or Europe, it can be difficult to get financing. 

At the same time, however, islands across the globe depend on diesel, which makes electricity incredibly expensive compared to regions that rely on other fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas. Hawaii, for example, has the highest electricity rates in the United States, about double the price of the next closest state.

Branson's challenge in the Caribbean already has the support of Aruba, British Virgin Islands, St. Lucia, and Turks and Caicos. Aruba, for example, already has a wind farm and is planning more.

Other islands are looking at solar, wind, LED lighting for municipal applications, waste-to-energy, and geothermal. For years, Barbados has been toying with the idea of using a special breed of sugar cane for co-generation, but has yet to invest in a large-scale project. Late last year, Puerto Rico mandated energy storage to go with wind and solar projects on the island, which could be a model for other islands if it is successful.

On the 74-acre Necker Island, the microgrid will combine wind, solar, and batteries that can support about 80 percent of the island’s energy requirements. On small islands, like Necker, microgrids may seem like a natural solution, but cost remains an issue if they are powered by renewables.

Although the cost of renewables have come down, and might be competitive with expensive diesel power, intermittent renewable energy requires expensive storage and sophisticated controls to balance grid conditions on that small of a scale.

Branson has the will and the deep pockets to invest in such a project, but the results will have to be replicable at a price that non-billionaire utility customers can afford on other islands.

Some of the solutions may be in attractive financing, rather than in proving the technology. In some places, subsidies for diesel make it more affordable and if those are ended, renewables look more attractive. Short-term tax benefits for renewables can also help to get projects off the ground. The Carbon War Room said it would help islands with assistance in attracting project engineers and financiers.

“There’s tens of thousands of islands burning diesel fuel that’s really destroying their economies because it’s so expensive,” Crane told the The New York Times.

Branson is hoping for quick results, and not just on Necker Island. "We're hoping to get a number of islands to sign up to get as carbon-neutral as they can over the next few years," Branson told Phys.org. “Immediately afterwards,” he wrote in a blog post, “we want to head to the Pacific Islands and implement everything we will have learned.”

 

Photo: Todd Vansickle/AP Photo 

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