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#BTColumn – Investment and renewable energy

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.

By Ralph Jemmott

An editorial in another section of the Press concerned itself with what the headline called “renewable energy goals”. It noted that Barbados’ National Energy Policy (BNEP) is designed to “achieve 100 per cent renewable energy and carbon neutrality by the year 2030. For some reason, the year 2030 is beginning to loom large in our future. It appears to be as monumental a coming event as the biblical apocalypse or the promised rapture in which we will all be caught up in a great ‘transformation.’”  

The editorial lists among the BNEP’s goals, “the provision of reliable, safe, affordable, sustainable, modern and climate-friendly energy services to all residents and visitors; zero domestic consumption of fossil fuels and export of all hydrocarbons produced both on land and offshore”.

The objectives do not stop there. It continues: “Maximising local individual and corporate participation in distributed renewable energy generation and storage, minimising the outflow of foreign exchange, and creating a regional centre of excellence in renewable energy research and development.”  

These are indeed lofty ideals expressed in very rhetorical terms. However, for those of us whose feet are firmly planted on the ground and acknowledge stark realities, it all seems a bit excessive, designed to impress somebody. The editorial writer is not unaware of the ostensibly “unrealistic” nature of the set objectives of the BNEP. He or she admits that even if Barbados achieves only 50 per cent renewable energy over the next six years that would be “outstanding”.

There can be no doubt that Barbados has to forcefully pursue its renewable energy initiatives based on solar and wind power, if for no other reason than cutting back on the money spent on expensive imported fossil fuels. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Trevor Browne of the Barbados Sustainable Energy Cooperative Society, or Co-op Energy, is quoted as saying that our country currently expends between $600 million and $800 million on imported fossil fuels. He concluded that if Barbados could produce 10 per cent of that energy locally it could save an annual expenditure of between $60 million and $80 million. I think these are Barbados dollars, always remembering that imported fuels must be paid for in hard-earned foreign currency.

According to those more informed than myself, the major obstacle is the issue of storage. One key stakeholder in the project is the Barbados Light and Power Company Ltd, which over a year ago admitted that the electricity grid’s capacity to accommodate renewable energy was nearing capacity. Presumably, the storage problem is imminently solvable.

Given the recognised difficulties, why are the BNEP goals expressed in such inordinately wishful terms? Does it reflect an absence of in-depth critical thinking, or is it all part of the new political think? You know, “we got this”. It is not surprising that we are so often accused of having an implementation deficit culture. Given the current aptitude for buzzwords and pleasing platitudes, we ignore the harsh realities of actual implementation. But, apparently, wishful thinking and convenient cliches will suffice.

We should not underestimate either the complexity or the costs of transitioning to renewable energy. Recently Dr Gary Jackson, Executive Director of the Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, stated that the transition could cost the region billions of dollars. His advocacy was for the transition to what is now being called a “green economy” (everything is being colourised these days) to be done on a regional level rather than separately. Apart from the obvious costs, Dr Jackson’s emphasis was on building the technical expertise required for transitioning.

Not surprisingly, this absence of information has given rise to much conjecture. One major concern has focused on whether credit union funds should be invested in the new venture. Browne has stated that given the possible benefits, a one-time investment to the tune of $100 million is, in his words, “nothing”, given that Barbados stands to save in his estimate some $300 million to $400 million a year in foreign exchange. 

In his very honest discourse, Browne admits that the venture is not without risk. Risk-taking is an inherent factor in business generally and in capital investment more particularly. Barbadians are, generally speaking, recognisably risk averse. Recent developments with Trade Confirmers, the CLICO fiasco and the general economic turmoil have made them even more so.

The issue of Barbadians being risk averse when it comes to investment has always interested me. Most working-class Barbadians of my parents’ generation did not have the money to invest in anything. They lived virtually from hand to mouth, paying bills and making piecemeal improvements to their homes over time. My father only acquired a bank account
after he left Fogarty’s Department Store. My mother, who was very thrifty but never worked outside of the home, had a Civic Card kept safely in a commode in the bedroom. It was her treasure and not to be touched. It was not uncommon to hear her talk of “people who would
kill a mosquito and save the guts”. Parsimony was a key tenet of the Barbadian Protestant religious ethic that served us well.  

The concern about Co-op Energy’s proposal,
in large part, has focused on the idea of credit union funds being invested in the project. Mr Browne has made it clear that Co-op Energy has no authority and no
interest in making decisions about the investment in credit union funds in the enterprise. In fact, he notes that “the planned arrangement strictly precludes any credit
union from making any investment in the project
without the specific prior approval of their regulatory
bodies”. 

The question then is, would the regulatory bodies approve credit union investment? Why and at what risk to the average credit union member? Most of the people I know who
have money in credit unions do not have large reserves of money. It provides a lone source of financial security not to be put at risk.

A caller who spoke to Browne on Down to Brass Tacks questioned whether the same persons who ran the now-to-be-divested BAMC would be the same people or the same kind of people who, in the caller’s opinion, had so badly mismanaged the BAMC. The president of Co-op Energy has stated that Minister of Agriculture Indar Weir and Chairman of BAMC Ambassador Clyde Mascoll and his consultancy team have lent their support to the venture. Browne himself seems supremely confident in the project and, like some others, has advocated for credit union investment as a chance not to be missed.

Why does one get the impression that there is a declining level of administrative competence in Barbados? Are more hands in fact making light work? We set up lofty structures but there are few persons who seem to be able to run them well; not to mention the political interference.  Co-op Energy will no doubt be judged on the merits and ultimately on the outcomes. 

Ralph Jemmott is a respected, retired educator and commentator on social issues.

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