Earlier this summer, a study projected 16 tropical storms to hit the Caribbean and Atlantic coasts, eight of which would turn into hurricanes, making it a record-breaking year for hurricanes. This forecast, coupled with the heightened need for optimized health and critical infrastructure amidst the COVID-19 crisis, makes it clear that the demand for stable energy infrastructure this summer is unprecedented.
In my 30 years in the energy industry, I have seen the conversation around “resilience” shift dramatically as energy infrastructure has transitioned toward decentralized generation and distributed energy resources. As a project developer in the Caribbean, I’ve noticed that though the term “resilience” is buzzing, there’s much to be done to encourage energy providers in the region to develop and operate systems that can withstand worst-case-scenarios like hurricanes. Frankly, the COVID-19 impacts of lost business and reduced economic activity together with an above average hurricane season is concerning.
Unlike the United States, which has national electric and building codes regulating project development, Caribbean nations lack a common set of codes to assure that new renewable energy infrastructure is constructed to withstand high-intensity tropical storms and hurricanes. In the absence of regulations, the industry relies on best practices and proactive measures from energy procurement directors and project developers. Now, more than ever, Caribbean energy professionals should be identifying and implementing measures to enhance grid reliability and resiliency.
Below are a few of the most impactful best practices that are not only feasible, but crucial for long-term grid reliability and economic stability for island and coastal communities.
Location, location, location
Before breaking ground on a project, it’s important to consider how the location of the project will affect day-to-day operations and what risks are at hand in the event of a storm.
While the ideal site for a solar installation is flat terrain with little to no slope, such sites are not often available on Caribbean Islands. Building on steeply sloped sites requires additional planning and significant design considerations to address drainage and erosion. These locations can also experience stronger than average winds due to acceleration caused by the slope and require equipment that can withstand high winds. Addressing these factors can add costs to an installation, making extremely sloped locations a less than ideal location for a solar facility.
While gently sloped sites are often the best locations for solar facilities, it’s important to know that many of these places are often along or near coastlines. We have learned from recent storms that the storm surges in sea level, often 10 to 20 feet above normal sea level, often cause as much, if not more damage that the winds. Facilities installed in a normal coastal zone could be at risk of interruption and possible long-term damage conditions.
With both considerations in mind, a site that’s at least 20 feet above sea level is an ideal location for a resilient energy system.
Seamless grid integration & flexibility
A key component of a resilient renewable energy project is considering how the generated power will interface with current energy supply–whether from the utility company or other on-site generation systems—and how to enable grid flexibility with backup power.
Due to the intermittency of renewable energy, solar must be supplemented with an alternative supply. Communications between the renewable resource and the alternative supply must be properly established to assure a smooth and reliable electricity supply during all times. Often the local utility can provide a back-up supply to replace or supplement the renewable generation installed. But to obtain back up supply from the utility, developers should be prepared to advocate for modifying the interconnection facility to allow for two-way metering and monitoring of net power demand.
In some cases, it’s optimal to include battery energy storage systems in plans for a renewable energy facility. Battery storage provides system stability and insulates the grid from shifts in solar or wind production. As the clean energy industry more widely adopts solar-plus-storage projects as the norm, we anticipate the cost of battery storage to continue to fall. We recommend consideration of including batteries to assure the generated power is stored and maximized, and to provide backup power in the event of an outage.
To assure a facility can withstand (or quickly bounce back) from a fire, storm or other challenging event, significant planning must be completed prior to initial operation. Developing a comprehensive emergency plan is a significant amount of work but is vital to the long-term safe operation of the facility. Such plans also help minimize damage that might be caused by an operating issue or natural disaster and help shorten the time to recovery after an emergency event.
But it’s not a set and forget scenario. Once created, it’s important to schedule periodic reviews of the plan to make any necessary updates. There are often new products or techniques developed that can used to better prepared for an emergency event. It’s important to revisit comprehensive emergency plans at least every 2-3 years, to recognize changes in circumstances or new risks.
Call for backup
Life is unexpected and sometimes accidents simply can’t be avoided. In the event that damages occur, it’s helpful to be ready to act on any necessary repairs.
Keeping a robust supply of spare parts to allow for immediate repair and restoration will help to keep your projects resilient. There is often an extended delivery time for parts needed from outside of the country, especially after a storm which adds to the downtime of a project. To keep projects operating, having a spare set all consumable parts, fuses, filter and things most likely to be damaged in a storm is critical.
Making resilient practices pay off
One of the biggest challenges to developing renewable energy facilities is access to affordable insurance. In the Caribbean, insurance is hard to obtain and even harder to pay for when available. We have noted that the insurance industry is increasingly examining design criteria and resiliency of facilities more closely when considering them for insurance. Building projects to withstand worst-case-scenarios can mean a plant is more insurable, which can in turn make insurance a bit more affordable.
Energy stability is fundamental to the social and economic wellbeing of communities around the world, and it is no different in the Caribbean where communities are all too accustomed to the crippling effects of power outages. When built according to best practices, a solar facility can be a reliable and long-term contributor to the community’s energy mix.
We’re calling on project developers in the Caribbean to practice and promote resilience practices in the absence of formal regulations, which ultimately, will transition us to a market where built-to-last energy infrastructure is simply the status quo.
Bruce Levy is CEO of BMR Energy.