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Caribbean energy resilience isn’t all high tech; it’s due diligence

One year has passed since the massive devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, and the Caribbean region is entering another hurricane season with understandings of the past and a wary eye towards the future. “Resilience” has been the crux of conversations as governments move forward in rebuilding infrastructure and considering future development. The new focus on resilience crystalized by the hurricanes is being applied to rehabilitating renewable energy facilities damaged during the storms, and what’s emerging is more due diligence than high tech. And that’s a good thing.

Renewables are the future—long-term ownership helps

The Caribbean has been shifting towards a more renewable energy supply over the past decade as the cost of equipment like photovoltaic (PV) modules declines, offering a much-needed alternative to importing expensive foreign fossil fuels. In 2018, over half of Caribbean electric utilities include wind or solar PV as part of their generation mix, and more nations in the region are setting targets for increased renewable power. This August, 26 Caribbean countries joined more than 40 private- and public-sector partners in launching the Caribbean Smart Accelerator and with the goal of making the region the world's first climate-smart zone, which includes renewable energy investments. Clean energy has the dual climate benefits of adaptation and mitigation: new generation facilities can be more hurricane-resilient and curb greenhouse gas emissions by replacing or avoiding the need for diesel- or other fossil fuel-powered sources. This is exactly what the Caribbean (and the rest of the world) needs to do at this moment in history: adjust to the new climate reality while helping to curb its devastating impacts.

Governments are eager to restore renewable energy facilities damaged during the 2017 hurricanes, some of which have been running at partial load or not operating at all. Insurance roadblocks and the need for additional investment have caused delays in bringing renewable energy plants back online at full power. The surge in Caribbean clean energy interest has created a build-and-sell trend where developers enter the region to build facilities with plans to sell those facilities once they are up and operational. This has often resulted in a focus on lowest-cost construction over resiliency. In addition, lapses in committed ownership have in some cases distracted from implementing good operating practices and stalled repairs for clean power infrastructure. Nevertheless, industry participants with a deep commitment to renewable energy in the region are surging forward and taking action to rehabilitate and strengthen damaged renewables facilities for the long term.

Resilience lies with best practices

Hurricanes Irma and Maria have refocused infrastructure planning in the Caribbean on the worst-case scenarios instead of the normal, expected conditions. The region has become acutely aware that resilience needs to mean that energy infrastructure is ready to withstand any environmental conditions it could be exposed to, which includes high winds, salt and moisture corrosion, static surges and more. The resulting best practices are less about incorporating new high-tech equipment—although advances in features and decreases in costs will help—and more about a common-sense approach fueled by dedicated attention to project specifications and ongoing maintenance.

Nonprofit organizations and government agencies have researched hurricane damage to Caribbean PV power plants and analyzed the root causes of why some facilities weathered the 2017 storms better than others. Both the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency released advisory reports outlining design recommendations for solar facilities focused on wind resistance: calculate wind loads on the PV array through a more robust structural engineering review process, install appropriate racking structures designed for higher wind levels and use panel connection methods that are better able to withstand high winds. To implement these best practices, RMI estimates that a new 1-megawatt ground-mount project would incur a 5 percent increase in engineering, procurement and construction costs.

Even with the appropriate design elements, diligent ongoing operational practices are essential for resilient energy infrastructure. Projects should have a schedule of maintenance tasks, including checking the tightness of the PV array's bolted connections on an annual basis, spot checking clamps and bolts prior to forecasted storms, tightening bolts after major storms and regularly removing debris from the site. Regular maintenance schedules also provide an opportunity to pace resilience upgrades as equipment is evaluated and potentially retired, which helps balance out costs and benefits. Committed facility ownership helps reinforce the need for operations and maintenance by employing a dedicated on-site staff and mandating reporting on system health.

Planning for the worst in a changed climate

The Caribbean is starting to see these improvements in action as local renewable energy projects are restarted, and ultimately each facility demands a thoughtful site-specific analysis. My company BMR Energy recently acquired a 4-megawatt solar farm in St. Croix that demonstrates the complex interplay between equipment, design and operations. The St. Croix plant had been running at less than 45 percent capacity for nearly a year since being damaged in the 2017 hurricanes. Because the racking was sturdy, well-designed and rated to withstand 180 mile-per-hour winds, the majority of the plant’s PV infrastructure remained standing. However, the inverters did not fare as well. Although they were housed inside a sealed building, the structure’s roof fan blew out during the hurricane, causing significant damage to the electrical equipment. As the new facility owners, BMR is employing the worst-case scenario approach to resilience by replacing these damaged inverters with outdoor-rated equipment, specially coated to be resistant to environmental salt and moisture even though the inverters will remain indoors.

In addition to the flooding, the St. Croix solar facility also experienced a static surge during Hurricane Maria that damaged electronic equipment and solar PV modules. Repairs to the facility will include installing additional grounding points in the array collection system and implementing new storm preparedness operating procedures to check grounding systems and reinforce where needed. Facility design and operations will center around planning for both the known and unknown.

The Caribbean region is learning that the human factor—like selecting the right equipment and employing diligent maintenance techniques—is the foundation for energy infrastructure longevity in the face of increasing storm severity. Checklists will be helpful tools in this process, but working with experienced project teams, dedication to best practices and committed ownership will be key to keeping renewable energy truly resilient in the Caribbean. And that has more benefits than reliable electricity. A strong electricity supply grounded in dedicated people generates long-term economic prosperity for the region.

Bruce Levy's picture

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 26, 2018 1:53 pm GMT

The Caribbean region is learning that the human factor—like selecting the right equipment and employing diligent maintenance techniques—is the foundation for energy infrastructure longevity in the face of increasing storm severity.

Excellent point here, and I'd also point to proper preparations, reactions, and decisions from government officials as key to the future of the energy systems in the Caribbean. Many of the islands have power systems run by a single monopolistic opwer company which has its own set of issues (in and out of times of emergencies), so it's crucial the policy leaders and decisionmakers have the necessary conversations today and on an ongoing basis. 

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