Ever since the passage of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico (see picture below) and the decimation of its power grid, the return to normalcy as it relates to the sustainability of its energy supply for its citizens has been a challenging task.
This vulnerability has put other Caribbean countries on high alert. Across the region, electric grids are ailing, dated and overburdened, making them an easy target for a powerful passing storm.
Caribbean nations rely heavily on oil and diesel imports to fuel their power plants (a dirty and expensive way to produce electricity). Thus before the tragedy that took place in Puerto Rico they have been looking to integrate renewable energy sources like wind and solar into their existing grids.
Now that task seems far more urgent, for Caribbean countries to move past fossil fuels, their energy systems need to be transformed by constructing new, greener sources of energy. This will also make their electric grids more resilient to weather extremes as the sources will be decentralized and not reliant solely on fossil fuels.
As most Caribbean countries are recognized as Small Island Developing States (SIDS), there are many reasons why it is paramount to transition renewable energy sources as alternatives. Mitigating the effects of global climate change, without a doubt, is a huge one.
Unfortunately, climate change (see picture above) will also complicate that transition as the Caribbean is composed of island nations, which are most vulnerable to rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and other effects of global warming.
Traditional energy sources need to adapt as the Caribbean is already experiencing more weather extremes yearly. Careful attention has to also be taken into consideration as modern wind turbines, for example, were first engineered in Europe, which rarely experiences Category 5 hurricanes. Wind speeds above 165 mph would rip them to pieces.
Changing precipitation and temperature patterns in the Caribbean also affect hydro and solar power. For rainier countries in the north of the region, there are fewer sunny days. Those with higher temperatures are more likely to experience droughts, thus drying up rivers.
Climate change is a profoundly unpredictable process. This makes it considerably harder for weather models to accurately identify which renewable infrastructure should be built where.
Despite all of this, the Caribbean is making strides to a future of more renewable energy. Jamaica (see picture below), for example, aims to install new automated weather stations that will collect real-time weather data nationwide. This initiative will help meteorologists across the entire Caribbean better predict future weather conditions, which in turn supports the development of renewable energy systems.
Colleagues at the University of West Indies have developed a new climate model called SMASH, which plans to aid planners in siting wind farms and predicting the path and severity of the hurricanes that could mangle turbines.
A new Caribbean drought atlas from Cornell University has compiled climate data going back to 1950. The tool won’t just help sustain food production during dry times but should also be useful to hydropower enterprises with the precipitation data it provides.
Since many small islands don’t possess big rushing rivers essential to be a meaningful power generator, hydropower plants that run on urban wastewater is another viable option to address the current limitations of hydroelectric power in the Caribbean.
Wind farms, too, are adapting to the instability of this changing climate. Turbines are now designed to float thousands of feet above land (see picture below), spooled out like kites to capture winds where they blow hardest which will fare better during hurricanes.
All of these technologies may eventually help Caribbean countries navigate their way past traditional sources of power to a more cleaner and renewable future and make the region more resilient against the effects of climate change.