US Virgin Islands aim for 60% reduction in fossil fuel energy consumption by 2025

Energy Development in Island Nations is an international partnership focused on helping small island developing states increase their energy independence.  Their most ambitious pilot project is based in the US Virgin Islands, whose goal is to reduce its fossil fuel based energy consumption by 60 percent over the next 12 years.

I recently traveled to St. Croix to meet with Karl Knight, the Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Energy Office.  We discussed how the Virgin Islands plan to meet this goal, and their progress since the project’s launch in late 2009. 

Current energy usage in the Virgin Islands

The majority of energy consumption in the VI goes toward the production of electricity.  Today, the USVI is almost 100 percent dependent on imported diesel fuel for electrical generation.

Of the three main islands with large populations, one power plant serves St. Thomas and St. John.  A second power plant generates electricity for St. Croix, approximately 40 miles to the south.

St. Thomas is a primary tourist destination in the Caribbean, and a major port for cruise ships.  Its base population is approximately 50,000.  St. John lies three miles to the east, with a full-time population of about 4,500.  Its economy is completely dependent on tourism, with more than half the island comprised of a national park.

St. Croix is the largest of the three islands, with 50,000 residents.  In recent decades its economy has been largely driven by a significant industrial sector with a large oil refinery and alumina production plant.  However, both facilities are now closed and the island is experiencing a prolonged economic slump, with much less reliance on tourism.

According to Karl Knight, current electricity demand on St. Thomas and St. John consists of a base load of 50MW, and a peak load of 80 MW.  On St. Croix the base load is 30MW, with a peak load of 50MW.

With their complete reliance on imported oil, combined with the relatively harsh environmental effects on plant and equipment, electricity rates in the US Virgin Islands are almost three times the national US average, at US$.49/kWh.

The harmful effect these rates have on the local economy cannot be underestimated.  Knight suggests that “the Virgin Island’s economy is crippled by the high cost of energy.”

The path to energy independence

When the VI pilot project was announced in 2009, EDIN and the National Energy Renewable Laboratories  asked Governor John de Jongh, Jr. to establish a target for fossil fuel reduction that is a real stretch.  They also wanted the territory to be aggressive in its policy development, program implementation, and public education.

Therefore the goal of a 60% reduction in fossil fuel usage by 2025 was created in 2010.  The means to achieving this goal is through a combination of renewable energy sources, energy conservation, and efficiency improvements.

The initial objective in reaching this target is to cut oil usage by the local water and power authority by 60% from their 2010 purchases.  Ultimately, the objective is to provide 60% of electricity production, measured in megawatts, through renewable energy sources.

EDIN has produced a document titled USVI Energy Road Map that helps to explain how the Virgin Islands will reach their clean energy future.  It is very detailed and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the process of how to achieve energy independence in a small island developing state.

More than half of the 60% goal can be achieved through energy efficiency improvements.  For example, off-the-shelf solutions are available for residences, businesses, and government buildings that are expected to provide 7 percent of the expected energy usage savings.  These end-use efficiency gains will result from building code changes for new and renovated structures, as well as from voluntary upgrades.  The current high cost of electricity provides an added incentive for voluntary efficiency improvements.

Additionally, efficiency improvements in the production of electricity and desalinated water are expected to bring savings of approximately 38% of current fuel usage.  For example, the water and power authority is expected to switch from distillation to reverse osmosis for water production.  Possible efficiencies in electricity production can come from installing heat recovery steam generators, switching to liquefied natural gas, and/or joining a Caribbean-wide electrical grid that taps into less expensive electricity sources produced on other islands.

Twenty-two percent of the energy savings goal will be achieved through the deployment of a combination of renewable energy resources.  These include solar photovoltaic electricity generation and solar water heating, wind, biomass, landfill gas, and waste-to-energy solutions.

Progress to date

In three short years the Virgin Islands have made significant progress toward their clean energy goals.  Most of the initial planning has been completed, and the necessary legislative and code changes are underway.  Several agreements for power generation have been completed, and others are in negotiation.

For example, the islands currently have 450 KW produced through private solar and wind generation using net metering agreements.  The next step is to pass legislation allowing feed-in tariffs, which will create the ability for both private and utility scale renewable energy power generation.

Agreements have recently been signed with four private companies to build utility-scale PV plants generating 10 MW on St. Thomas and 8 MW on St. Croix.  The government intends to pay for the electrical distribution system infrastructure improvements so that electricity can be received from these newly added renewable energy sources.

The federal government has mandated that the public landfill on St. Thomas and St. Croix be closed due to capacity limitations.  A proposal is in place to build methane gas recovery plants that can produce 1 MW of electricity on each island annually.

Waste-to-energy options are being explored to replace these landfills.  The challenge is to create a sustainable means of handling waste that at the same time turns waste disposal into energy production.

Anemometry studies are being conducted on each island to determine the annual potential of electrical production from utility-scale wind farms.  One vision is to turn the current landfill on St. Thomas into an energy-producing peninsula through a combination of methane recovery and wind generated electricity.

An ongoing challenge in the Virgin Islands is that the policy and legislative changes tend to lag behind the enthusiasm and accomplishments of the VI Energy Office and other private activists lobbying for clean energy.  Then there are the inevitable disagreements with environmental activists, private property owners, and those who do not want to see large renewable energy systems in their “back yard.”

On the whole, however, the Virgin Islands appear to be committed to escaping their fossil-fuel dependency.  In the process they are creating a model for other island nations and territories to achieve a clean energy future.

What steps has your island taken to transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources?  To what extent does energy efficiency improvements play a role in this process? 


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