Get it while it’s hot: Barbados’ solar energy revolution

With abundant and free sunshine literally falling out of the sky, why haven’t more Caribbean countries followed the Bajans in adopting solar power? Helen Shair-Singh investigates how Barbados became a global solar pioneer

Illustration by Kevon Webster

“We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind, and tide . . . What a source of power!” So wrote the American inventor Thomas Edison, back in 1931. Eight decades later, much of the world has yet to catch up to Edison’s vision.

The Earth receives an incredible supply of energy from the sun. In one day, the sun provides more energy than our current global population can consume in twenty-seven years. On the flip side, in 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels were thirty-six gigatonnes. That’s 2.3 percent higher than 2012, and sixty-one per cent higher than in 1990 (the Kyoto Protocol reference year). The earth’s supply of fossil fuels is also a finite resource — some researchers argue that by 2050 one-third of the world’s energy will need to come from alternative sources.

From an environmental perspective, the planet’s best hope is solar power. A single 1.5 kilowatt-hour solar photovoltaic (SPV) system will keep nearly fifty tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere over twenty-five years. With solar, there’s no acid rain, no urban smog, no pollution of any kind, and it’s a resource we have for at least another two billion years — as long as the sun keeps burning in the sky. It’s almost incomprehensible that the world is taking so long to harness the incredible power of the sun, but particularly so for us here in the Caribbean, which receives over three thousand hours of sunshine per year, on average.

Only one island, Barbados, stands as a pinnacle of success in the use of solar technology in the Caribbean. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, as far back as 2002 Barbados saved 15,000 metric tons of carbon emissions — and over US$100 million — from the 35,000 solar water-heating (SWH) systems installed at the time. As of 2008 approximately 40,000 SWHs were in operation in Barbados, and the number has increased yearly.

How did Barbados get there? The country’s economic lifeblood — once sugar, and now the tourism industry — consumes vast amounts of power. In 1973, oil prices tripled in the space of one year, almost delivering a death blow to the island’s economy, and laser-focusing attention on its dependence on imported fossil fuels. On a visit to Barbados in the 1960s, Professor Tom Lawand of McGill University’s Brace Research Institute had used local materials to construct one of the first SWHs on the island, but it wasn’t until the crisis of 1973 that Canon Andrew Hatch of the Christian Action for Development organisation turned trailblazer for the concept of solar energy.

Following the Lawand model, Hatch constructed a solar water heater out of an oil drum, aluminium sheeting, and glass panes, with bagasse for insulation, and affixed it to the roof of his church. The contraption was effective enough to help him raise the modest sum of US$4,200 as capital to start Barbados’s first solar water heating company, Solar Dynamics, with two other shareholders, Lindsay Greaves and James Husbands.

The pioneers on this new frontier faced significant challenges. Banks were unwilling to take a risk on the unfamiliar, and expensive, technology. Consumer awareness was non-existent. And the high upfront cost of the systems was a major obstacle, especially for homeowners who had already invested in water-heating systems for their homes. It took the ingenious marketing strategies of Husbands to break through. The key was continuously finding new ways of engaging the public and injecting them with his genuine passion for the technology. Then came a crucially important decision by the Barbados government to give the industry the fiscal and legislative support that it needed.

It started with the 1974 Fiscal Incentives Act, offering manufacturers a tax break on raw materials. Then the government established a policy that new public housing developments must include solar water-heating systems. It was exactly the boost that the fledgling industry needed — and forty years later, the benefits are obvious.

 

By some estimates, Barbados’s SWHs save sixty-five to ninety-two million kilowatt-hours annually, with a consumer value of BD$23–32 million (US$11.5–16 million) per year. Khalid Grant of Solar Barbados reports that roughly half of all households across the island now use SWHs, ranking the country fifth in the world per capita in solar power. He adds that because Barbadians are now fully aware of the benefits of solar, it’s been a natural progression from using it solely to heat water to providing electricity. Over four hundred homes and businesses on the island now use SPVs to do just that. In 2001, the installed capacity of SPVs on the island was just 37 kilowatts. By 2013, it had jumped by 4500 per cent to 1700kW. In January 2015, it was over 8 megawatts.

Recently, the Barbados government has introduced even more incentives: a reduction in equipment and installation costs, a vigorous public education campaign, skills training, and guaranteed low-interest financing to homeowners, businesses, and suppliers — all aimed at further stimulating the growth of the industry. The efforts have yielded significant fiscal benefits.

Morton Holder, general manager of Solaris Energy, a company actively involved in expanding the use of solar technology throughout the wider Caribbean, argues there’s still a lack of awareness about the crucial need for this technology, and explaining the significant financial benefits to the consumer is still a challenge. The high upfront cost is still a hurdle, though when the equipment is paid off, the user has a virtually free energy source.

Getting the Caribbean to truly make the most of our abundant sunshine will take the same solution as in Barbados: tangible government support and widespread public education. It may be some way off, but with the number of installations steadily growing, Holder sees a bright future for solar technology in the Caribbean — good for the bottom line as well as the environment.