Real Report: The Economy of Green
Given the plentiful hours of daily sunshine that we enjoy, solar is the most obvious sustainable energy for most Caribbean homes. There are two ways to use solar energy: solar photovoltaic (PV) to generate electricity or solar thermal to produce hot water.
A solar PV system uses panels or modules, often placed on the roof, which convert the sun’s rays into DC electricity while inverters produce AC current. Available in three formats – flat panels, thin film and roof tiles – owners can decide which option best suits their home aesthetically. For example, new bi-facial panels can be integrated into a trellis design around a pool. Systems can be stand alone, which necessitates a large battery bank to store electricity made in the day for use at night, or connected to the grid to supply night time power. Despite the misperception that PV systems can only be installed with a new home build, they can be easily retrofitted to existing structures. No longer an eyesore, solar panels are rather the proud stamp of forward-thinking individuals who choose to invest in clean energy and dispense with utility bills forever.
The capital cost of a solar PV system needed to generate electricity depends on several variables – how much power your home uses and whether you want to generate all the power you use or just part of it. Although the initial outlay can be significant, on average a system pays for itself in ten years. In addition a well-designed PV system adds to the resale value of the house, and having an independent source of electricity can also come in handy after natural disasters, such as hurricanes.
Solar thermal, which is used to produce hot water, has a much lower capital cost resulting in a much higher consumer uptake. With the average price of a residential unit costing around US$4–5,000 and a payback period of only three to four years, this easily-installed, maintenance free option provides significant energy savings and positive cash flow, all while reducing one’s carbon footprint.
Another source of clean, renewable energy, often viewed as the perfect green energy source for the Caribbean, is wind. Unlike solar units, wind turbines generate power both day and night. Sleek in design, unobtrusive and quiet, they do need a consistently windy location (on average of 12/15 mph) and a large piece of open land. So, while not suited to everyone, chances are the Caribbean will see a marked increase in the use of commercial wind farming to produce green energy.
Seen as a particularly helpful initiative in attracting tourism in the Caribbean, one such example is James Post’s eco-resort, Paradise Bay in Grenada, where a wind turbine is used to supply all power, making electricity cheaper than the utility company (given that oil is between US$48 to US$80 per barrel). With oil prices forecast to rise again to US$140 per barrel, the financial case for wind turbines becomes even stronger.
Geothermal energy is probably the least well-known renewable energy source in the Caribbean but it provides an energy efficient and environmentally friendly cooling and water heating system. Ground Source Heat Pumps (GSHP’s) are electrically powered systems that tap the stored energy of the greatest solar collector in existence: the earth. These systems use the earth’s relatively constant temperatures to provide heating, cooling, and hot water for homes and commercial buildings. Although widely used for heating in colder climates like the USA and Canada, in hot climates the system is reversed to cool the building by pulling heat from the building, carrying it through the system and placing it in the ground, creating all your hot water in the process! It is significantly more efficient than traditional A/C systems and saves money in operating and maintenance costs. Energy savings usually exceed the cost of the system and the GSHP is a quiet unit, like a refrigerator, that sits inside your home. What is more, if used in conjunction with PV solar panels, the electricity the system uses is free.
Recognising that a house totally powered by clean, renewable energy can be a major capital investment, governments in most Caribbean countries are providing consumer incentives such as duty waivers on imported equipment. However, the biggest boost to the uptake of green technology will come from net metering, where a single meter runs forwards when you are using grid power and backwards when you are giving power to the grid. At the end of the month your utility account is in debit or credit accordingly. The attraction is that it eliminates the need for a bulky and expensive battery storage system, making the capital cost much lower and the payback much quicker. Although widely used in the USA, net metering is now being introduced in the Caribbean. Already in use in Grenada and the US Virgin Islands, its introduction is expected in the Cayman Islands this year, with other countries following as governments realise the benefits of encouraging homes and businesses to generate their own energy.
Viewed as a long-term investment, the returns are very attractive. In fact, some Caribbean banks now offer mortgages on renewable energy equipment, subject to normal lending conditions, because they can see an immediate positive cash flow, with the monthly mortgage repayment costing a lot less than the monthly utility bill might have been
While early adaptors have shown the technology works and proved they have made a sound investment that is saving them money, they also have the satisfaction of owning a zero carbon emission home. As government incentives kick in and the cost of oil rises, the economic case will become even stronger and the economy of green will become the norm in our Caribbean islands so abundantly blessed with sunshine and wind.
Further information can be obtained from:
Electratech - David Phipps (345) 938 8877
Arch Solar - Dana Arch (345) 949 2400
Mega Systems - Scott Murray (345) 949 7038
Demme Mechanical - Jee Demme 1 (813) 480 8643
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