devon-gardner

Interview: CARICOM Energy Chief Devon Gardner on the Caribbean Energy Future

Worldwatch’s Alexander Ochs met with Dr. Devon Gardner during the Renewable Energy and Efficiency Week 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Devon is Programme Manager for Energy and Head of the Energy Unit at the Secretariat of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). He is also a member of the preparatory team of the Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (CCREEE). In this interview, Devon gives us an update on where the Caribbean region stands one year after the release of Worldwatch’s pivotal Caribbean Sustainable Energy Roadmap and Strategy (C-SERMS) Baseline Report and Assessment.

Thank you for taking the time during busy days here in Berlin. You have an important job. What gets you out of bed each morning?

What gets me out of bed is that I want to see a better quality of life for Caribbean people. Every day, I work to bring us incrementally closer to improving the energy situation in the region so that it can build the basis for improved economic resilience and better opportunities for social advancement.

c-serms-caricom-roadmap-cover_200pxWe’ve just celebrated the first anniversary of the Caribbean Sustainable Energy Roadmap and Strategy (C-SERMS) Baseline Report and Assessment. What has been achieved so far?

The main achievement of C-SERMS is that it has built a common orientation around what renewable energy and energy efficiency can provide for the region. Energy is both a tool for development and climate change compatibility.

Before C-SERMS, we found that there were a lot of national initiatives, programs, policies, and strategies. Now, C-SERMS is making many Caribbean countries look seriously at what they can implement at home to complement and supplement the regional targets and goals. We’ve been able to steer development partners toward a regional strategy that will provide benefits to the member states in an aggregated way. C-SERMS has brought the region closer together.

C-SERMS has gotten a lot of attention lately, even outside of the Caribbean region. Who has the report reached?

Development partners have begun to galvanize around C-SERMS as a common orientation to support countries in the region. They are taking stock of the benefits that our regional approach can have for individual countries. Even the UN Secretary General has made reference to them in the meeting of Caribbean governments in Barbados in July of last year.

When in May of this year, the White House invited us as a region to the US-Caribbean-Latin American Energy Security Summit in Washington, D.C., it was made clear by Vice President Biden who hosted the event that his real interest in the Caribbean was to hear about how the U.S. government agencies and other partner institutions will be able to plug into the C-SERMS mechanism to support the Caribbean. That is an acknowledgement from the highest level. They believe that this regional strategy is one that can work.

C-SERMS has also allowed us to reach out to partners and build up significant support to expand our renewable energy resource assessments, such as by creating a new set of high-resolution maps. With these details, we will be able lay out the full topography of the energy landscape. It has allowed us to really understand what our options are and what our different approaches should be.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Caribbean
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses opening of the Caribbean Sustainable Development High Level Dialogue. UN Photo/Evan Schneider
The Caribbean is a region of high ambition when it comes to sustainable energy. It has many incentives–from high energy prices to adapting to climate change–to become a leader on the issue. What concrete actions have you seen as a result of C-SERMS in the Caribbean?

Let’s take Jamaica as an example. Over the last 18 months, Jamaica has brought online 60 megawatts (MW) of wind and photovoltaic capacity. Added to their previous 30 MW, that’s almost 100 MW of renewables. That’s a relatively high number, given that Jamaica has a peak capacity of around 700 MW. Almost 15 percent of the country’s renewable potential is already installed! It’s heartening to hear the Minister of Energy in Jamaica speak about this being a contribution to the C-SERMS goals.

Another example is Montserrat—a country of 5,000 people and a renewable peak capacity of around 2.5 MW. The country is putting in a 1 MW photovoltaic system. They speak of this as a contribution to the C-SERMS, even if this is one at a small scale for the region as a whole.

That’s great! But what barriers is the Caribbean still facing to reach its full sustainable energy potentials?

The first barrier is the knowledge barrier. In many senses, this has been the Achilles heel of the Caribbean region. You can’t plan without data and information. We are currently finding a lot of mixed market and development signals because of the lack of coordinated or comprehensive planning. Much of this stems from the unavailability of reliable and clear data on what is potentially viable and possible. You end up with a lot of conjecture.

