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Letter: Solar for Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission?
Published on July 4, 2017Email To Friend    Print Version

Dear Sir:

I had an interesting response to my Caribbean News Now article, “Solar cells - not so green”, from a reader who calls himself a power engineer. He agrees with the conclusion of the article that Trinidad and Tobago should not be about the manufacture of photovoltaic (PV) solar cells.

However, he went further and suggested that Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission (T&TEC), Trinidad and Tobago's power company, should not be encouraged to include these on its electric grid since PV power is not dispatch-able on T&TEC’s small grid and the Commission would still have to back it up with equivalent fossil fuel turbines. PV for power generation is unsuitable for small island grids.

Before analysing the comment of this power engineer it is interesting to note that St Lucia’s Electricity Services Ltd has just signed a contract with GRUPOTEC, an international solar energy firm, for the supply and installation of a three megawatt (MW) solar farm which can supply electricity to some 3,500 homes.

The reasoning behind this purchase is that St Lucia uses diesel powered generators and has to import the fuel to run its generation plant. Hence any energy that can be supplied by the solar farm, any local energy, will offset the need to import diesel, savings in foreign exchange. These savings will have to be offset also by the capital cost etc. of the farm over time.

Still, the available diesel capacity, as the power engineer suggests, will have to be sufficient to back up the solar farm. It is worth noting that the retail price of electricity in St Lucia is US$0.26 / kWh, which encourages the use of PVs that are expensive, while in Trinidad and Tobago the price of electricity, subsidised, is a mere US$0.05 / kWh.

What is also very relevant is the case of Denmark. This country set itself a target of 200MW of PVs for 2020 but this was achieved early in 2012 and 36MW were being installed each month thereafter. Denmark had 790MW installed by 2015 and expects some 3,400MW by 2030. What then is the difference between Denmark and T&TEC? The reason is what is called net-metering.

Unlike T&TEC, Denmark’s grid is connected to the continent wide European grid. Net-metering allows Denmark to export any excess solar power produced electricity to other countries and import from the international grid when PV assisted local production cannot meet its demand, i.e. Denmark can develop energy export credits, say, in July and use these credits in December to import electricity if required. T&TEC is a small isolated grid that cannot benefit from net-metering.

Is it then that we in Trinidad and Tobago, T&TEC, cannot benefit from the use of PVs or even other renewables and will have to depend on fossil fuels and suffer the concomitant carbon emissions?

For example St Lucia claims that its production of carbon emissions will drop by some 3,800 metric tons annually with the use of the PVs. This reason for PVs is dismissed by the power engineer since, according to him, if Trinidad and Tobago spewed no more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from now, what difference would it make to global warming, climate change? None. This is indeed true, but extrapolate this argument to each individual power station in the world and the argument as a community of nations, falls apart. Still, T&TEC has always been the world leader in low carbon emissions per MW because of its use of natural gas.

The power engineer suggests, however, that if we needed to use renewables that wind turbines would indeed be the better bet for T&TEC, assuming we have the windy locations, since they are less costly than PVs and can generate electricity even at night. His view is corroborated by much of the literature, in particular the Solar Electricity Handbook, 2017, “Wind Turbines vs. Solar Panels”.

What is a significant point made by this engineer is that the decline of 12% in the carbon emissions by the US between 2005 and 2012, back to a level not seen since 1994 and a per capita fall of 17% and are now at their lowest level in 50 years, was not due to the use of renewables but the switch from coal powered plants to natural gas – what we have been using at T&TEC for some time.

This discussion reminds me of a question I posed to an international energy expert some years ago on what should we do as a small open economy in the context of renewables, our depleting natural gas resource and the need to export energy based products just to live? His reply was to diversify the economy, conserve our natural gas and reserve it (even with carbon dioxide capture) for providing electricity for your population and their economic development.

This is truly a discussion that raises arguments that go against conventional wisdom, that renewables and in particular PVs are the solution to our long term energy requirements.

Mary K King
St Augustine
Reads : 2540

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