Opportunities In Renewable Energy

A definition of Renewable Energy, as taken from www.treia.org, is as follows: “Any energy resource that is naturally regenerated over a short time scale and derived directly from the sun (such as thermal, photochemical, and photoelectric), indirectly from the sun (such as wind, hydropower, and photosynthetic energy stored in biomass) or from other natural movements […]

By Basil Springer

October 12, 2008

A definition of Renewable Energy, as taken from www.treia.org, is as follows: “Any energy resource that is naturally regenerated over a short time scale and derived directly from the sun (such as thermal, photochemical, and photoelectric), indirectly from the sun (such as wind, hydropower, and photosynthetic energy stored in biomass) or from other natural movements and mechanisms of the environment (such as geothermal and tidal energy)”.

My interest in renewable energy was first aroused in 1969 when the late Hon. Prof. Oliver Headley and I were both members of the Faculty of the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad. He was in the Chemistry Department and I was the Biometrician in the Faculty of Agriculture.

I asked Oliver how could the abundant Caribbean sea water resource be converted into water for irrigation purposes. Oliver immediately advised that the salt could be removed by distillation using the sun’s energy. I, rather naively asked how we could do this, whereupon, as was his wont, in the palm of his hand he drew me a simple diagram of a solar still. The next day we were in the hardware store buying sheet metal and perspex to build a solar still and conduct an experiment. This was the beginning of a series of experiments in solar distillation, drying, water heating, cooking, refrigeration and electricity, which Oliver spearheaded until his untimely death in 2002. Oliver went on to become a much-respected member of the World Renewable Energy Network, which has named an award in his memory.

I designed a statistical model to compare the efficacy of various combinations of critical solar still design parameters that he proposed. Even though our initial motivation was to desalinate seawater, after Mark XII in the sequence of designs, we had optimized the important parameters, shifted from Perspex to glass and introduced stainless steel drains in the solar stills to efficiently provide double distilled quality water from tap water. This water was of the quality required in chemical laboratories in schools, universities, government departments and industry. Oliver then supervised the building of commercial size stills for the analytical labs at the University and in some Secondary Schools in Trinidad. This work was published jointly, in three different publications, in the “Proceedings of the 3rd International Symposium on Fresh Water from the Sea” Vol. 1. Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia; the “Journal of Chemical Education”, Vol. 48; and in the proceedings of the ISES/UNESCO Solar Energy Conference, “The Sun in the Service of Mankind,” in Paris, between 1970 and 1973.

Our interest in the use of solar energy was then extended to solar drying and we designed a high performance solar dryer that could reduce moisture to less than 5%. In those days, fresh sorrel was in abundance in Trinidad and the product was in demand in Barbados. We developed a successful project to export dried sorrel to Barbados.

In 1974, I left Oliver behind in Trinidad to return to Barbados where he continued his research and development in solar drying of lumber, fruits and herbs (while preserving many of their natural characteristics, e.g. colour and aroma). He then extended his renewable energy interest to solar water heating, refrigeration (in the form of ice-making for fishermen) and solar electricity. Oliver was an adviser to James Husbands, the 1973 pioneer in the successful solar water heating industry. Barbados is now among the top five countries in the world in terms of solar water heating applications per capita. The solar water heater industry has saved Barbados over US$220 million in foreign exchange over the last 33 years, which would have otherwise been expended in the purchase of fossil fuels to heat water.

Oliver Headley relocated to Barbados in 1992 and, at the time of his untimely passing in 2002, Caribbean Business Enterprise Trust (CBET), in collaboration with Oliver, had just completed a Business Plan for the assembly of photovoltaic (PV) modules to produce electricity for the national grid.  We consulted with the Barbados Light & Power Co. Ltd. whose position was that, even though the technology was quickly becoming more efficient, the cost of a kilowatt hour of electricity was still too high, when compared with electricity from a fossil fuel source, to be attractive to them financially.

The BL&P Company focuses on electricity supply solutions that are to the benefit of the nation while not disadvantaging their financial shareholders. As I understand it, even if they might not immediately be interested in investing in renewable energy alternatives they would be willing to buy electricity produced from, say, biomass or solar energy if the price is right.

