Caribbean islands turn to solar to keep lights on as hurricanes grow stronger


When Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico in September, it caused a near-island blackout as the storm’s strong winds toppled the fragile power grid.

Carlos Ramos spoke to CNN while helping friends clean up their flood-damaged beach house in Salinas. Ramos said most of his neighbors in Aguas Buenas, in the island’s central mountain range, were among those who lost power in the wake of the hurricane.

But the house of Ramos kept power.

Frustrated by the rising cost of electricity and the ever-looming threat of power outages on the storm-hit island, the 59-year-old retired bank worker had solar panels installed on his home.

“All my neighbors said I was crazy to get solar panels,” he told CNN. “Now they’re sitting in the dark. It was the best investment.”

World leaders are in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, this week for the UN’s COP27 climate summit, where they are negotiating solutions to the climate crisis and haggling over how to help developing nations transition to energy net and pay for extreme weather disasters.

But as they do, millions of people are already dealing with the impacts.

Among the regions that have long suffered from these devastating impacts are the Caribbean islands, where sea levels are rising and hurricanes are becoming more intense.

But Caribbean leaders, residents and even utilities say they are tired of waiting for world leaders to bail them out. Experts and residents tell CNN that the islands are now adapting on their own through subsidies, ditching fossil fuels and advancing clean energy across the region to better prepare them for the worsening impacts of the climate crisis .

“We don’t have the luxury of being able to sit back and wait until the planet comes to an agreement,” Racquel Moses, CEO of the Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator, told CNN. “We have been waiting and we have tried to do the best we can with the resources we have. But we’re not seeing enough momentum and we’re still making losses.”

Last year, the Bahamas successfully developed a solar microgrid that provides renewable energy to every home on Ragged Island, a small island community that was devastated by Hurricane Irma. The Category 5 tore through the Caribbean in 2017, displacing thousands and knocking out power grids.

The Ragged Island Power Project was designed so that the next time a storm hits and knocks out the power system, the 390-kilowatt microgrid can be disconnected from the main grid and keep the lights on for residents.

The success of that project created a ripple effect in the Bahamas, said David Gumbs, director of the Islands Energy Program at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit group that works to expand energy programs net to reduce global emissions. The country has now deployed even more microgrids on other islands, totaling nearly 6.5 megawatts of renewable energy across the country, which is enough to power about 300 Caribbean homes.

“The project is definitely a success,” Gumbs told CNN. “We are in a transition phase. Now there are several islands that are champions in big initiatives.”

Damaged trees after the passage of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in September 2017.

Moses said back-to-back hurricanes in 2017, first Irma, then Maria, were the tipping point for the Caribbean, where residents and government leaders said they could no longer afford to wait and “be sitting around hoping” that rich countries will bail out. of the climate crisis, or stop its acceleration.

“We are already threatened,” said Moses. “You’ve just seen Hurricane Fiona and what it’s done, not only to the Caribbean islands, but to the US, the most powerful economy on the planet, and yet responding to damage worth thousands of million dollars will be problematic.”

Caribbean islands contribute a tiny fraction to the climate crisis — less than 2 percent of global warming emissions, Moses said — but are on the front lines when it comes to climate disasters.

And in addition to flooding, downed trees, run-down roads and broken infrastructure, rising utility prices have become unaffordable, Gumbs said.

“When you’re paying four times more for electricity and your income is four times less than the median income in the United States, that just creates a hardship for people,” he said. “And those are the people we’re worried about getting left behind.”

Gumbs experienced the wrath of Irma itself on his home island of Anguilla, where he was then the CEO of the island’s utility company. Now with RMI, he has been overseeing this energy transition in the Caribbean region, redesigning the electricity grid to be fossil fuel free and climate resilient.

“There’s such a huge opportunity,” Gumbs said. “We’d love to see it scale, just transform the whole system into renewable energy tomorrow, but there are certain barriers to doing that.”

At COP27, money is the biggest debate. Developing nations are putting more pressure on the world’s richest countries to help them recover from climate disasters. Negotiators will also discuss the existing climate finance pledge to help developing countries adapt to climate change and transition to clean energy – a pledge of $100 billion a year that rich countries have yet to meet .

A woman walks down a street in Saint-Martin on September 11, 2017, after Hurricane Irma.

But even then, Gumbs said it’s difficult for low-income countries to “take advantage” of these funds: “It just takes years to get the money out,” he said. “It’s always a problem, but there are several ways to overcome it.”

On Tuesday, RMI and investment fund Lion’s Head Global Partners launched a new Caribbean Smart Climate Fund to accelerate this clean energy shift. The initiative is intended to expand the islands’ access to resilient clean energy, which advocates say would help Caribbean nations not only adapt to a warmer future, but also save millions each year in public service costs.

Gumbs said the fund will include more than $150 million in philanthropic money and will be spread across more than 20 Caribbean islands.

Charlin Bodley, RMI’s global south manager, said rich countries need to look beyond reducing their climate emissions – which she said is the “easy part” – and consider how they will support small island nations that suffer the consequences of their use of fossil fuels.

“There is a level of support that is necessary,” Bodley, based in St. Lucia, he told CNN. “At this point, it’s really a matter of survival for the Caribbean.”

And as Caribbean islands see clean energy as a solution to resist disasters, but also to save on electricity costs, Moses said momentum and political interest across the region is growing, and the island governments turn to groups like RMI and other non-profit organizations for grants. to meet its clean energy goals.

But Gumbs said they still need more clean energy programs, educational resources for residents, as well as access to funds from grant-making entities. For him, the solutions are ready. He said the Caribbean could be the model to convince both rich nations and the private sector to invest in solutions through climate finance.

“Climate-smart funds provide a vehicle to eliminate a large part of the problem,” Gumbs said. “It’s important to bring people with these solutions, and we’re going to do it in a way that’s sensitive to the local environment.”

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