Last week I was invited for a tour of Bodden Town Solar Farm by CIFMA (Cayman Island Facilities Management Association) and joined some 25 of their members who were as curious as I was to see what a solar farm actually looks like. The facility, which was built by US firm Entropy, opened in 2017, but the company pulled out last year stating that it was not a successful investment. In December 2018, BMR, a Richard Branson company that runs clean energy projects in the Caribbean, acquired the company from Entropy.
The array of 21,690 solar panels is impressive, but what was really interesting was a briefing from Pip Decker, senior vice president at BMR Energy and his team. Entropy had stated that the plant produced less energy than planned, but BMR have made big changes using technology to optimise the power produced. Richard Branson is committed to tackling climate change – he says he wants to save Necker [Island] from disappearing – but the message from BMR is that his investments have to be profitable. That has not always been the case with solar farms, and lessons have been learned. For BMR, technology is clearly the key to lowering costs and improving efficiency.
The company’s operations in the Caribbean are run remotely using SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisitions), a computer system that monitors every aspect of the facilities’ performance, cutting labour costs and minimising downtime. Where local intervention is required a local firm, Pro Solar, are able to step in immediately. Spare parts are kept on island so there are no costly delays in generating electricity. A weather station monitors conditions which are then compared to actual generation performance, spotting problems such as heavy dust on the panels from the nearby quarry.
Hurricane protection is vital to protect the investment: a solar farm BMR acquired in St. Croix had been 90% destroyed in Hurricane Irma. The solar panels in Bodden Town are not secured by screw piles, but grounded in troughs filled with concrete and rebar that are designed to withstand winds of 150 mph. Every screw in all the panels is replaced when there are signs of corrosion. Panels are not tilted at the optimum 15 degrees for generation, but at 10 degrees to minimise wind lift in storms. It’s not just protecting the investment – it lowers the high insurance premium and so lowers operating cost.
The threats from climate change loom ever larger and low-lying islands like Cayman are especially vulnerable. The UK intergovernmental panel on climate change states that we have to halve CO2 emissions in the next eleven years if we are to avoid catastrophic climatic consequences. The Bodden Town plant only generates about 5% of the power CUC uses. We are not doing enough. We must hope that companies like BMR have the right business model that will enable Cayman to push forward much faster if we are to reach our National Energy Policy goal of 70% renewables by 2037.