Solar underused in Cayman

It’s an issue on the minds of many Caymanians. Global oil prices are hovering at around $70 US a barrel and consumers are feeling the pinch at the gas pumps.

But high oil prices are also affecting home electricity bills.

While it may not be immediately apparent, the Cayman Islands’ main power source is the same power source the dump trucks hauling containers from the port to the industrial park use – diesel.

The CUC’s power system is comprised of 18 generating units, including 16 diesel turbines. Forgoing a fixed rate, CUC rates vary in accordance with fuel costs, putting consumers on the hook for price hikes.

July’s ‘fuel factor’ is 11.4 cents, the charge per kilowatt hour added on to the average electricity base rate of 15.5 cents.

But consumers have a relatively simple and cost-effective option that will allow them to save on their energy bills. It’s solar power and it works.

At one extreme, an option is to go entirely ‘off the grid’. However, the cost of a system that can run a home entirely on solar energy is close to $15,000 dollars per kilowatt of energy.

CUC Manager of Engineering Services Sacha Tibbets says safety and a lack of clear sell-back regulations currently make it difficult for off-grid homes or businesses to connect to the main power grid to upload excess power. That means on-site battery storage must also be added to the equipment cost.

However, an affordable alternative is to install solar panels that can heat water and run small appliances, leading to some substantial savings in a relatively short time span.

A good quality hot water heating system serving a family of four costs about $4,200. It should pay for itself within three years, leading to thousands of dollars in savings.

The estimate is based on an energy calculator provided by the CUC. It predicts that a family of four using a medium-sized heater set at medium will spend approximately $1500 on hot water every year.

‘When looking into buying a system, consumers should evaluate the eventual payback,’ advised David Sawchak of ElectraTech solar services.

Mr. Sawchak thinks that the toughest sell with regard to solar in the Cayman Islands is the up-front cost

‘But when they crunch the numbers, the benefits will be obvious.’

Not all solar panels are alike. Thermal panels heat water either directly, through what is known as an open-loop system, or indirectly, through a heat exchanger which transfers heat from the panel to a hot water tank.

‘These are not the same as photovoltaic, or PV, solar cells,’ said Mr. Sawchak. ‘PVs use the sun’s energy to generate an electric current that acts as a power source for your home.’

Solar’s obvious benefits and low cost are showing: solar’s popularity is growing by leaps and bounds around the world.

Solarbuzz LLC, a San Francisco-based research firm focused on the solar industry, reported in March that the global generating capacity of solar PV installations grew by 39 per cent in 2005, with more than $1 billion US invested in new solar cell manufacturing plants.

The industry also raised nearly $2 billion US on the capital markets last year.

When considering a move to solar, long-term savings on hot water bills are an attractive proposition, but other factors are at play.

Roof structural load may determine the kind of water heating system that can be installed. Some systems are designed with heavy roof-mounted water tanks, and larger solar panels can weigh 150 lbs or more.

Furthermore, despite all best intentions, a building may be situated in a way that may prevent solar heating panels from being a viable option.

While rising fuel costs and increasing consumption over the hot summer months can lead to higher electricity bills, Caymanians have numerous options to reduce their energy bills.

A number of these cost-cutting solutions were recently outlined in a series of workshops organized by the CUC.

‘The only way to reduce your bill is to reduce kilowatt per hour consumption,’ said Joey Ebanks, the CUC’s Customer Service Manager.

‘We have been marketing the energy conservation program for the last 15 years, taking it out to the districts to arm residents with the necessary information to combat high electricity bills,’ he said.

These include buying energy-efficient appliances, installing better insulation, turning off and unplugging items when they’re not in use, and using programmable thermostats.

Mr. Ebanks said that considering the general concern over high electricity bills, the low turnout to the conservation sessions was a big disappointment.

‘Everyone who attended was just blown away by the amount of information we had for them,’ he said.

‘We want to show Caymanians how easy it is to cut your bill through taking simple, everyday and zero-cost measures.’

Mr. Ebanks said that the CUC may consider holding more workshops if demand arises.

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