Published On: Tue, Oct 8th, 2019

Not going solar: how St. Maarten ignored its own energy policy

Solar panelsPHILIPSBURG – On April 24, 2014, the Council of Ministers approved a rather unique document: the National Energy Policy for Country Sint Maarten. The document has an ambitious subtitle: Towards a sustainable development. It looked like the era of renewable energy had finally arrived on the island. But more than five years later nothing much has been done with the lofty targets the government had in mind at the time.

While solar energy production has taken the world by storm, St. Maarten has stayed behind in the dark ages. And it’s not like the technology is unavailable or that people are not interested in saving on their energy bills. There are darker forces at work that hamper progress towards that elusive sustainable future.

The National Energy Policy contains a vision for what was in 2014 considered to be the near future. In 2020 – that’s next year – St. Maarten would be depending on renewable energy for 80 percent of its needs. Already in 2016, the percentage of renewable energy was going to be 35 percent – a pipedream that depended – in the vision of the policy’s authors – for 18 percent on electricity produced by the waste-to-energy plant. As we know now, there still is no such facility. GEBE is still churning out power in the traditional way with fifteen Finnish Wärtsilä diesel generators that run mainly on heavy fuel oil.

Residential solar energy – including rooftop solar water heaters – were supposed to produce 1 to 3 Megawatt by 2016 (2 to 6 percent of renewable energy) and commercial solar energy projects of 2 to 5 Megawatt) plus a 755 Kilowatt project at the Westin in Dawn Beach were to contribute 8 Megawatt, or 16 percent renewable energy. To cut a long story short: wonderful ideas but they never materialized.

The National Energy Policy is clear about whose responsibility this is: “The government’s role is to facilitate and enable an environment for the introduction of renewable energy.” There is no point in playing the blame game: successive governments have failed to live up to the objectives of this policy.

The report contains a long list of actions the government would have to take, but successive administrations have done nothing. The amendment of legislation, enabling larger consumers to feed renewable energy back into the grid and allowing consumers to feed energy back into the grid based on a power purchase agreement “at competitive prices” – it is all still up in the air.

Yet there have been private initiatives to have solar power contribute to the island’s energy needs. The Blue Point store on the Pondfill had solar installed on the roof of its building several years ago while the company added energy-saving led-lights inside the store. The building of the Today newspaper – at the time established near the Prince Bernhard Bridge across from the Beach Plaza Casino – had solar panels on its roof. During sunny days, the traditionally electricity meter of the company ran backwards. The newspaper saved around 65 percent on its energy bills.

This was however at a time when nothing was regulated; installing solar, let alone giving energy back to the grid, was not allowed but it was not forbidden either. The government still has to establish an independent energy regulator and to create incentives for electric transportation, charged by solar energy, fiscal incentives for renewable energy for consumers and incentives for solar water heating.

The list of actions the government has to take is near endless. It also includes the idea to ‘lead by example’ by focusing on energy efficiency and audit the energy consumption of government buildings.

Of course, GEBE also had a role to play according to the National Energy Policy. The utility company should have, for instance, introduced reverse metering agreements for households, feedback agreements for big users, feed-in tariffs and the possibility of pre-paid metering. Replacing the heavy fuel engines currently in use by dual fuel engines or spark gas engines was another recommendation. Furthermore, the policy states, GEBE must seek cooperation with the French side about the shared use of electricity and adapt the grid for connection with the French side and possibly with Anguilla.

To sum it up: the National Energy Policy built the foundation for that elusive sustainable development fueled by renewable energy. But five years later, the construction of St. Maarten’s sustainable house still has not even started.