By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
RIVAL Caribbean nations are “leaps and bounds ahead of the Bahamas” on renewable energy implementation, although one local provider is aiming to close the gap by investing in development of a trained installation workforce.
Guilden Gilbert, vice-president of Alternative Power Solutions (APS) Bahamas, told Tribune Business that the company was now awaiting only the “launch date” for the certified renewable energy installer course it is initiating at the Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute (BTVI), having completed “build out” of the necessary laboratory.
Emphasising that APS was targeting a 100 per cent Bahamian workforce once it reached the point of employing its own full-time system installers, Mr Gilbert disclosed to this newspaper that sector players were banding together to form the Renewable Energy Association.
With this intended to give the industry a stronger advocacy voice, Mr Gilbert urged the Government to move rapidly on providing the legislative and regulatory environment that will allow the renewable energy industry in the Bahamas to thrive.
Also calling for renewable energy systems and their components to be totally exempt from import tariffs, the APS vice-president said his company - and the industry - wanted to work with the Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC) via a partnership approach, seeing themselves as complementing, not competing with, the monopoly utility provider.
Mr Gilbert and APS are well-positioned to assess how the Bahamas compares to rival small island states, given that it has sister companies operating in Jamaica and Bermuda.
Given the abundance of sun on an almost daily basis, and other unique geographical features that give the Bahamas possibilities in areas such as ocean geothermal energy and wind, this nation has the platform required to be a renewable energy leader - something detailed in numerous reports supplied to the Bahamian government.
But, while agreeing that the Bahamas’ potential in this area was “huge, substantial”, Mr Gilbert said this nation was some way off both this and its competitors.
Adding that a shift to renewable energy could help reduce business operating costs in the Bahamas, making the economy more competitive by reducing its dependence on volatile, high fossil fuel prices, the APS executive said: “It all depends on the commitment.
“We know there’s going to be an RFP [Request for Proposal] coming out in Bermuda for the system, and installation, of a 28 Mega Watt (MW) solar PV system, utility grade, to offset the amount of fossil fuels Bermuda imports every year.”
That generation amount, said Mr Gilbert, a Bermuda native, is equivalent to one-third of the island’s generation needs. And, in comparison to a southern neighbour, he added: “The Jamaican industry is leaps and bounds ahead of the Bahamas.”
The APS executive said the Family Islands, in particular, with their dispersed and sparsely populated settlements, were ideal for renewable energy solutions. This would save BEC millions of dollars in infrastructure costs, and Mr Gilbert proposed that Family Island residents own and fund their renewable energy solutions, while possibly hiring a company to manage them.
Acknowledging that a trained, educated Bahamian workforce was vital to the success of a local renewable energy industry, Mr Gilbert confirmed that APS had partnered with Vector Technology Institute, a Jamaican organisation, over the training programmes at BTVI.
Vector has been running the installation certification courses in Jamaica for several years, and the BTVI-based course will enable Bahamians to pass the required training here - rather than go to the time and expense of travelling abroad.
“Our goal is to ultimately create employment as well,” Mr Gilbert told Tribune Business. “We’ve built out the laboratory at BTVI for the certified installer course. We’re just waiting for the launch date. We definitely see this as an industry in and of itself on a long-term basis.
“This is exceptionally important. An educated workforce will only enhance the industry. Our goal as a company is to expand with Bahamians. We’re not an operation with work permits. Our goal is to be 100 per cent Bahamian employees.”
Mr Gilbert said he foresaw an initial industry-wide installation workforce of 30-35 certified persons, which would grow as demand increased. APS currently works with an electrician who is a licensed, certified renewable systems installer, and the company ultimately plans to start its own apprenticeship programmes once it makes such posts full-time.
BEC general manager, Kevin Basden, last week told Tribune Business that the Corporation was in favour of regulatory reforms that permitted net billing, as opposed to net metering. Net billing allows renewable energy users to offset their BEC bills by the amount they themselves produce and use, while the latter would permit them to sell any excess energy to the BEC grid.
While the Bahamas was “getting close” to facilitating renewable energy, Mr Gilbert told Tribune Business it needed to go further and install “a completely duty-free environment” for the sector.
While this nation is not far away from that, with many system components imported duty-free, solar panels, for example, still attract a 10 per cent tariff rate.
Mr Gilbert also called for ‘grid-tle’ legislation to “come fairly soon”, adding: “We have a number of clients saying they’re holding off until that comes through, as then they can send power back to the grid.
“My personal preference is to be net zero: supply 100 per cent of power. My focus is not to send power back to the grid. We’re not interested in trying to replace what BEC does. It’s more of a partnership.”
Pointing out that a greater shift toward renewable energy would aid BEC’s cash flow, Mr Gilbert added of the benefits: “If you look at the money sent out of the country for fuel to pay for electricity, if you can cut that by 10-15 per cent that’s a significant savings to the country.”