The Government of Barbados has a mandate to provide regulatory and service functions that positively impact the macro economic environment. If nationally we are focused on environmental protection, energy security, foreign exchange savings, job creation and customer satisfaction, in addition to the industry’s financial considerations, then Government has a major role to play.

The advent of solar electricity (suntricity) will be a major boon to the macro socio-economic landscape. The solar water heating industry was given incentives by Government and the industry took off. Government has given an annual financial injection to the sugar industry, which has been justified on the grounds of earning foreign exchange, securing jobs and preserving the beauty of the sugar cane landscape. Similarly, Government needs to make a financial injection in the solar electricity industry, the benefits from which will be foreign exchange savings, job creation and an increased level of energy security. Energy security should be of paramount concern in the context of rising oil prices, however, if this is achieved through the shift towards corn as a biomass fuel, thus giving rise to higher food prices, it will impact food security.

This type of intervention by Government from its own resources, Kyoto protocol credits and the Global Environmental Facility will have the net effect of lowering the price per kilowatt hour at which a supplier of suntricity can sell it to the BL& P for distribution. The level of a Government financial intervention is expected to decrease as the industry becomes inherently more efficient. This process may be regulated by the Fair Trading Commission.

James Husbands is now interested in extending his Solar Dynamics Limited (SDL) plant to assemble photovoltaic modules which, when placed on rooftops would supply electricity to the national grid for distribution by the BL&P. Over the last year, SDL, CBET and Calidad Financial & Investment Services Inc. have conceptualized a model for this innovation.

There are already examples where individuals have established stand-alone PV systems to generate their own electricity supply. The use of storage batteries allows them to enjoy the benefits of this power even at night. These examples have resulted in significant savings to the consumer because the solar energy is free and the maintenance is reported to be minimal. What is more, it is reported that the capital cost of this type of suntricity installation is paid back in 7-10 years, less than half the expected life of the installation.

The proposal, therefore, is to aggressively pursue a system whereby, after all permissions are obtained for the use of roofs on existing buildings, solar modules are retrofitted on these roofs. Architects can design the solar panels in the design of new buildings so that they are aesthetically pleasing. The direct current produced is then converted, through an inverter, to alternating current, which then flows into the national grid. Two meters, one which normally records the amount of electricity used from the Power Company, and the other which records the supply to the grid, will be the basis of the arithmetical calculations which will result in net savings or profits to the owners of the roofs.

It should be noted that, even though an individual house owner might produce enough energy to be self-sufficient, the supply of electricity to industrial, commercial, sports and other consumers has to be taken into account. Suntricity, therefore, should not be seen as an alternative to fossil fuel electricity production, but certainly, it can reduce the dependence on the fossil fuel source.

The Government of Barbados has set a target to have renewable energy contribute 40% of the Island’s primary energy. Projects which may contribute to this include a co-generation plant to burn fuel or high fibre cane, a wind farm and photovoltaic systems.

Bio-diesel is in its infancy but has some potential to replace fossil fuel sourced diesel. This process involves the use of used cooking oil from domestic and restaurant use, used cooking oil from cruise ships, as well as fresh oil from backward linkages into agriculture where oil crops would be grown specifically for the bio-diesel plant. The used or fresh oil is mixed with caustic soda and methanol and the resulting products are bio-diesel and glycerine, which is used in the production of soaps. On some livestock farms, manure is converted through a bio-digester to methane, which may then be used as a fuel for cooking or electrical generation.

Prof. Oliver Headley, in Sir Winston Scott’s Memorial Lecture given at the Central Bank in Barbados, reminded us that, “When the oil runs out, the sun will continue to shine.” It is, therefore, wise in the context of energy security and in the context of reducing the cost of electrical energy, that Barbados should embark upon a grandiose plan to exploit renewable energy resources to their fullest.

Another area that would reduce the requirement for electrical energy is that of energy efficiency. The Town & Country Planning authorities should make it mandatory for there to be an energy efficient plan and a renewable energy plan included in applications for planning permission and approval for construction.

Renewable energy has had a long history in Barbados. After the sugar industry was introduced to the Island in the middle of the 17th Century, the windmill soon followed to grind the cane and to pump water. Sugar cane bagasse was used as the fuel to concentrate the juice and produce sugar. We now have the opportunity to take the applications of renewable energy to a higher level.

Basil Springer