News: Renewable Energy is Essential for the Caribbean

Caribbean countries are on high alert for power failures. Puerto Rico’s inconsistent grid, which was severely damaged during the 2017 hurricane season, continues to lose power—some island residents have yet to regain power in the seven months since Hurricane Maria. This phenomenon is part of a larger problem: electric grids across the region are dated, ailing, and overburdened. Powerful passing storms can leave thousands without power for months on end. The solution? Localized, renewable energy sources.

Caribbean nations rely heavily on oil and diesel imports. Governments are attempting to integrate renewable energy sources (wind and solar) into their existing grids, but the task is more urgent now than ever before. In transforming energy grids into utilizing new, greener sources of power, electric grids will become more resilient to weather extremes; they will be decentralized and pull from an array of power sources. With strategically-planned renewable energy, there is always a back-up.

Unfortunately, climate change will likely complicate the Caribbean’s transition into renewable energy. Caribbean islands are the most vulnerable when it comes to rising water levels, changing weather patterns, and other effects of global warming. The region has already experienced these extremes; research suggest that northern Caribbean countries, such as Cuba, Jamaica, and the Bahamas, have become rainier over the past three decades. The uptick in severe weather is costly, as it both damages existing systems and puts these countries further in debt.

Additionally, with increasing weather extremes, green energy systems will, in turn, become vulnerable. For example: modern wind turbines can be torn apart in 165mph winds. Changing regional temperatures will dramatically alter the availability of hydro and solar power. Climate change makes it nearly impossible to predict future weather scenarios, so building a system to anticipate a changing climate is difficult.

The Caribbean, however, is doing what it can to shift toward renewable energy sources. Jamaica is aiming to install automated weather stations to collect data, which can be used to build better electric systems. Urban wastewater hydropower plants are being developed for use on Caribbean islands. The future of the islands is uncertain but changing technologies may eventually help these countries navigate their way through climate change.

News: Regional Grids Help Distribute Energy

The debate between regional and localized energy grids is as old as renewable energy sourcing. Proponents of the latter argue that moving to a regional grid will harm prospects for greater development of distributed energy resources; in relying on a regional power source, communities are less likely to develop their own means of capturing renewable energy. If the regional source fails, many argue that communities will turn to fossil fuels. However, a recent analysis and study shows that these concerns are unfounded. Green Tech Media reports that a regional grid operator is most beneficial for renewable energy development.

First, implementing a regional grid operator allows for easier management of the generator’s variable output. In coordinating energy generation, the utility may be shared by more customers. In blending a variety of renewable sources, there will be a more constant source of energy. A regional model also allows for diversification; rather than relying solely on solar power, a region can draw from wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and other types of renewable energy sources. If solar panels don’t produce enough energy (this is a strong possibility, as solar energy can be unpredictable), the region can fall back on alternative sources.

Second, a regional grid operator can better plan energy transmission. A regional system operator may optimize power dispatch across the entire network, which will work to reduce the congestion currently caused by contractual rights and charges. In having one cohesive system, the grid operator and power supplier can work together and eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles. This widespread energy will also benefit electric vehicle users, as they will be able to utilize a low-cost charge anywhere within the region.

Finally, a regional grid with a coordinated market will be cleaner. Current research identifies solar and wind generation as the lowest-cost power plants to operate. The power generated in plants around the region can be used to power locations without access to the land necessary to create generators. More renewable energy will get developed, less will be turned off due to local imbalances, and customers will enjoy cleaner and cheaper power regardless of their location within the region.

Renewable Energy Review: Wind

What is it? Wind can be considered a form of solar energy; the uneven heating and cooling of the atmosphere causes wind. Wind power is the use of air flow through wind turbines to power generators for electric power. This is an excellent alternative to fossil fuel, and it is plentiful, renewable, widely distributed, clean, and produces no greenhouse gas emissions during operation. Wind power also consumes no water and uses little land. It is inexpensive, causes little disruption to the land it uses, and can be collected both on- and offshore. Additionally, it has a low life carbon footprint—builders can expect to breakeven on carbon output (work back the energy it took to create the wind turbines) in around eight months.

How is it sourced? Wind flow is captured by wind turbines, which convert the energy into electricity. Wind farms consisted of many individual wind turbines, which are often connected to the electric power transmission network. When the wind blows, the turbine’s motion catalyzes generator power.

How is it used? Wind power is used to generate electricity for a variety of situations. Additionally, the power generated by a wind farm is not restricted by location.

Are there any downsides? Wind power is variable—it is consistent from year to year but may have significant variation over shorter lengths of time. This means that it is often used in conjunction with other electric power sources; it is necessary in order to provide a reliable supply. Wind farms can also harm or kill birds and bats, and the turbines may be loud for those living close to them.


Renewable Energy Review: Geothermal

What is it? Geothermal energy is derived from the heat of the Earth itself. It can be sourced close to the Earth’s surface, eliminating the need for excessive and destructive digging. However, the heat source itself is derived from deep within the Earth’s core—around 4,000 miles down. At this part of the planet, temperatures may reach over 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat emanates from the core to the surrounding rock. Humans have utilized geothermal energy for millennia—it is the cause of hot springs, and ancient Romans harnessed its power for space heating.


