Caribbean Utilities Company and Pittsburgh’s International Electric Power plan to sign an agreement by year’s end for solar-generated electricity, triggering construction of a $1.4 million, 21-acre solar farm near Bodden Town.
A 20-year “power purchase agreement,” in negotiation since CUC’s October 2013 selection of International Electric Power for the project, will clear the path to start yearlong construction of the farm, which will supply 5 megawatts of power to the national grid, starting in 2016.
“We are in final stages of the draft PPA development,” a CUC spokesman told the Cayman Compass. “We anticipate presenting a PPA to the ERA before the end of 2014.”
Industry overseer the Electricity Regulatory Authority will weigh the implications for consumer prices, and, if it approves the agreement, will issue a generating license subsequently.
However, ERA Managing Director Charles Farrington said he would reserve judgment pending the review.
“We look at what the cost is to consumers, that’s the crucial bit. Cayman wants renewable energy, but if it costs more, people may be not so excited,” he said.
ERA Deputy Managing Director Louis Boucher said the authority would look at efficiency and practicality: “Do you want all 5MW in one place, where a storm or cloud cover could take out the whole array? Maybe it’s better to have, say, 1MW in East End, 1MW in Bodden Town, 1MW in West Bay. There are really no economies of scale in this, and the costs are not that different – and you want the renewables where the demand is.
“You also have to look at costs. Is it more economical to use existing rooftops? It’s all part of a larger integrated resource planning,” he said.
While neither CUC nor International Electric Power would comment on the agreement, the utility told the Compass in October 2013 that generating costs for solar power would range between 14 cents and 20 cents per kilowatt hour. CUC currently charges consumers approximately 33 cents per KWH – nearly 60 percent of which, 19.5 cents, is diesel-fuel charges.
International Electric Power’s 5MW represents only a fraction of CUC’s 2014 peak load of 99.7MW, and an even smaller portion of the utility’s September 2014 131.65MW capacity.
Similarly, neither company would comment on the yearlong delay in completing the agreement, which itself followed a protracted 26-month bidding process. However, CUC’s plans for renewable energy ran into early trouble when Chicago-based New Generation Power, also named by the utility in October 2013 to supply 3MW of wind energy and 5MW of solar, abandoned its bid amid questions of financial viability.
CUC also acknowledged it had been unable to conclude the power purchase agreement “without the completion of an interconnection study for the proposed location,” the spokesman said. “This study has now been completed.”
An “interconnection study” determines the mechanism and costs of moving International Electric Power’s solar-generated power into CUC’s island-wide transmission and distribution system. The raw solar product must be converted from direct current to consumer-appropriate alternating current before entering the national grid, while the unit, adjacent to the array, must account for peak and slack periods of production, smoothing any fluctuations in supply.
Commenting on the delay, Mr. Farrington said, “The reality is that this has been delayed so long that maybe people are losing their enthusiasm for it.”
Last week, International Electric Power President Enzo Zoratto would say only that “we are getting really close,” but declined to name a time frame to start the $15 million project.
The fate of New General Power had not affected his own company, he said: “We have the land and the leases, and have submitted all the engineering, design and construction [documents] to the Planning Department.
“We are at the tail end of the process. We have subcontractors and are working with Cayman Islands suppliers. It’s a good project at a good price,” he said.
In August, the Central Planning Authority approved International Electric Power’s 9½-page application for construction on part of a 113-acre quarry site, owned by Bodden Town resident Justin Woods. The $1.4 million 20,000-panel solar farm to the west of Pease Bay Pond, near Lake Destiny Drive, will require one year to complete.
The project will cover the westernmost, unquarrried portion of the site, currently used for livestock and crops.
“The quarry is on the eastern side [of the site] and is about 20 feet deep,” said Mr. Woods. “The solar array is on the west. We took limestone out of there – for rock fill, for roads, for building foundations.”
International Electric Power will not have to “in-fill” the excavation, he said, using only the adjacent agricultural land, while his farming operations would move to another site in East End.
The solar array is unlikely to conflict with a new Cox Lumber outlet on 100 adjacent acres, although both Mr. Woods and International Electric Power will shift eastward Lake Destiny Drive and a private road connecting the quarry, guaranteeing road access to the array.
He declined to comment on the price IEP will pay for a 21-year lease – with two optional five-year extensions.
International Electric Power plans call for 20,000 panels “in five sub-arrays, each with a DC-rated capacity of 1.2384 megawatts. Each sub-array would boast a 1MW AC cluster of inverters, converting DC power into three-phase AC power, “delivering it to five medium-voltage transformers.”
Each sub-array would be mounted on a steel “table,” planners wrote, anchored by two concrete ballasts sufficiently heavy to withstand a category 5 hurricane. Operators would be able to disconnect any row of panels from the larger array.
“The site will not be paved and there will not be any buildings constructed as part of the solar-farm development,” the plan says. Entrance to the site will be from the south.
Three-phase construction will start with an 8-foot chain-link perimeter fence. In the second phase, contractors will pour concrete ballasts and 10 steel-racking structures. The third phase will comprise installation of electrical equipment, wires and panels.
“Interconnection will be the last phase of construction, followed by testing and commissioning,” the plans say.
“I was a farmer before,” Mr. Woods says, “Now I’m still a farmer, but with a slightly different crop.”