By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Bahamian-led consortium is bidding to develop a $40-$50m biomass-fuelled power plant in North Andros through a proposal featuring a tie-up with BAMSI.
Tribune Business can reveal that Providence Energy Partners is offering to develop a 10-15 mega watt (MW) plant to supply all Bahamas Power & Light’s (BPL) power needs in North Andros.
The proposal involves generating energy from biomass, which would be produced through the Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute’s (BAMSI) plans to clear up to 5,000 acres for farm land.
This newspaper was told that that Providence Energy Partners’ project represented a potential “prototype” for future Family Island power generation via renewable sources, although its success hinges on BPL and Government approvals.
Critically, the proposal needs to secure a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with BPL so that it can sell all energy produced by the plant to the state-owned utility’s transmission and distribution (T&D) system. And, with regulators accusing BPL of failing to meet its renewable energy commitments, a PPA and other approvals have yet to be issued.
Tennyson Wells, pictured, BAMSI’s chairman, confirmed to this newspaper that Providence Energy Partners had presented its project to the Institute’s Board as both sides explored the potential synergies and mutual benefits that could flow from it.
“What they came to us with is they want to take over the power generation from Behring Point to Red Bays in North Andros,” Mr Wells recalled. “BAMSI needs extra farmland, prepared land, and they wanted to use biomass from that land.
“I told them I would like to see 5,000 acres prepared so that when students come out of BAMSI they could have long-term leases of the land already prepared. If we did that, BAMSI would support their [Providence Energy Partners] efforts to use the trees” cut down for biomass fuel for the power plant.
Providence Energy Partners is an affiliate of Providence Advisors, the Bahamian investment and financial advisory firm. Kenwood Kerr, principal of both entities, declined to comment when contacted by Tribune Business on the grounds he did not want to prejudice talks with both BPL and the Government.
Mr Wells, though, said Providence Energy Partners’ plans would create hundreds of jobs and benefit the environment, since use of biomass fuel would both eliminate “invasive species” and reduce BPL’s reliance on fossil fuels through their replacement with a cleaner source.
“Their objective is to try and do away with the invasive trees,” he told this newspaper. “Those invasive plants, they’ll come and be clearing them out. It could create 100-150 jobs in Andros with people gathering wood and cutting down trees, and buying that off them as biomass for the plant.
“It would create quite a number of jobs in North Andros, and stop us buying the diesel fuels for the generators down there. We’ll see how it goes. It depends on what BPL and Cabinet say.”
Mr Wells confirmed that BAMSI and its directors are very familiar with Providence Energy Partners’ proposal. “There was a Board meeting; it was discussed,” he said. “I told the Prime Minister about it, and he said they [Providence] had put a proposal in.
“I had a further meeting with them, and they made a presentation to the Board of BAMSI as to what they’d be looking to do. BAMSI continues to support them putting a plant there. That’s really where it is.
“I got a copy of their proposal about a week or so ago. They put it to BPL, and BPL will have to make the decision on a PPA with them. The Board of BPL will be the final arbiter.”
Desmond Bannister, minister of works, told Tribune Business he was aware of the Providence Energy Partners offer but declined to comment further on the basis he did not want to “pre-empt” any decision by BPL’s Board.
“I don’t want to comment on it, as the Board has to consider the issues. I don’t want to pre-empt them,” the Minister said, while doing little to disguise his enthusiasm for biomass.
He added: “The biomass idea is long coming. It’s a wonderful idea, and we’ll see how the Board deals with it.”
Mr Bannister had also touted biomass’s virtues, and the potential ability to turn “invasive species”, in another recent interview with Tribune Business in which he acknowledged that the recent increase in global oil prices to over $80 per barrel was “a huge concern”.
“We’ve seen how oil has gone up tremendously. That’s a huge concern,” the Minister said. “As we move on with new developments we are looking to both alternative fuels and alternative fuel methods, and are looking to engage renewables where we can.”
Mr Bannister said the oil price increase will “not hold us back with the progress we seek to make to ensure we have more reliable service, more reliable costs for the Bahamian people”.
He added that too many Bahamians were focused on solar as the only available renewable energy option, and ignoring other avenues available for generating cheaper, cleaner power.
“In a number of areas BPL is looking at renewables. With respect to progress on their plans, it has been amazing in the last few months in a number of different areas,” Mr Bannister told Tribune Business.
“But, as a country, we have to remember this. In some areas there are so many people who link renewables solely to solar, and we know that utility-scale solar takes tremendous amounts of property. We are looking at renewables in its truest sense, not simply solar. It’s important to appreciate that.”
Mr Bannister said some proposed renewable projects are “going to change the state of the Bahamas in terms of invasive species”, in what could have been a reference to the Providence Energy Partners project.
“We are looking at invasive species to generate energy, and get rid of invasive species,” he told Tribune Business. “BPL is looking at all types of things. They’re going to be innovative and creative for the Bahamian people.”
But Darnell Osborne, BPL’s chairman, appeared less enthusiastic than Mr Bannister about the merits of Providence Energy Partners’ project. She said any outsourcing of Family Island generation would have to go through the same open, competitive tender process that was recently used to select Shell North America as the preferred partner for New Providence’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) fuelled power plant.
“I have no comment because we’re dealing with New Providence right now,” Mrs Osborne replied, when contacted by Tribune Business. “I have no comment on the Family Island plans.
“Whatever we do we will go out to tender the same way we did with New Providence. That’s consistent with the same way Ragged Island is being handled. We’re not in any negotiations at the moment with anyone on the Family Islands.”
Disclosure of the Providence Energy Partners offer comes at a sensitive moment for BPL, which has been accused by the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA) of “compromising the introduction of sustainable renewable energy in the shortest possible time” through its failure to produce a Renewable Energy Plan (REP).
URCA expressed concern that BPL’s continued delay was jeopardising the National Energy Policy (NEP) goal of generating 30 per cent of this country’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2030.
It added that BPL may have broken the law, and terms of its licence, by failing to meet its legal obligation to produce an REP, featuring timetables and performance benchmarks, within six months of the Electricity Act 2015 taking effect. This occurred more than two years’ ago.
Mr Wells, though, said the Providence Energy Partners project could help transform BAMSI and the Government’s agriculture vision into reality. He explained that land cleared for biomass fuel would enable BAMSI’s student graduates to immediately translate their knowledge to food production.
“We will get a farming community there, and have a farming town there,” Mr Wells told Tribune Business of his long-term plans. “BAMSI would benefit and the country would benefit because, when these students come out of school, we would say: ‘Here’s five-10 acres of land, go and farm it’.”
He added that BAMSI’s graduates would already be trained in the science of agriculture, equipping them to succeed once they were able to access sufficiently fertile land - something the biomass plant will assist with.
“They need between three to five acres to prepare their land,” Mr Wells said. “At least it would be there, prepared, and not go to waste like it was in the past. Five thousand acres in total is what I’m throwing out there, but it may not be right.
“BAMSI already has 1,000 acres there, and I figure if you add 5,000 acres of land.... you’re talking about $50 million of produce. That’s a significant dent in our import substitution for agriculture products - $50 million easily, maybe $100 million. I don’t really know.”
The Bahamas’ annual food import bill is estimated at close to $1 billion, but Mr Wells recalled his school days when he was a student at St John’s in Nassau. His father was a subsistence farmer in Long Island, and he would send Mr Wells fresh produce to sell at the weekends.
“In those days it was pounds, shillings and pence,” he recalled. “I would have one thousand pounds in my pocket, hundreds of pounds in my pocket some times, by Sunday evening. It can be done, and we [BAMSI] intend to do it.”