by Larry Smith
Ever since Dr Marcus Bethel was named minister for energy and the environment in 2006, during the first Christie administration, we have been hearing about energy reform.
Spurred by the Inter-American Development Bank, Dr Bethel launched the process to draft a national energy policy. The goal was to co-ordinate traditional and alternative technologies to meet future power demand.
At the time, oil prices were skyrocketing. And countries were seeking to expand the role of renewables to avoid economic disruption in the event of a global energy crisis. Pollution and climate change issues also played a major role.
Our initial draft policy was based on an IDB study of the local energy sector, as well as a review of regional policies. And in 2007 I wrote that "by now we should be well on the way with alternative energy incentives, efficiency measures, and demand planning."
But we weren’t.
The FNM returned to office in 2007, and BEC formed a committee to consider new technologies. A local group was also proposing a waste-to-energy plant for the Harrold Road landfill, which would have ended the toxic fires while producing megawatts of electricity.
But the government wanted more cover to change the status quo, so they hired a top firm of German consultants to map out a sustainable energy plan. The Germans concluded that solar, wind and biomass could generate many times our present power demand, while common-sense efficiency measures would produce huge cost savings for consumers.
In 2010 I wrote this:
"It's been two years since oil rocketed to $147 per barrel and we all began frantically looking for ways to cut energy costs. And it's been one year since the Copenhagen conference on climate change failed to set a clear global agenda to address one of the greatest challenges of our time.
"These issues are inextricably linked, with the potential to cause serious harm for small island nations like the Bahamas. But tackling them requires a massive shift in the way we produce power, which is not easy.”
Meanwhile, our German friends had recommended legal changes to allow independent power producers and the use of new technologies by consumers. They also called for modifying the building code to promote energy efficiency.
In 2012, the new Christie administration said it would "work assiduously" to achieve these goals. And an updated energy policy was published the following year. It called for infrastructure modernisation, efficiency measures, renewable energy development, and a revised regulatory framework.
At the same time, the government decided it had to do something about BEC, which produced power unreliably at a very high cost to the nation (in more ways than one). The plan changed over time, but the final version is making its way through parliament now.
Despite a gross lack of transparency, the government’s basic approach is to strip BEC of its debt and pollution liabilities, and then pay an American company called PowerSecure to manage the corporation.
Since the details of these arrangements are still secret, it is difficult to say what will happen once BEC becomes Bahamas Power & Light. But management fees are an extra cost, investments in new equipment have to be made, and the debt still has to be repaid.
On the renewables front, despite scores of local and foreign proposals across successive administrations to produce energy from solar panels, garbage, ocean thermal conversion facilities and wind farms, there has been no concrete result to date.
In fact, the government recently withdrew its own consumer net metering pilot plan - leaving those who had invested in solar panels hanging in the air, so to speak. The lack of clarity reminds us of what the late Charles Maynard had to say a few years ago:
“If we had to describe the PLP in one word,” he told parliament during a debate on BEC, "that word would be smudgy. You can’t really see clearly what direction they are heading in."
As far as efficiency measures go, although import duties have been cut on energy-efficient appliances. there has been little or no effort to educate Bahamians about energy conservation, and no relevant changes to the building code that we are aware of.
In short, we are not much further ahead - a decade and two election cycles after Dr Marcus Bethel was appointed the first minister of energy and the environment.
So it was ironic to see the prime minister turn up last week at the Paris conference on climate change to complain about how vulnerable we are to environmental impacts caused by the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.
Christie also cynically called for industrialised countries to raise their $100 billion per year pledge to help poorer countries with adaptation financing, while insisting that "The Bahamas should be able to access these funds.”
I can’t think why, since we don’t have anything concrete to show on the energy reform front after 10 years of work other than a secret management agreement for BEC with a small American company.
Meanwhile, over the past 10 years, Uruguay in South America has slashed its carbon footprint so that renewables now produce over 90 per cent of the country’s electricity, and prices are lower than in the past relative to inflation. Uraguay's renewables mix includes wind, solar and biomass.
In the Caribbean, Jamaica is leading the charge, with renewables expected to comprise 12.5 per cent of the national electricity grid by the end of next year. Some 78 megawatts will be added by March when three new renewable projects come on stream. Over 30 megawatts of rooftop solar has also been installed in the last five years, and the forecast is for another 60 megawatts by 2020.
The Paris climate change conference ends this week. It was attended by leaders of 150 countries, and observers say it must produce an agreement that sets tough emission targets for both industrialised and emerging economies to be termed a success
Global greenhouse gas emissions are forecast to fall this year, despite economic growth. This is attributed to a decline in coal consumption by China, which is responsible for more than a quarter of global emissions. But the fall may be temporary, and a switch from fossil fuels to clean energy has to be accelerated to avoid dangerous climate warming.
In his Paris contribution, the prime minister referred to financial aid designed to help developing nations invest in new technologies and deal with the effects of global warming. It is not clear how tapping these funds would impact us because the government is still smudgy on this issue.
What is clear is that the two-week Paris conference aims to forge a new global agreement, to come into effect from 2020 when current commitments on greenhouse gas limits run out. Unless this happens, the world will be left without a means to take collective action on global warming.
Insofar as we are aware, the Bahamas has not taken advantage of any climate change financing to date. These funds have mostly been channeled to places where emissions are significant and growing fast, and we do not have a mechanism to utilise them.
But island nations like the Bahamas have urged conference negotiators to hold global warming to 1.5 C - a much tougher limit - arguing that a higher temperature would doom our low-lying lands to inundation from rising seas and force mass relocations.
The point I want to make here is that in order to exploit climate change financing, there has to be real action rather than just doubletalk from our government.