Off the Grid  –  A country better suited to contemporary visions of sustainable energy and renewable resources than the BVI is hard to imagine. Smart people, such as Sir Richard Branson, David Johnson and others have all put their voices and their wallets to further the cause of sustainability and environmental responsibility, yet viable projects seem few and far between. Any fantasies concerning a country running on sunbeams and sea breezes have faded in the face of economic strictures and technical reality, not to mention political entropy. Still, the idea of free and infinitely available energy is as seductive as lifetime free beer. But how viable is it really?


One of the first issues we confronted was that of regulation. What does the BVI permit in terms of alternative energy generation? According to Jacco Bos, Managing Director of Alternative Energy Systems of Road Town, “the regulations prohibit independent people generating their own power unless, of course, you have no grid power available to you.” Most households and businesses have their own backup diesel generators that are tied to the grid and can sense when the national power supply falters and can automatically kick in to provide power until such time as the government-supplied energy is available again. These systems, however, are not permitted to supply primary power to the household, nor can they supply power back into the grid. Domestic systems with the capability of putting power back into the grid “is where the big opportunity really is for the Caribbean,” Bos said. “If you had a thousand houses all with a one-kilowatt solar array, it's a megawatt of power. One of the reasons solar is being promoted in North America and Canada is that it offsets peak demand. If peak demand is the air conditioning load in the middle of the day when it's hottest, that's also when the solar panel is putting out the most power.”

While alternative energy sources are not currently approved for primary power generation, the subject is still very much on the table for discussion. “From a general BVI welfare perspective, there are some concerns,” Bos said. “What kind of impact does this have on jobs in Tortola? Sometimes there are misplaced fears that renewable energy systems are going to eliminate jobs, but the reality is that renewable energy technologies are more geared towards reducing dependence on fossil fuel than they are at reducing dependence on diesel generation capacity. If you have a cloudy day with little wind you'll still have to produce power with diesel.”

While the idea of living “off the grid” and providing one's own power is not an option under the present regulations, it seems to be technically feasible, particularly when tied with a cut in energy consumption. When it comes to cost, Jacco Bos offered some examples: “A backup system for a four-bedroom house with a single inverter to run a pump, fridge, a handful of lights, ceiling fans and the ability to enjoy minimal electrical conveniences would start around $15,000 to $17,000. For the same house to have an inverter system with a reasonable battery bank and, say, 12 solar panels would run around $30,000. It's kind of incremental. Certain things you can increment up gradually and certain things are big steps. You can install one inverter or two inverters or four. And you can go up. The sky's the limit really. We've done systems where clients want their entire house backed up, and they'll spend $60,000 to $80,000 on a rather large system that gives them a lot of independence in the case of power failure. If there's a hurricane and the power is out for a week, they'll be able to continue operating without refuelling, just relying on solar power. Solar power is here to stay: fifteen years from now you could easily see solar technology being the mainstream option and diesel backup systems being an obsolete technology.”

Steve Fox from OBMI Architects takes the view that the regulations “don't distinguish between solar power, wind power or a diesel generator. So the whole premise that for some reason alternative energy is outlawed is fictitious.” Fox said “it's important to get the right exposure. It's a bit tricky on a hilly site because you want to design a building to catch as much sun as possible. But before you go to the expense of buying a wind generator or installing photovoltaics, you want to make your building energy efficient. Most of green design is just common sense design.” By carefully evaluating the family's energy consumption and applying some basic principles of hot climate design—natural ventilation, natural lighting—that footprint can be reduced to a more manageable level. Contemporary trends, though, are inexorably in the direction of consumption rather than conservation. For every energy-efficient refrigerator introduced into the home, there’s an energy-sucking plasma video screen.

But, as Jacco Bos said, in a few years, solar energy will likely be the norm, perhaps backed up by a purring generator running on bio-diesel. Would this energy utopia mean that we could stop worrying about conserving energy and cover the walls with plasma screens powered by sunbeams? If such a future is to become reality, what country is better equipped by Nature for it than the BVI?