alternative energy options for the VI

The average price of a kilowatt-hour of electricity in the United States is about ten cents. For a Virgin Island resident, regularly forking over nearly five times that amount, the dreaded “WAPA” bill is an increasing concern. A good number of businesses close each year due to sky-high energy prices. These are difficult economic times, made even more so by rising operating costs. The impact on families can be crippling.

Why is it so? Who’s to blame? And, what can be done about it? There is no easy answer and no evil bureaucrat to point the finger at. But, there are things that can be done to ease the burden.

To understand why our costs are so high, we need to review our history. In colonial times the main sources of energy were human, animal, wood and wind. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, increased demand and the advent of the steam engine required the importation of coal to the islands. Military expansion led to the creation of huge coaling stations. Imported oil replaced coal as the energy source of choice in the first quarter of the twentieth century. And there we languished until the 1970’s. Hess Oil opened the refinery on St. Croix in 1973 and it grew to become one of the largest in the world.

Hess Oil (and later, HOVENSA) played a profound role in our current addiction to diesel-powered energy. Corporate and Governmental partnership is a reality. Suffice to say, it was as easy to rely on Hess oil to lubricate our economy, as it was to put gas in our tanks. Now that HOVENSA has closed, our energy future is increasingly uncertain.

In the late 1970’s solar energy was introduced to the Territory. But, money rules the universe and despite the valiant efforts of a handful of idealists, the relatively high up-front cost of alternative energy systems limited their widespread use. Until recent years, it was mostly off-the-grid pioneers who utilized solar and wind power. That changed gradually as prices rose, and then big-time as a result of President Obama’s Stimulus Act which reduced the cost to the consumer by as much as 50%. Now, with the rebate money spent, we’re faced with an even more posing dilemma.

This is not just a local issue. Had American public policy been dictated by innovators and futurists, rather than politicians and businessmen, our energy landscape might look different today. But, Reagan took Carter’s panels off the White House roof, the Saudis are our friends and “alternative” means running a pipeline across the Nebraska aquifer.

Now, we sit sequestered on our little island wondering how to pay our WAPA bills. What can we do to lower those bills? Should we apply for home improvement loans to buy solar panels? Or, should we turn everything off? The answer, as is usually the case, is a combination of both PRO and CON:  production and conservation.

The simplest solution is to consume less. This can be as easy as flicking a switch when leaving a room. Limiting the hours of operation of an appliance will reduce its cost, obviously. Incandescent light bulbs and CFLs should be replaced with LED bulbs. The former waste electricity, and the latter are dangerous if improperly disposed of. This simple step is relatively inexpensive, good for the environment and saves money. Insulation of hot water pipes is a cheap and easy DYI savings solution. Weatherization, in the form of improved windows, caulking and airflow can make a big difference in cooling a home.

Our islands receive an abundant amount of solar “thermal” energy. Every house should have a solar water-heater. New building codes work toward that goal. The sun’s energy can heat a swimming pool, too, resulting in significant gas or electric savings. A recent innovation in air conditioning technology utilizes this free thermal energy to reduce electrical costs by more than half.

Other forms of energy production are more complicated and expensive, but still worthwhile. Units of sunlight called photons can be converted to electricity. This photo-voltaic (PV) process will soon be utilized by WAPA to offset up to 15% of demand. The up-front cost of residential PV-generation is substantial, but the return on investment is attractive to many who can afford it.

Wind power is largely impractical for most of us because of our terrain. Strong, steady wind is found high above the ground or treetops and is thus largely inaccessible. Offshore installations are a large-scale solution, unavailable to the consumer. However, these “wind-fields” are being built by energy companies and communities all over the world. Write your Senator.

Certain aspects of our future can be predicted. The cost of WAPA is unlikely to go down. The sun is expected to shine and the wind to blow.

And, now that you’re done reading… turn off your computer.

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