We need high-quality data that’s readily available and that can point quite firmly to what opportunities and scenarios make the most sense. High-quality data and information would allow us to coalesce various parties and various investments. High-quality information and smart knowledge management are essential support for planning and decision-making.

High-quality data and information. We have provided what was available to us in the C-SERMS report–but we also pointed to the many information gaps that remained. What other hurdles do you see?

The second major barrier is the absence of market mechanisms. We need the financing to lift projects over the hurdle of a lack of upfront capital. But there’s no reason why good projects should not pay for themselves. Why not fund projects as loans so that the money will find its way back and ultimately will support the further expansion of the market? We can use public money to leverage private investment and generate real market experiences. We can generate real interest for service providers because they see a business opportunity and not just one-off projects.

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Using public funds not to pay for projects directly, but rather to fill the upfront financing gap by providing loans that will be paid back.

Exactly. And the third barrier is capacity—both institutional and collective. One big issue we face in the region is the high transaction cost of projects, which is to a large part due to the cost of bringing capacity in from outside the region. When we develop capacity at the national level, however, we often lose these people as they look for opportunities outside the region. And we are also often unable to fully utilize existing capacity when our experts have 10 or 15 other responsibilities to take care of at the same time. We need to be able to identify existing and attract new regional capacity, Caribbean experts who can design, develop, and deploy projects in a very consistent and systematic way.

So how do you do that?

Yes, how do we build a regional cadre of experts to develop the capacity regionally rather than nationally? We’re working on that by building the Caribbean Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, commonly referred to a CCREEE [pronounced “see-kree”].

We are excited to see concrete results from the formation of this new regional center of excellence! So Devon, ten years from now, where will the Caribbean stand with regards to energy?  

In 10 years, we expect to have CCREEE embedded within the region to deliver high-quality, high-value projects and programs. We will see energy systems supporting economic development, human advancement, and environmental protection. Energy will become a systems-level service, integrated into every fabric of the social and economic value-chain in our countries. It will be integrated with environmental protection, climate adaptation, and social systems through deliberate design.

You sound very optimistic. Can we look forward to zero-carbon, 100 percent renewable islands ten years from now?

In ten years, there will be 100 percent renewable islands in the Caribbean, yes.

Which islands are the front-runners toward that goal? I know you’re not going to pick winners, but which countries have the right resource potentials and the right policies in place?

To be honest, ten years from now, I would not want to see just a single island to be a front-runner. We hope to have an interconnected system where energy is traded among islands. So a country that has the potential to deliver more than 100 percent of what it needs through the supply of sustainable energy, can distribute what it does not need to another island with lower potential. Ultimately, we hope to have a system where we optimize the energy flow from areas with excess cost-effective renewable resources to areas with excess demand.

The issue of energy trade is really a key part of how I see the future of the energy systems in the region. We’re not looking at individual islands. We’re looking at a totality of islands that can share energy among themselves.

Thank you very much, Devon. We share your optimism and look forward to cooperating with you on a bright energy future for the Caribbean!

Alexander Ochs is the Project Director of the Worldwatch Institute’s Caribbean Sustainable Energy Roadmap and Strategy (C-SERMS) Baseline Report and Assessment released in 2015.

About the Caribbean Sustainable Energy Roadmap and Strategy (C-SERMS) Baseline Report and Assessment:

c-serms-caricom-roadmap-cover_200pxThe Caribbean Sustainable Energy Roadmap and Strategy (C-SERMS) Baseline Report and Assessment, released in 2015, is a planning tool designed to tackle existing barriers and communicate priorities for a swift transition toward sustainable energy systems in the Caribbean. The report distinguishes actions to be taken at the regional or national levels, or both. It also highlights three broad priority areas for future action: transportation, regional energy trade agreements, and the water-energy-food nexus.

Learn more about C-SERMS by reading the full report, viewing the report’s main findings, or clicking through a country-by-country summary of the energy situation in CARICOM member countries.

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