12 January 2010

Solar Update

After writing about alternative energy last week, I did some calculations based on November's and December's electricity bills. In those months we used about 6500 and 4700 kWh each (less in December because the students had left). A safe estimate is that the center uses 72 MWh annually (once I have access to all the statements from 2009, I'll be able to know more accurately). At 50 cents/kWh, you can get an idea of just how much money is going into power.

I did some research and found a solar and wind power company based in Anguilla (another British Overseas Territory). They do installations all over the Caribbean, and being that they are also a British Territory they'll likely know about any incentives that might apply. I contacted them and asked about a system that could power our center. Using solar alone, they told me, it would take a 35kW system. The 140 panels that would make up that system would cost $210,000 installed. Astonishingly, that is only 5 years and 10 months of electric bills (assuming the cost of electricity on the island remains fixed). The rate we pay, however, is likely to rise. I am waiting now for the company's professional "return on investment" analysis, which will address this matter.

The going rate for a solar power system of this size is $6/watt. In the alternative energy industry these rates are pretty much standard across the board no matter who is doing the installation (I've been told most residential installations will go for about $7/watt). So instead of trying to find another company that will beat their rate, I will research this company and make sure they are reputable. I've asked them for references of past customers already.

This particular company also installs wind power systems and has a hybrid wind/solar option. With the hybrid system we could have clean energy 24 hours per day without the use of batteries - an appealing route to go. Either way, I think I'd probably also opt to remain tied to the grid for those rare cloudy and windless days. I'm expecting that the local diesel power company is going to do everything they can to resist this move, so hopefully we won't run into many snags there.

Last night I pitched the idea to one of the SFS Vice Presidents (the TCI center is currently hosting the annual directors and affiliates meetings). I explained how much we were paying, how dirty the current power generation system is, and how quickly the center would see a return on the investment. He was very receptive to the idea. In fact, his reaction was more favorable than I could have expected. Based on the preliminary numbers I provided, he gave the impression that there was no reason SFS wouldn't invest in it. He asked for a more detailed analysis (which the solar company is currently preparing) and said we could sit down and decide on a course of action. More than likely, he said, we'd need to purchase the system in installments. For example, we'd initially invest in a smaller system that would provide a portion of our power, and with the savings that provides we could reinvest and expand, eventually going completely off the grid. Things are looking very optimistic at this point!

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