Forbes – Lessons From Irma

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Among the horrendous destruction that Irma and Mary wrought on the British Virgin Islands, there was just one strand of good news.

For years, islanders have recognized the problems with their form of electrical generation.

It’s based on imported diesel. It’s expensive, smelly and certainly a carbon intensive way of keeping the lights on.

When the oil price goes up, the electricity soars, and it’s already three times more expensive than in the U.S. Electricity poverty is a constant feature of the islands.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. The islands are blessed with plenty of non-hurricane wind, and a good deal of sunshine. Ideal components to keep the lights on without burning the expensive sulfurous diesel, which has to be shipped in from around the world.

Calculated payback times are in the region of ten years. And yet, with all the renewable advantages ready to see, solar panels and wind turbines have not been springing up.

Why is this?

There’s certainly been no shortage of effort from the likes of Sir Richard Branson and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Branson, apart from furnishing his own Necker Island with solar panels, has been working for years to improve the lot of the neighbouring islands.

In 2014, he set up the Carbon War Room with this end in mind.

But it’s been an uphill struggle because changing anything in a large system with its own share of bureaucracy means taking on a myriad of vested interests.

There is a law on the island that only the BVI electrical official supplier is allowed. Putting up solar panels and supplying electricity would literally take an act of parliament to change.

And as if that weren’t enough there were other dampeners on the renewables movement. Skills deficits are a big one. New technology requires new capabilities and who wants to make a 45-year-old boiler manager redundant as one of the few breadwinners on his street?

But Mary and Irma are changing things.

If there’s one thing that the two hurricanes brought home very clearly, it was the importance of resilience; and resilience is more pressing than climate change or even the price of electricity’s raw ingredients. Resilience affects you in the here and now whereas climate change is always another generation’s problem.

Sept. 7, 2017 photo, an uprooted electricity pole stands in the middle of a road in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. (Jalon Manson Shortte via AP)

Resilience is about distribution

On Tortola, the main island in the British Virgin Islands, there was a central generation station and it sent electricity to the outlying islands via a submerged cable. When this went down it took the other islands with it.

Contrast this with a microgrid on Sir Richard’s own Necker Island. Despite Necker being almost completely destroyed, his solar panels emerged unscathed from the destruction, and showed how resilient the renewables system was.

Not only do you avoid a central power station, you have a distributed series of microgrids meaning if one does go down, others will survive to patch up the network. The system can bounce back.

The contrast inability to withstand natural disaster between centralized diesel and distributed renewables is spurring many to return with renewed vigour to the problem.

So where does the money come from?

If there’s now a willingness to change there’s still the money issue that needs addressing. And this is where there’s been some big developments too.

Jemma Green is a speaker, author and consultant on the enterprise disruption caused by blockchain technology, with special expertise on energy and the sustainable economy. Disclosure: I own Bitcoin.