By Onika Campbell
ST. JOHNS, Antigua and Barbuda (AlertNet) - Tourists seeking a Caribbean escape in the high-end resorts and secluded beaches of Antigua and Barbuda may soon be sunning themselves in a hotbed of renewable energy sources - if all goes according to plan.
Unusually exposed to turbulent energy prices by virtue of their small size, reliance on fuel imports and economic dependence on energy-hungry visitors, these former British island colonies are developing a new energy policy that aims to harness the power of the sun, wind, sea and waste.
They also hope to educate the islands’ 88,000 inhabitants on the virtues of cutting consumption and combating the impact of climate change. No one says it will be easy on islands where 80 percent of GDP is derived from tourism, with its mint juleps on ice, air conditioned rooms and clean towels daily.
But the stakes are high. Caribbean islands are particularly vulnerable to expected climate impacts including rising sea levels that threaten sea-front development, higher temperatures that can drive away tourists, boosts in hurricane activity and growing pressure on limited natural fresh water supplies.
That is one reason the government is now arming itself with studies and carrying out consultations as it prepares to launch a new energy policy that will include renewable sources in the national electrical grid.
“The ultimate goal is the provision of reliable and affordable energy services to all people in Antigua and Barbuda,” Ambassador Joan Underwood, a senior official in the prime minister’s office, said in a telephone interview.
The islands also aim to create policies that will improve energy efficiency while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy and curbing the islands’ fiscal deficit, said Diann Black-Layne, the government’s chief environmental officer.
The effort has international backing and some precedents. An earlier campaign to introduce energy-efficient light bulbs and a wind power project was funded by the government of Cuba.
EFFICIENCY AND COMPETITIVENESS
One major motivation to increase renewable energy use is the high cost of cooling the islands’ many visitors with fans and air conditioning units, particularly as current fuel and electricity prices are among the highest in the region.
The government projects 3 percent annual growth in demand for electricity in the tourism sector - an estimate that does not factor in any increases resulting from warmer temperatures linked to climate change and is based solely on anticipated increases in numbers of visitors.
To remain competitive in the global market, the government believes its needs to find ways to reduce energy costs.
But the country lacks regulations to foster development of renewable energy technologies, improve the efficiency of non-renewables and take advantage of emerging technologies, officials say.
The government hopes to fix that with its National Energy Policy, a first draft of which was released in January, and a parallel Sustainable Energy Action Plan that will bring the government into an arena until now largely occupied by NGOs.
“Antigua and Barbuda is endowed with some renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, waste to energy and marine energy,” Underwood said. “These resources may have the potential to provide Antigua and Barbuda with an alternative and more sustainable energy supply and reduce its dependence on imported fossil fuels.”
Another legislative initiative, the National Energy Education Act, aims to retool local and regional academic institutions as centres for research, education and workforce training in energy-related fields. A pair of engineers for the Antigua Public Utilities Authority have already received training in the use of solar power in buildings and desalination technology, officials said.
The utility also has signed a memorandum of cooperation with Gansu Natural Energy Research Institute of China, which has promised technical assistance.
The government has some concerns about the relatively high up-front costs of switching to renewable power, and about its reliability.
“Alternatives for energy generation such as solar remain costly, invariably require back-up conventional power sources, and have only limited access to technical capabilities for servicing and maintenance” Black-Laayne warned.
But the government already has pushed ahead with a few small first efforts, including a grant to install solar-powered lights at Shirley Heights Lookout, a popular tourist spot, and energy audits at facilities including the prime minister’s office.
"By reducing energy consumption in the public sector, we will be freeing up scarce financial resources," Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer told a news conference. "The savings realised by introducing energy efficiency measures in the public sector can and will be dedicated to improving our schools, our hospital and clinics, our roads and the various other social services which the government must provide."
Onika Campbell is a freelance writer based in St. Johns. She also works for the country’s agriculture, lands, housing and environment ministry.