The island of St. Croix got slammed when hurricanes Maria and Irma crashed through Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands last fall. Among the damage was a practically spanking new 4 megawatt solar farm in Spanish Town. The solar farm is being restored by the company BMR Energy, but that’s only part of the St. Croix story.
CleanTechnica sat down for a phone interview last week with BMR Energy President and CEO Bruce Levy for some insights into the resilience lessons learned from the St. Croix solar farm, and yet another reason why coal and diesel are both toast.
St. Croix Solar Farm: The Big Picture
Before we get to the interview, consider why St. Croix decided to rebuild the solar farm instead of returning to the status quo, that being a fossil-powered grid. After all, another storm will just blow it all to pieces again, right?
Well, first of all the Spanish Town solar farm was not just another solar farm. It was a showcase for St. Croix’s efforts to wean itself from the petroleum economy and transition to renewable energy.
Hugo Hodge Jr., executive director of the US Virgin Island Water and Power Authority, hammered home the point in a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating completion of the solar farm, in 2014:
Like several of the other green energy initiatives that the Authority is pursuing, this project will result in lowering energy costs for our customers. It will generate clean, reliable solar power for delivery to WAPA customers, and help the Virgin Islands and St. Croix achieve our renewable energy goals for the coming years.
Aside from dependence on petroleum for electricity, St. Croix also leaned heavily on petroleum as an economic base. Until recently, St. Croix was the host of HOVENSA, one of the world’s largest petroleum refineries (who knew!). The facility employed about 1,200 people directly and did business with almost 1,000 different contractors before it abruptly shuttered in 2012. It now operates only as a storage facility employing about 650 people.
Despite a discount from HOVENSA, the cost of electricity in the US Virgin Islands has been sky-high and volatile, inhibiting the development of a manufacturing base. The US Congressional Research Service explains:
The price of electricity in the USVI exceeds 32 cents per kilowatt – hour (kWh), which is about three times the average price on the mainland. VIWAPA’s reliance on fuel oil for the bulk of power generation leaves customer rates vulnerable to fuel price increases — fuel surcharges have resulted in electricity rates up to five times higher than the average price on the mainland.
Solar Farm Resilience
Now for that interview. CleanTechica asked Mr. Levy to explain why a rebuilt solar farm could survive the next Irma/Maria-force storm, and he had some interesting things to say on that topic (following comments edited for flow — also please note that Virgin Group acquired BMR in 2016):
Resilience means withstanding environmental conditions. Some of these are easy to figure out. For example, are the power lines strong enough for wind? Will the solar panels stay in place?
For the St. Croix solar farm, out of 16,000 panels only 50 to 60 came loose, and another 50 to 60 were damaged by flying debris. So, the panels and racking actually did very well.
That tells us that the panels and racking don’t really need much more work to make an improvement. The design help up very well in 180 mile per hour winds.
What really did need work was the electronics. One weak spot was that the inverters were all in the same buildings, and the roof was blown away. Water poured in, and there was water damage.
Another source of damage to the electronic systems was static surge, a buildup of electricity in the ground from lightning. That damage was fixable, but it would cost more to do the repair work than to simply replace it.
So far, BMR has replaced three of the facility’s nine inverters with new equipment. Though rated for outdoor use, the inverters will be housed in the restored inverter building (for those of you new to the topic, an inverter converts the electrical current from the solar panels into a usable form for the grid).
Eventually, all of the inverters will be replaced. Aside from restoring the damage, the new inverters could provide an incremental improvement in the solar farm’s efficiency.
“The original inverters from 2014 were not meant for hurricanes,” Levy explained. “We hope that the new inverters also might be a little better.”
Levy also noted that the solar farm operators will be more proactive when the next storm comes:
Beyond constructing for resilience, we plan to operate much more for storm preparation. For example, some of the additional grounding will be manually engaged, and we’ll power down in advance just as a fossil fuel power plant would.
Lots of people think there’s not much you can do, that a solar farm is either going to make it or not, but we think storm prep can make a difference.
Hopefully St. Croix will not have to find out the hard way, but Levy is confident that the upgrades will enable the solar farm to power down and restart in a matter of days, should an episode on the scale of Irma and Maria occur again.
About That Fossil Fuel Dependence…
The HOVENSA closure brings to mind the double whammy under way in the US coal producing region of Appalachia.
Coal fans have blamed the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan for killing coal jobs, but the simple fact is that Appalachia has been bleeding coal jobs for generations as hand labor has been replaced by massive machines and explosives (see: removal, mountain top).
How bad is the bleeding? The Appalachian state of Kentucky provides some insight:
As anyone living in the coalfields knows, coal production and employment in eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia follow boom and bust cycles. But starting in the early 1980s, the close link between production and employment changed as mechanization and explosives replaced mine workers. Since then, coal production in Kentucky has declined by about 19% while employment has dropped by 62%.
Coal’s job-creating ability used to mask the considerable public health issues impacting coal communities, but more evidence is piling up that coal operations in Appalachia have contributed to the region’s overall poor health and economic malaise. Today’s opioid crisis is slipping yet another knife between the ribs by stripping work-age adults from the local workforce.
In an echo of St. Croix’s experience, coal dependence is leading to skyrocketing electricity rates in parts of Appalachia. As coal mines and other large commercial users leave, utilities spread their fixed costs around a smaller base.
Coal fans have raised the idea that abandoned coal fields can be repurposed for solar farms and other renewable energy sites, but the opportunities for doing that are limited. Competition from natural gas and out-of-region renewables also adds to the challenge.
Inside Climate News also pins the blame on the failure of regulators and coal stakeholders to adapt to the new energy economy. Even as cheap natural gas flooded the region, the focus was on upgrading old coal power plants.
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Photo: via BMR Energy.
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