It’s been several weeks since Category 5 Hurricane Dorian blew into the Bahamas and winds above 180 miles per hour lashed some northern islands for days. After the storm moved on, thousands were missing. So far, the death toll has risen to 50.
According to Justin Locke, senior director of Rocky Mountain Institute’s Islands Energy Program, Dorian obliterated 90 percent of infrastructure on the Abaco Islands and 75 to 80 percent on Grand Bahama Island.
“You can’t have a worse disaster,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything like this.”
When it comes to rebuilding the energy system, Locke said, “We’re starting from scratch.”
The dire situation in the Bahamas echoes the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which tore up Puerto Rico’s grid in 2017 and left many residents without power for months. Maria and Irma, which both also reached Category 5, didn’t leave the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands unscathed, either.
In the eyes of many, the 2017 storms underscored the case for a distributed and renewable energy system, something RMI has worked toward in the Bahamas since 2014.
After the hurricanes, RMI’s energy transition work became more urgent. And as post-Dorian humanitarian efforts in the Bahamas evolve into longer-term planning, RMI said it will translate its experience there and in other parts of the Caribbean to rebuilding the areas Dorian impacted most heavily.
Working alongside national utility Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) and the Caribbean Electric Utility Services Corporation, RMI says its efforts to engineer a more resilient system for the country could provide a blueprint for other electricity grids as the effects of climate change intensify.
“The government and the utility have asked us to support them in redesigning the new electricity system on the Abaco Islands,” said Locke. “We’ll be doing that with the hypothesis that a decentralized renewable system will be optimal both from a cost and resiliency perspective.”
RMI established its Islands Energy Program in 2014 to help transition island partners “from a heavy dependence on fossil fuels to a diverse platform of clean energy and energy efficiency.” So far, the program has worked with 15 countries in the Caribbean.
Most longstanding electric grids, including the grid in the Bahamas, favor a centralized, fossil-fuel-based electricity system that uses transmission and distribution to bring electrons from the source of their generation to consumers.
According to clean energy advocates, such centralized systems have proved dangerous in extreme weather, which will intensify and increasingly impact islands as climate change deepens. “Modular, decentralized, distributed generation” is “optimal from a resilience perspective," Locke said.
Generation in the Bahamas, as on many islands, mostly comes from diesel power. BPL, the country’s largest utility serving 100,000 customers across the archipelago, operates 28 diesel engine stations and one gas plant. Prior to the hurricanes, BPL was already coping with “prolonged load-shedding and lingering problems with power generation,” according to a statement it released in August.
Those conditions compel reliance on fuel imports, high power prices — averaging three times what folks on the U.S. mainland pay, according to Locke — and, at times, unreliable generation. Add in excellent solar resources, and Locke said distributed renewables make good economic, and humanitarian, sense.
“The business case for a renewable energy economy makes sense in the Caribbean more than arguably anywhere else in the world,” said Locke. “Moving to decentralized renewable power generation not only provides a lower cost of electricity, but also provides generation closer to where it’s being consumed by the customer, and as such, is a much more resilient system.”
In 2015, renewables made up less than 0.1 percent of generation in the Bahamas. Over the last several years, RMI has worked with BPL on solar-plus-storage microgrids with diesel backup on the Family Islands (also known as the Out Islands), a group that includes the Abaco Islands. RMI had begun work on five of those islands prior to Dorian. The Abacos had been slated to be included in the second phase of that project, but Locke said those projects are now “top priority.”
Since Hurricanes Maria and Irma, RMI has also collaborated with the Bahamian government to design the country’s first distributed solar and storage projects, including a solar-plus-storage system on Ragged Island, in the south.
Building back better
Now that Dorian has devastated a number of islands in the Bahamas, RMI is shifting focus and quickening the pace of its work.
Working as the government’s “official energy adviser,” the organization envisions a “centralized approach to a new, decentralized system.” (The Bahamian government did not respond to a request for comment on its relationship with RMI.) Locke said RMI’s plan focuses on critical facilities first, followed by modularly building out generation as demand returns to the islands.
“This is the first time we’ll be taking a critical facilities focus, starting there with new generation and building it out using renewable solar-plus-storage, which has never been done before,” said Locke.
“Real resiliency starts with your critical facilities. If people don't have access to clean water because the electricity is not working, if people don't have access to health care or communications — all these key services — that’s when people pass away.”
RMI has laid out a three-pronged approach: rapidly identifying projects; moving directly to resilient solutions after emergency power restoration; and providing financing and contract support as projects get underway. In its proposal, RMI earmarked $1.3 million in funding for the Bahamas so far, with hopes to eventually mobilize $2 million. The organization said total costs could reach $100 million, conservatively, for infrastructure and new generation.
Working with BPL as well as Grand Bahama Power Company, the utility that serves Grand Bahama, RMI hopes it can wrap up the entire process for prioritized projects in under 16 months, though Locke recognizes “that’s a very aggressive timeline.”
The organization said it’s also aware that any rebuild of the system needs to consider the unequal impacts of the storm. Residents of the Bahamas include wealthy U.S. expats as well as undocumented Haitian immigrants, many made homeless by Dorian, according to reporting by the New York Times.
After Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico, well-off residents were more able to take advantage of a torrent of clean energy products flooding the market, while poorer and harder-to-reach communities were generally left without power longer. It’s well documented that climate change will have a disproportionate impact on low-income and impoverished communities.
“The new system that’s designed has to ensure equitable benefits…if it’s going to be ultimately successful,” said Locke.
Contrary to the situation in post-Maria Puerto Rico, where U.S. policies and red tape surrounding aid disbursement continue to slow the pace of recovery, the Bahamas is an independent country.
“Bahamas isn’t confined by that regulatory framework and isn’t confined by that deep and complex political environment, which should enable us to move quite quickly as we did in the British Virgin Islands, Barbuda and Dominica,” said Locke, who has high hopes for the potential of the projects.
“This could be something really catalytic when it comes to how future electricity systems are designed around the world.”