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Expo Shares Short- and Long-Term Renewable Energy Options

Scores of people turned out Saturday afternoon to learn about ways individuals and the territory as a whole can lower energy costs while helping to protect the environment, at the Renewable Energy Expo in the Great Hall at the University of the Virgin Islands Saturday.

A dozen vendors and agencies were on hand with alternative energy projects, some which are available right now to lower energy costs, and others that in a handful of years could change the way people live in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The event was sponsored by the Senate’s Committee on Economic Development, Energy and Technology, chaired by Senator Craig Barshinger.

The V.I. Energy Office was on hand with a variety of suggestions of little things residents can do that can add up to big savings in their power and water bills, including switching to energy efficient light bulbs, buying Energy Star appliances, installing low-flow faucets in your shower, and many other such suggestions.

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They also had information on the low-interest, no-money-down loan program that allows homeowners to install solar water-heaters on their homes with no money up front and use the savings on their electric bill to pay for it.

That was good news to the representative of Solar Solutions, the water-heating installing company that drew enough attention from visitors to the expo that he wasn’t available to be interviewed.

Energy Systems Group may have had a table in the far corner of the building, but it offers one of the biggest short-term energy developments in the territory.

According to Doug Tischbein of the Indiana-based company, Energy Systems Group is negotiating a contract with the USVI Department of Education to retrofit all 47 of the department’s properties – all the public schools plus administrative buildings – for the potential energy savings of millions of dollars.

And Tischbein said that’s not a boast, that’s a promise. Energy Savings Group guarantees the savings, and if they come up short, the company pays the difference.

The first phase, which he hopes will be under way by October, will be to upgrade all the lighting systems and water, every light bulb, faucet and toilet.

“The money we save in utility bills will easily pay for the improvements,” Tischbein said.

Water and lighting, which will probably take about six to eight months, is just the first phase in retrofitting the territories schools to make them more efficient, and to train the teachers and students how to be more careful users of resources.

Acciona Solar Power is another company that looks to the sun for the energy of the future, but in a much bigger way than rooftop by rooftop. Acciona is an international company that builds large-scale energy plants using solar power, and Laurence Greene, director of development at the company’s Solana Beach, Ca., office, thinks there’s potential in the Caribbean.

In the desert of Nevada is a solar farm, 350 acres of land lined by row after row of parabolic mirrors. Lined up in long rows, the mirrors resemble long, shining troughs. And running down the center of the troughs is a pipeline on which the mirrors focus the sun’s heat. The liquid in the pipeline is heated to about 700 degrees and then run through a power plant, heating water which turns a steam turbine. The plant produces 75 megawatts of electricity.

St. Croix, with large, relatively flat expanses of land, might be just the place for such a plant, Greene opined. Not 350 acres, necessarily, but big enough to take care of a large chunk of the island’s energy needs without having to burn a drop of oil.

There are issues to resolve, including making the mirrored troughs stable and safe in a hurricane – not typically a problem in Nevada – and finding a way to store some of that heat to keep the plant operating for at least a while after the sun has gone down. The company is already negotiating with the utility on another Caribbean island to begin work on such a project. And he added that building it would create a lot of construction jobs, some of them quite specialized, and after it went into production there would be jobs in running and maintaining it. The Nevada facility employs 20 workers full time, he said.

Acciona is a 100-year-old Spanish company that made its mark building major infrastructure projects such as airports and opera houses. In 1980 it built a hydroelectric plant, and in 1992 a wind-power generator. Since then, such projects have taken an increasingly large share of the company’s attention – Green estimated about 75 percent of the company’s business is in renewable energy.

Greene said there have been no talks between Acciona and the V.I. government or the Water and Power Authority. He was invited to the expo by Sen. Craig Barshinger and came to share information, he said.

Other companies at the expo included Alpine Energy Group, the Colorado-based company working to build a garbage-to-energy plant on St. Croix, the Virgin Islands Renewable Energy Organization, and Glass 2000, a St. Croix company selling a ceramic film for windows, cutting energy transfer and saving on cooling costs.

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