World’s spotlight on Caribbean as renewal energy policies emerge

 

A struggling economy and the threat of climate change hang over planet Earth like a shroud. But the first footprints toward a solution can appear in the most unexpected places. 

Here, for instance, entrepreneurs and public officials are working with the emerging electric-vehicle industry worldwide to launch a whole new market. If the effort pans out, it could sweep Cayman onto global center stage, encouraging cleaner air and fresh economic benefits throughout the Caribbean and beyond. 

Any mention of electric vehicles to John Felder, who runs Cayman Automotive, selling and leasing cars, shifts him instantly into high gear in his practiced pitch for plug-in cars that emphasizes their economic and environmental benefits. 

“With fuel here at almost $6 CI a gallon – $7 and change in U.S. currency – EVs (what insiders call electric vehicles) are just the answer. And consider: There’s no oil change, no filter, no pollution, very few moving parts. With a highway-speed vehicle, you can go anywhere. And the demographics that like the EV are very enthusiastic. They’re 35 to 65 years old, educated, professional, and they believe in the movement. It is a movement, too. I’m part of it.” 

Felder’s enthusiasm is understandable. He wants to lease and sell EVs all over Cayman. He began by urging the government to consider these efficient cars for their role in “greening” transportation here. That’s a term former premier McKeeva Bush has used in reference to legal changes he supported, the better to accommodate EVs and lower their price, which is higher than similar cars with internal combustion engines.  

Felder pushes hard on the environmental advantages and sees a critical mass of EVs on Cayman roads as a way to influence businesses and residents to consider renewable energy sources. 

Charging stations for the Caymans‘ future fleet of EVs, he says, will have prominent photovoltaic solar collectors that turn sunlight directly into electricity. They will be ads, in effect, for renewable energy, something Felder urges for the islands “If we don’t do something like this to clean up our world, we are in very bad trouble,” he says. 

 

‘Dramatic shift’ 

Even with some 300 sunny days a year and a sea breeze, Grand Cayman is polluting its precious air. Caribbean Utilities Co. Ltd., the dominant power producer, burns diesel fuel to generate electricity, a source of emissions that contribute to global warning. The island’s aging fleet of cars, many not well maintained, spew even more bad chemicals into the air. It’s largely the same in other Caribbean nations. 

But by switching wholesale to EVs, Cayman and other states could become models of sustainability, according to experts in energy, the environment, economics and tourism. That’s especially true if they embrace electric vehicles accompanied by even a modest renewable energy option, like solar power. The conspicuous solar collecting panels attached to charging stations will be a constant reminder of the islands’ renewable energy capability.  

“I could see these islands becoming world leaders,” Deborah Gordon, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said. And she sees Cayman’s becoming a crucible out of which might spring a dramatic shift for the Caribbean economy, along with cleaner air. 

Now paying sky-high prices for imported petroleum, most Cayman residents would love cheaper energy. But reducing air pollution could also help boost tourism by improving the air in paradise. Even more importantly, cutting pollution enough, scientists say, would slow a predicted sea-level rise stemming from humans’ abuse of the atmosphere.  

The science of climate change not only points to higher seas (as polar ice melts) but fiercer storms, more vicious hurricanes. Tropical islands could be the first places to feel dangerous effects of warmer atmosphere and oceans, a concern Cayman and her neighbors share. In fact, the powerful Organization of American States already has reported that the region has the most to gain of any place in the world from embracing solar and other renewable energy sources. 

In Aruba at last month’s Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum’s annual conference, the best attended ever, ideas about how new energy sources and more efficient – and less costly – means of moving people were the major buzz. Experts there mostly agreed that their nations and territories must work together to alleviate the danger as well as build a stronger regional economy. 

One conference attendee, Joseph Salvatore, senior analyst at New York-based Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said solid action among nearby island states “really could show the world a model to deal with these grave problems.”  

No wonder Felder’s initiative, aimed at showing people new ways to “tank up” cars is getting attention here. By increasing the proportion of EVs on Cayman roads, the island would cut expensive petroleum imports. Adding solar powered charging stations would reduce expensive diesel-powered electricity production and render the air cleaner. 

 

‘The world will be watching’ 

The Carnegie Endowment’s Gordon, who studies the effects of oil prices, thinks EVs are a great idea, but running charging stations, in part with solar energy, is like doubling down on an already good bet. “That’s something that could work throughout the Caribbean. People all over the world will be watching.”  

Bloomberg’s Salvatore noted that “the high cost of electricity throughout the Caribbean is a strong reason for the shift to EVs and renewable energy.” In places like the United States, where power is cheaper, “there’s less incentive to make the investment in technology like electric cars and renewable power sources.”  

