The Virgin Islands is in the middle of its biggest economic crisis since Hurricane Hugo slammed into the island almost 20 years ago. At the base of the crisis is the cost of electricity, now the highest cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in all of the US and its territories. We arrived at this point as a result of years of visionless management by the former Director of WAPA, and other leaders (Governors and Senators) that allowed power production in the Virgin Islands to become and remain solely dependent on a single fuel source: oil, and ignored repeated calls for diversifying our energy production with renewable sources of energy (solar, wind, and ocean thermal).
Now the scramble for a solution to lower energy costs is in full swing and we hear desperate calls for a switch to coal or pet coke (a HOVENSA waste product). We are told that such a switch will lower energy costs and save us from the wild swings of the international oil markets that have been so devastating to our local economy. It is my opinion that such a move is not only a short sighted temporary fix, but also comes with a number of unadvertised negatives.
No. 1: The existing permit for the operation of the idled 50 megawatt coal plant at St. Croix Renaissance is based on the facility using "compliance coal" (anthracite). This type of coal has more heat value per unit, burns cleaner, cost more, and is a rapidly dwindling natural resource. The cost of this coal will rise in the very near future (check out Peak Coal http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/2396 ) and those costs will be passed on to us, the rate payers, producing a similar crisis in just a few short years.
No. 2: Both coal and pet coke are dirty fuels, produce CO2 (they add to global warming), and generate polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) (see Columbia University's study http://www.mailman.columbia.edu/ccceh/pressreleases/press071408.html ). PAH's are now known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic (mutates our DNA), and retards cognitive development in children (look out Frederiksted, you're down wind!)
No. 3: Refurbishing the Renaissance coal plant or building a new pet coke facility requires hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and locks the Virgin Islands into 20 to 25 year contracts for non-renewable fuels at a time when renewable technologies are affordable and being adopted globally by utilities. http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/ate/story?id=53426
Utility-scale wind can deliver electricity at $0.06 to $0.12 per kWh while solar electric comes in at $0.21 to $0.25 kWh. There are a number of important things for all of us to consider regarding these renewable energy technologies:
1. Fuel for renewables (wind, sun, ocean temperature) is abundant and their costs will never increase
2. Once the hardware is paid for, fuel cost are zero
3. They produce no greenhouse gases or toxic emissions that compromise the health of our community or increase its medical bills (a hidden cost)
Here are a few positive steps each of us can take to get things moving in the right direction:
Ø Call WAPA an urge them to quickly move ahead with companies that have submitted proposals for renewable energy systems (including solar, wind and OTEC),
Ø Call your Senators and urge them to pass Senator Hill's Energy Bill to help jumpstart a solar hot water program and small-scale distributed solar & wind production,
Ø Call the Governor an tell him you want the VI Government to focus on energy efficiency and conservation in government buildings, schools, and its auto fleet,
Ø Practice conservation in our own homes – get an energy audit, use compact fluorescent lights, take advantage of the VI Energy Office Rebate Program, etc.
Renewables now, Not Later! should be the war cry of ratepayers. Our Government has allowed WAPA to go down the wrong path in the past; let's make sure we don't let it repeat that same mistake!
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