Reader’s Letter: The Winds of Change – Revisited

POSTED: 06/30/11 12:54 PM

On November 23, 2002 an article I had written titled “The Winds of Change: Are they blowing in St. Maarten?” appeared in the business section of another daily newspaper. The focus of the article was the suggestion that St.Maarten look into harnessing the abundant winds present in order to generate electricity and thus free itself from the high cost of oil (which at the time was trading at $24.29 per barrel). I thought it was a good idea and it prompted a lot of discussion on the then very active message board of the other daily. Since GEBE has been in the news quite a lot lately with regard to the fuel clause it charges customers, I thought a revisit was due.

From what I can gather from reading the papers and listening to the press conference given by Minister Franklin Myers, all this squabbling amounts to not much more than the issue of how GEBE discloses it’s cost for fuel to the consumer. GEBE now has two choices, it can either disclose the cost separately as is done now or it can bury the cost by lumping it together with the cost of the electricity used. At the end of the day the customer is still going to be charged for the fuel required to produce their electricity. You still haven’t addressed the core problem and that is the need for fuel to begin with.

Sadly in the time between now and when I originally wrote the article almost nothing has changed, at least in St.Maarten. When asked about alternative energy while he had the GEBE portfolio Roy Marlin said it was being studied. So what were the results of your study Mr. Marlin? I do recall Mr. Lambert attending a conference on wind energy and some GEBE people going to Nevis to look at a hole in the ground that will someday provide them with geothermal electric power. That’s about all that has transpired since then, other than GEBE spending 30 million dollars on new generators and another 45.5 million dollars a year on diesel fuel to run them.

Elsewhere wind energy projects are moving forward. Nevis opened its first wind farm on August 27th of last year and St.Kitts will break ground in July or August of this year for their first wind farm. I mention these two islands because they are, like St.Maarten, small in size and in the same geographical area.

Farther away, France, in February of this year, announced that by next June a tender will be launched for the construction of five 3, 000 MW offshore wind farms, worth about 10 billion euro. A subsequent tender will assign another 3, 000 MW. In November of last year they put out for tender the first phase of ten projects with a combined capacity of 75 MW in the overseas departments. 20 MW of which are in the department of Guadeloupe and the Collectivities of Saint-Barthélemy and of Saint Martin (3 projects).  It’s interesting to see that France is willing to invest this amount of money in wind energy, since currently over 75% of its electricity comes from nuclear energy.

Even more eye opening is Venezuela, which has plans to install 10, 000 megawatts of wind generation in the country within the next 15 years. Currently Venezuela is installing 100 MW in what will be that country’s first wind farm. 76 wind turbine generators will be installed amounting to almost 116 million euro. Yes, this is happening in a country that is a member of OPEC and currently gets 70% of its electricity from hydroelectric power sources. A drought over the last two years caused water levels to fall and created a shortage of electricity, proving that there is no perfect form of power generation. Diesel generators were added to the grid to fill the gap but these consume 100, 000 barrels of oil per day and at today’s prices that means a daily loss of over 10.7 million in revenue if that same oil was available for export. Hugo Chavez would rather sell his country’s oil on the world market, than burn it domestically to generate electricity.

The recent revelation that GEBE actually benefited financially from higher oil prices through its fuel clause markup scheme is shameful. It also proves that no real solution to the problem is likely to come from anyone working there.

Politicians need to do more than provide lip service when it comes to bringing alternative energy to the people of St.Maarten. A start would be legislation requiring that some significant percentage of the electricity produced by GEBE come from something other than diesel fuel and establish a firm date that this must be accomplished by.

The excuse that St.Maarten is too small and can’t afford this will not play. There are companies out there that are in the business to build, finance and operate wind parks. An offshore wind park for St.Maarten could easily be built and in full operation before the next election rolls around. If a politician would go to work and accomplish this for the people of St.Maarten, he or she, would have no need to hand out Blackberries, laptops, washing machines, refrigerators, airline tickets or cash in order to garner votes come election time.

Think about it, if GEBE didn’t need to charge the fuel clause, over a four year period the average voter would save enough money to be able to buy their own washing machine, refrigerator and actually be able to afford to run them. The politician that achieves this rightfully deserves their vote.

Properly constructed a wind park would provide a clean, reliable and cost stable source of power for the people of the island for the next 20 years before the turbines would require replacement. The same can not be said about a diesel generator. An errant rat or clumps of seaweed will not cause a wind turbine to go offline either.

Provided the wind park was built with enough capacity, cruise ships could be required to plug in to the grid while in port and shut down their engines which burn the cheapest dirtiest bunker fuel available. They currently are required to do this at other destinations. St.Maarten could benefit both financially and environmentally from this.

A very well known politician predicted the age of wind power, his name Abraham Lincoln. In a lecture he gave in 1860 titled “Discoveries and Inventions” he said: “Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power … Take any given space of the earth’s surface, for instance, Illinois, and all the power exerted by all the men, beasts, running water and steam over and upon it shall not equal the 100th part of what is exerted by the blowing of the wind over and upon the same place. And yet it has not, so far in the world’s history, become properly valued as motive power. It is applied extensively and advantageously to sail vessels in navigation. Add to this a few windmills and pumps and you have about all. As yet the wind is an untamed, un-harnessed force, and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made will be the taming and harnessing of it.”

A pretty wise observation considering this was 21 years before the first public electricity supply was even available. In the 151 years since he made that speech it has become possible to harness the wind and as I’ve pointed out it is being done all over the world. So why is it not being done in St.Maarten? With the amount of information that is readily available on the Internet about alternative energy there really is no excuse that not one of St.Maarten’s handsomely paid politicians has any plan for the future.

Bottom line, St.Maarten has wind, it does not have oil. Does it make sense to allow GEBE to continue doing what it has been doing to the people of St.Maarten? Is there anyone who really believes that buying more diesel powered generators in the future is the answer?

I hope the next time I choose to revisit this topic, St.Maarten will have finally experienced the “Winds of Change”. Just remember what Albert Einstein once said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Andy Croxall

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