Of course, as Felder knows, “there’s still the matter of making it work – which we will do.” One of his partners in the plan to build EV charging ports in key locations around Grand Cayman is Mickey McLaughlin, co-founder of U-Go Stations.  

Speaking from company headquarters in Philadelphia, the energetic executive described how drivers of Chevrolet Sparks, Nissan Leafs or BMW-made Mini-E autos will charge a car that runs on electricity instead of petroleum: A user would pull up to the canopied station, enter payment details with a credit or debit card and plug a cord into a socket on the car.  

“They’ll chose either a Level 2 or Level 3 charge.” Level 2 could typically take four hours to fully empower an EV’s battery. The driver could leave the car there and go about her business. Level 3 takes 15 minutes for an 80 percent charge. 

Various sources compute the cost of running an EV, based upon the widely varied charge per kiloWatt hour (kWh) from the utility or source of electricity. 

Edmunds.com, a website filled with information about auto values, performance and economy, points out, for instance, that a typical compact EV, say a 2014 Ford Focus Electric, requires about 32 kWh to drive 100 miles. If each kWh of charge costs 12.5 cents (average for the continental U.S.), that would translate to US$4 U.S. for 100 miles. At 25 cents per kWh, the same distance would cost US$8 – still cheap compared to a gas-powered vehicle. At CI$6 per gallon of gasoline and a car that gets 25 miles per gallon, a Cayman driver pays CI$24 to go 100 miles on petroleum. 

Neither McLaughlin nor Felder yet knows what the charge will be at their planned U-Go stations. They must invest capital in their construction, insure them and keep them clean, safe and properly maintained. Plus, they must buy power from the existing utility grid. And they’ll want to make profit. 

But their intent to mount highly visible solar energy collectors on the stations, turning sunlight into watts of electricity, means they will be harvesting some of their power at a very low rate indeed. They won’t have to pay for sunlight. When it shines and the photovoltaic cells busily transform light into watts, they will be running their electric meters in reverse. “So we’ll be selling extra energy back to the utility,” Felder said. “It’ll help light homes in Grand Cayman,” and the U-Go partners will receive a per-kWh reimbursement for those watts. 

 

Time for a change 

Naturally, the business plan for so elaborate a system is complicated. But Felder, who has a solid reputation in his existing auto business, thinks it’s time for change in Cayman’s transportation economics. “We’re on an island,” he points out. “We have to ship in everything we need, including auto parts. EVs require only a fraction of the maintenance of gas-powered cars. Drivers won’t need to spend so much money on alternators and spark plugs and all that.” 

He and McLaughlin are thinking beyond cars, too. The first of a range of new electric two-wheelers – bikes with smaller batteries and power units, motorcycles, mopeds – are poised for import as the EV revolution spreads across the continents. Small trucks and buses, too, will be on roadways soon, humming along quietly with zero air pollution. 

“The highway-speed motorcycles operate for about 2 cents a mile and don’t make all that noise,” McLaughlin said. “Perfect for visitors and tourists to run around the islands.” Selling and leasing those are part of his plan, too, once the infrastructure is in place, the charging stations that will permit EVs to roam freely on Grand Cayman. 

 

Other locales interested 

Meanwhile, Cayman is not the only Caribbean site where these ideas are taking root. Deborah Gordon points to island nations throughout the region that are clamoring for ways to diversify their sources of energy. “The main interest, as you would expect, is in renewable energy, energy from the sun, from wind and from geo-thermal sources.” Aruba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and others will be watching Felder’s efforts on Cayman, eager to proceed, she said. 

In opening last month’s CREF conference, Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary general of the OAS, urged even more regional collaboration in support of sounder energy policies in the Caribbean. “Sun, heat, water and wind all offer opportunities,” he said, calling on national leaders to give renewables their full attention. 

Salvatore warned that there remain pockets of skeptics, just as there are skeptics about global warming and its implications. There are interests that don’t welcome cheaper renewable energy, including some Caribbean utilities. “If they don’t get on board, this movement could really face delays.” Then the rest of the world might have to look for another region to launch a sustainable-energy model. 

Felder, though, makes a convincing plea for Cayman to proceed with every advantage the 21st century provides, from electric vehicles to wind and solar power. If his and his partners’ plan can help Cayman win the battle against high-cost fossil fuels, their polluting effect on the environment and even the rise of the world’s oceans, this small territory could inspire the whole planet. 

Electric car At the Wheel

John Felder powers up one of his electric cars. – Photo: Stephen Clarke

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