A genuine commitment to renewable energy could help drive a green jobs revolution as Cayman seeks to kickstart the economy in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, industry leaders believe.
The country’s National Energy Plan already sets a target that 70% of our power supply should come from renewables by 2037.
But clean-power advocates hope the economic crisis will inject new urgency into making that target a reality.
Until now, much of the debate about renewable energy has focussed on balancing the desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the need to keep utility bills down and ensure the lights stay on when the sun doesn’t shine.
But with thousands of people out of work and whole sectors of the tourism economy in long-term peril, the focus is shifting to another less heralded aspect of the switch to renewables – employment.
Green energy is the fastest growing industry in North America and the fastest growing jobs category in the world.
It also has the advantage of offering well-paid career opportunities to people of all academic backgrounds, says James Whittaker, president of the Cayman Renewable Energy Association.
“You can come out of high school into this industry and make really good money, or if you have a masters degree, you can make twice as much on the engineering side,” he told the Cayman Compass.
“There is a broad range of job types and that is what Cayman needs.”
There is widespread agreement across the industry that conversion to renewable energy is a desirable goal for Cayman and that it will be good for the economy as well as the environment.
Malike Cummings, CEO of OfReg, said COVID-19 had changed the economic landscape. He expects renewable energy to help create employment across the Caribbean over the next five years.
“The Cayman Islands should see new jobs and economic development created from the sector as we move to implement and strive to meet the aspirational goals of the National Energy Policy,” he said.
Opinions differ on the right pace of change and the best way to diversify Cayman’s power supply.
CUC’s strategy is focussed on large utility-scale solar farms.
But while this may lead to cheaper energy, it won’t create the same employment stimulus as rooftop solar, said Whittaker.
“The ability to get up every morning and go out and put solar on rooftops is where the job creation is,” he said.
He said CUC and OfReg had typically been too focussed on price and had not prioritised ‘distributed generation’, which carries a higher cost for consumers but can deliver more job growth.
“Distributed generation can still lower costs. It won’t lower the cost as much (as large solar farms) but you are going to get way more jobs and economic benefit, which is why every country does it,” he said.
Government’s energy policy co-ordinator, Kristin Augustine, said the COVID-19 crisis had emphasised the importance of renewable energy.
“It has been estimated that this sector will create hundreds of jobs in the Caribbean over the next few years and the Cayman Islands should see some of this impact,” she said.
Augustine believes the fundamentals of the plan will not be altered by the crisis. But she said there may be a shift towards initiatives that can drive employment.
“What may change is the timelines for implementation,” she said. “Where elements of the policy may result in economic development, they may be given priority.”
She highlighted a recent expansion of CUC’s Consumer Owned Renewable Energy programme as an example of an initiative that would help create jobs for at least eight companies.
The Strategic Economic Advisory Council, a group set up to draft a new post-COVID vision for the Cayman Islands, has picked up on the theme.
Whittaker, who was part of the technology and infrastructure network, said one of its key recommendations was to develop Cayman as a centre of excellence for renewable energy.
He believes there are potentially thousands of new jobs in the sector if Cayman invests in training. A partnership with the University College of the Cayman Islands and the Inspire Cayman trade school is being discussed.
But he said the current regulatory environment was stifling growth and innovation.
While he agrees that the recent expansion of the CORE programme, which allows consumers to generate their own electricity through solar panels or wind turbines and sell it back to the grid, is a good thing, he believes the current allocations are not enough and would like to see the programme developed and upgraded. Allowing larger residential solar installations would create greater stability for numerous businesses in that sector and cut costs for consumers. he said.
Longer term, he believes allowing residents and businesses to rent their rooftops to energy companies could help accelerate the switch to renewable energy.
OfReg’s Cummings defended the regulator’s record, saying it had to make economic decisions in the best interests of consumers.
He cited projects including the 5MW solar farm in Bodden Town and a utility-scale battery storage project approved last year as evidence of progress towards the targets of the National Energy Plan.
He acknowledged the process could sometimes be “time consuming” but said it was part of the regulator’s remit to ensure the law was followed.
Another concept gaining traction is the idea of lending money to people and businesses to fund investment in energy efficiency.
“We are also currently developing grant schemes and green loans to support homeowners to retrofit their homes with energy efficient devices,” Augustine said.
Whittaker said the renewable energy association had been advocating for this type of scheme for some time.
He said a National Energy Reduction Plan, backed by the Cayman Islands Development Bank and private sector banks, could pump money into a growth area of the energy sector.
The basic concept is to make low-interest loans to consumers for upgrades to their homes or businesses, such as replacing the air conditioning unit, adding solar panels or improving insulation.
In the ideal scenario, he said, the cost of the loan repayments would be more than covered by reductions in the monthly power bill.
* James Whittaker, the president of the Cayman Renewable Energy Association, and James Whittaker, the author of this article, are not related.