How is it sourced? Geothermal power plants harness these heat sources to generate electricity. There are three types of power stations—dry steam, flash steam, and binary cycle power stations.


How is it used? Geothermal energy can be part of a commercial utility energy solution on both large and small scales. This may include everything from heating office buildings and manufacturing plants to growing greenhouse plants. It can also be used to heat water at fish farms and aid in several industrial processes, such as pasteurizing milk.


Are there any downsides? Geothermal energy, though sustainable, can cause some minor environmental issues. In the most extreme cases, geothermal power plants can cause small earthquakes. Moreover, there are very heavy costs associated with building and developing geothermal power plants, and the energy availability is highly location-specific. This type of power is only sustainable if the reservoirs are properly managed.


Renewable Energy Review: Bioenergy

What is it? Bioenergy is a type of renewable energy derived from biomass to create heat and electricity. It is also used to produce liquid fuels used for transportation, such as ethanol and biodiesel. Bioenergy creates “biofuels,” such as ethanol and biodiesel. Biomass is defined as any organic material which has stored sunlight in the form of chemical energy—this can include everything from wood, wood waste, and straw to manure and other byproducts of various agricultural products.


How is it sourced? Bioenergy is sourced in a variety of ways. Users can directly burn the biomass or capture the methane gas produced by natural decomposition of organic material.


How is it used? Bioenergy can be used in vehicles (ethanol and biodiesel) and in farm operations, working to convert waste from livestock into electricity. This is done using a small, modular system. Additionally, manufacturing facilities can be equipped to burn biomass directly, allowing for the recycling and reuse of material (for example, paper mills can use wood waste to produce electricity and steam for heating). If equipped, towns can also tap the methane gas created by the anaerobic digestion of organic waste in landfills.


Are there any downsides? Bioenergy generates the same amount of carbon emissions as fossil fuels. However, the plants grown as biomass remove a roughly equal amount of CO2 from the atmosphere, helping to keep the environmental impact relatively neutral. However, organizations such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council have critiqued the use of bioenergy for the harmful impact it may have on forests and the climate (as a result of the CO2 emissions).

Renewable Energy Review: Hydroelectric

What is it? Hydroelectricity is produced from hydropower, which is derived from the energy of falling or fast-moving water. It is produced in 150 countries and, in 2015, produced nearly 17% of the world’s total electricity. It also produced around 70% of all renewable electricity. Hydroelectricity’s low cost makes it a competitive source of renewable electricity; the power plants consume no water, and the project produces no direct waste and has a considerably lower output level of greenhouse gasses than fossil fuel energy plants..


How is it sourced? The most popular form of harnessing hydroelectric power is by capturing the kinetic energy of flowing rivers. This is done through the utilization of a series of dams, which are constructed to store water in a reservoir. When released the water flows through turbines, producing electricity. The water is cycled between lower and upper reservoirs to control electricity generation. Hydroelectric power can also be harnessed through “run-of-river hydropower.” In this method, a portion of a river is funneled through a channel, thus eliminating the need for a dam.


How is it used? Though the use of hydroelectric power is dependent on geographic location, it is used to supply electricity in a variety of situations—from farm and ranch operations to individual buildings and towns.


Are there any downsides? There are some minor environmental consequences associated with the use of hydropower. Interventions in waterways, such as damming and changing flow, can impact the habitat of thousands of species. Additionally, building the plants themselves is an expensive project, and widespread droughts are likely to exponentially increase the cost of hydroelectric power.


Renewable Energy Review: Solar

What is it? Solar power is the conversation of energy from sunlight into electricity. This is done by either directly using photovoltaics, indirectly using concentrated solar power, or a combination. With the exception of geothermal and hydrogen, the sun plays an essential role in most types of renewable energy. In capturing the sun’s energy directly, technology can convert this power into heat, illumination, electricity, and cooling systems. Solar power is an extremely reliable source of energy, thus providing essential energy security. It can also provide energy independence to those who purchase personal solar panels. Additionally, solar power creates a lot of jobs—between two and three times more than the coal and natural gas industries.


How is it sourced? Photovoltaic (PV) systems use solar cells to convert sunlight into electricity. This coverts light into electricity using semiconducting materials. Additionally, the sun’s heat can be concentrated by mirror-covered dishes that are focused to boil water in a conventional steam generator to product electricity.


How is it used? The application of solar power is seemingly endless. Users can install personal and commercial solar power systems in the form of rooftop equipment or field array panels. Users can also purchase solar energy generated by an offsite commercial solar installation.


Are there any downsides? When the sun sets or is heavily shaded, solar PV panels stop producing electricity. This necessitates the creation of batteries to store electricity produced by solar panels for later use. Additionally, up-front costs can be intimidating, and personal panels do not work on every type of roof. However, when it comes to environmental impact, or lack thereof, solar energy is peerless.


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