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Energy Gurus Hold Out Hope Amid Dire News

June 29, 2008 — A three-hour forum on alternative energy focused on a multidirectional path for the territory as it leaves behind its crippling reliance on oil, but not without more financial pain in the months and years ahead.
The Alternative Energy Forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands and hosted by the University of the Virgin Islands, drew more than 40 attendees on St. Thomas, as well as several on St. Croix where it was simultaneously telecast.
The forum's focus on ways to shift the territory's 100 percent reliance on oil to alternative and renewable energy sources came amid news from the executive director of the Water and Power Authority (WAPA) that the $120 per barrel WAPA paid this month is shooting up to $142. In addition, Hugo Hodge, Jr. said the current price per kilowatt hour of between 40 and 41 cents could easily rise to 50 cents within months.
"It's going to get worse before it gets better," Hodge warned the audience.
He said he will announce on Tuesday a 20-year agreement to purchase non-oil power that will bring relief to the territory, but it's only the beginning. "You can't break something for 20 years and fix it in six months. It doesn't work like that," Hodge said.
Sen. Louis P. Hill, who is unveiling energy-related legislation Wednesday, said the territory has a lot of catching up to do.
"We are 30 years behind the world," said Hill. "Barbados started the solar thing 30 years ago, Hawaii 20-30 years ago."
Waste-to-Energy and the Sun
Hodge and Hill were joined by three other panelists: Bevan Smith, Jr., the director of the Virgin Islands Energy Office which is doing an energy audit of the territory; St. Croix businessman Onaje Jackson, president of an alternative energy firm; and former legislator Craig Barshinger, whose home has been off the grid for 10 years.
Hodge said WAPA is examining waste-to-energy solutions, turning our landfills into energy producers. "There is significant greenhouse gases that come off of biomass, landfill. Those run somewhere between 8 to 15 megawatts," he said. One megawatt equals one million watts.
In addition to the landfill option, all panelists agreed that solar power was an obvious and natural ally in the territory's battle against rising costs.
"I feel like pennies are raining down from the sky and landing on my roof, and it's a good feeling," Barshinger told the audience, referencing his home. "Each square meter of sunlight at high noon is 1000 watts of energy hitting the ground."
Hill wants to see those pennies rain down throughout the territory and has spent three years working on legislation designed to mandate the use of solar energy. It would require new or substantially modified constructions to incorporate solar hot water heaters, if cost-effective.
"As we go through the legislative process, I'm sure there will be several objections raised and debate and argument," Hill said. "But in the final analysis we will pass a bill that will be progressive and will address very directly some of the energy issues we face in the territory."
Additionally, Hill's legislation sets up substantial tax credits for residential and commercial users. But according to Jackson, president of Sustainable Systems & Design International, many residents are just too poor.
"The fact of the matter is…34 percent of our community is under the poverty level," said Jackson. "Tax credits mean nothing. And…if you're going to go to the bank to take out a loan, credit ratings eliminate you. So we have to figure out how to get to widespread use."
Alternatives and More Alternatives
The presence of Hovensa on St. Croix raised substantial debate over resorting to so-called petroleum coke plants, or pet coke plants. Pet coke is a byproduct of the oil refinery process and is a fuel that right now is substantially cheaper than oil.
Barshinger argued that in light of soaring costs, it's an alternative worth considering. But Hodge shot down that notion, saying the territory's credit rating is such that it could not borrow the needed funds to produce a pet coke plant.
Wind power and ocean thermal power are additional sources under investigation, according to Hodge. And he said he hopes to see a growth in WAPA's net metering system, where consumers relying on alternative energy can sell power back to WAPA for a credit on their bill. The net metering program currently has three customers.
Government and Community Cut Back
A 25-year veteran of the energy battle, Bevan Smith and his Energy Office are under a mandate to reduce the government's use of energy by 20 percent in the next four years. Smith said he's busy gathering data to inform strategies as he looks everything from adding solar power to buildings to replacing the government's fleet with fuel-efficient vehicles.
Critical to any systematic change, said Hill, is community support.
"For any renewable system and policy to work in the territory, we really need the community to buy into it," Hill said. "So my participation in this forum is to ask you to participate in hearings we're going to have on this legislation and give your thoughts and comments."
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