The Caribbean Utilities Company has unveiled its new US$85 million diesel generators as demand for electricity in the Cayman Islands soars to record levels.
The 40 megawatt generators, capable of powering 10,000 homes, were hooked up to the grid last month, coinciding with an all-time high in peak demand across the territory.
CUC President and CEO Richard Hew said the new plant is several years overdue and will reduce power outages and improve reliability.
He insisted that the power company is still pursuing plans to integrate more renewable energy into the system. But he said it is not currently possible to source such a large amount of new power generation from solar or wind and maintain a reliable service. The new generators account for almost 40 percent of the island’s peak power demand, which hit a record high of 103.3 megawatts earlier this month.
As government discusses a new energy policy, with some advocates calling for a switch to 100 percent renewables, Mr. Hew cautions against expecting too much too soon.
“It is not as simple as saying we are going to put 100 megawatts of solar on the island. That is going to take 400-500 acres of land. Where is that land going to come from? Are you going to want it next to your home? Are we going to be able to disturb swampland to put it in?
“There are a lot of issues between where we are now and getting to even 50 percent renewables.”
The reliability of solar-generated power at night and during spells of bad weather and the effectiveness and affordability of battery storage technology to address that shortcoming are also barriers, he said.
The Cayman Islands currently derives around 3 percent of its energy from renewable sources, with that figure expected to rise to 8 percent once a new solar farm comes online in Bodden Town.
Mr. Hew said the longer term uptake of renewables would depend on the availability and affordability as well as the progress in development of storage technology for intermittent power sources such as solar.
“I don’t know what that number will be,” he said. “Our approach is to go out and look at what technology is available, what is the cost, and then set targets.”
He said CUC is about to embark on an integrated resource plan, involving public meetings, to help determine the possibilities over the next decade. But he did not rule out the prospect of further new diesel generators being part of the picture.
The new equipment, which CUC says is cleaner and more fuel efficient, replaces two older diesel generators, which were collectively providing 17 MW. There are other generators at the power company’s George Town plant reaching the end of their useful life span and Mr. Hew acknowledged they may also have to be replaced.
He added, “It may make sense to extend that (life span) for a few years rather than spending another $85 million on new plant, especially in the context of renewables and not knowing what role they are going to play.”
He believes the company’s generation capacity, following the purchase of the new diesel generators, is now sufficient to meet demand. But that may change as Cayman continues to grow.
While improved energy efficiency is driving down usage at an individual level, growing population is moving overall demand in the other direction.
Mr. Hew said the company is excited about the potential for renewables in the future, but needs to balance that with an obligation to provide a reliable service.
“In the future as technology such as storage improves and the costs come down, it may be possible to combine an intermittent source like solar with storage to provide some form of firm reliable electricity supply. It wasn’t possible at this time – in the future who knows? It is our intention to build in as much renewables as we can to the system.”
CUC makes a distinction between firm power sources, available around the clock, and intermittent sources, which vary depending on timing and weather. Mr. Hew said it is not feasible to supply more than 20 percent of peak demand from intermittent sources without risking “cascading power outages” caused by a sudden drop in supply, from a squall, for example.