By Philip Holdom
President and Founder
Alternative Power Supply
The Bahamas is one of the “solar capitals” of the world with more solar irradiation falling on our land than most other countries. In spite of this, the Bahamas has the least amount of solar integration compared with almost any country.
For example, Ireland and Norway have more installed power than The Bahamas. If one Googles how much solar is installed in The Bahamas, in megawatts (1 Million Watts = 1MW), the data shows zero!
Fortunately, Bahamian solar companies have, over the past decade, privately installed over 7MW even though it is not recorded on the world stage. With a total state-owned fossil fuel generation capacity of 430MW, this is only 0.016 percent renewable penetration. Nevertheless, it is 7MW of privately-owned solar systems by solar pioneers, despite incredible obstacles to integration.
How did one of the sunniest countries in the world, with the world’s highest cost of electricity, have so little solar penetration in an era of expansive worldwide solar integration?
The history of solar in The Bahamas really begins 12 years ago, when substantial solar systems began to be installed for the general public. Prior to this period, only NGOs and private island owners were installing significantly sized solar systems, such as The Island School and Over Yonder Cay.
Solar integration in any country requires several factors: A governmental will to legislate renewable policy, a non-monopolistic grid, an ease of doing business, a simple inspection process for solar integrators, access to reasonable financing and tax incentives.
If you live in The Bahamas, you would invariably be biting your tongue at this point. In the past decade, every leader in The Bahamas has paid lip service to solar. It was only in 2017 that progress became a possibility with a much-needed amendment to the Electricity Act which included legislation on solar systems.
Prior to the amended Electricity Act and the National Energy Policy, the integration of solar was met with many governmental obstacles for solar integrators and solar customers.
In the past decade, the primary obstacle was the government’s utility monopoly, the Bahamas Electricity Corporation along with the inspection arm, the Ministry of Public Works. This was also not helped by conflicting messages coming from three Administrations overseeing solar. The last three leaders of The Bahamas were typically pro solar and made public pronouncements that Bahamians could install solar, but as usual, the devil was in the details and the implementation at ground level.
Solar installation companies and solar customers had three hurdles to traverse:
There was no clear legislation on solar integration and the only point of reference was an antiquated Electricity Act, which could be interpreted to have multiple meanings.
The government utility company was actively creating obstacles and roadblocks to solar integrators.
The Ministry of Public Works made it extremely difficult to complete a solar inspection and created their own varying requirements to get an approval. There are still open solar inspections that have been waiting four years for an approval, with no justifiable reason why they should not be passed.
Without a government approval, the Authorities that Have Jurisdiction (AHJs) could pronounce your solar system as “illegal” and the utility company could threaten to cut power off to the residence or business.
In the early stages, the higher-up managers of the utility actively blocked the integration of solar systems that would significantly reduce a home or businesses electricity consumption. Customers who installed systems that could reduce their bill in half or more were threatened with having their homes or businesses disconnected and were issued cease and desist orders. BEC acted as most utilities do when their revenue source is threatened. Rather than joining the revolution and benefitting from renewable energy, they opposed it. For nearly a decade, many well-meaning private customers were turned away or were made to believe installing their solar was illegal.
To add to the confusion, during that period there were certain government officials who had solar systems on their homes, but at the same time would pronounce publicly that grid tie systems were “illegal”.
The first glimmer of hope was a public solar programme introduced by the Ministry of the Environment and the InterAmerican Development Bank, namely the “IDB Pilot Solar Programme”. This was a government sanctioned and run solar programme where the general public could pay $1,000.00 and receive a “subsidised” 3KW solar grid tie system. This is a system that connects to the utility grid and is intended to slow the customer’s meter down or spin it backwards. Unfortunately, this programme took over two years to be available from the time the public paid their system deposits, and this greatly frustrated the participants. APS was commissioned with the task to “go find out where the solar systems are” and advise what is needed to get the programme going.
Once the systems were located and the balance of components added, the participants were finally able to get their systems installed and turn their systems on. Unfortunately, at that point they discovered something very regretful and upsetting…their BEC bill went up! This was due to the fact their meters were to be exchanged for a new “net metering meter” that would keep track of the energy being produced and exported or “sold” to the grid. The promised net metering meters were not installed and as a result their older meters registered the negative flow of electricity as a net gain, due to an anti-tampering device within the older meters. All agencies involved with the programme were advised of this, but no changes were made to address the issue. The solar installers had no choice but to tell their customers to turn their solar systems off. Those who kept them on continued seeing their bills go up.
It was extremely frustrating for customers and Bahamian solar companies to try and do business in this environment. Local leading solar companies then engaged a long drawn out campaign to seek to amend the Electricity Act, to fight for duty free status for solar systems and to promote solar integration. In addition, they pushed to create a legal process whereby solar installers and the public could have an “approved” solar system.
At this point, URCA became the Electricity Regulator and created the legal framework for Solar Net Billing to occur. The solar installers wanted Net Metering rather than Net Billing, because it was a better deal for the electricity consumer. It meant solar electricity produced by the homeowner or business owner would have the same value as electricity being purchased from the government utility.
It is significant to note most countries integrating solar actually provide the solar customer with a credit greater than their cost of supply. Nevertheless, the law here was written so that the consumer would only receive approximately half the value of solar electricity “sold” to the utility as what it was purchasing. The value of the solar energy produced was put on par with the cost of the fuel surcharge being billed by the utility during the billing period. As a result, the average Bahamian got minimum gain from their solar system because when they were at work all day, the meter was spinning backwards at half cost with no VAT credit. When they arrive home near sunset, they purchase electricity at the full retail rate plus VAT.
At the same time BEC’s, newly formed BPL company was mandated by URCA to create a solar programme for the installation and inspection of solar systems. This would enable the government to track how much solar was being installed so it could record its progress on the world stage and ensure the amount of solar being installed was limited based on a “demand” formula. Rather than allow businesses with large utility bills to produce as much as they needed and to export solar energy, the system size was limited to 100KW.
No approvals were given to any private system over 100KW and few if any were given at 100KW. The only exception to the 100KW limitation was the National Stadium, which was 780KW and was “assumed by all to be approved”. The National Stadium’s solar power goes directly to the BPL grid and to date it is unclear how it benefits any member of the Bahamian public, if benefits are quantified as lower electricity bills.
As are result of URCA regulating the electricity sector, the newly formed Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) was mandated to create the “Small Scale Renewable Generation” (SSRG) Pilot Programme for small residential and commercial systems. This solved the need for a legal approval process for solar systems so the public could say “I have an approved system”.
The SSRG programme was welcomed as a good start for solar installation companies, but once again, the devil was in the detail.
The SSRG process involves three government agencies (URCA, BPL, MOPW) with a high level of bureaucratic red tape and as a result long delays occur. Solar companies have to chase the process every step of the way, at a significant cost. One of the government agencies does not engage in digital communication and as a result forms and documents need to be printed and transmitted around the island by vehicle. This is counterproductive to a “Green” process. The solar process fee is also not digitalised, even though you can pay your bill online from the same corporation.
There are between six and seven steps to the programme, depending on whether it is a residential or commercial solar installation. The process could easily be streamlined to two to three steps and this has been documented and submitted to the AHJs. Some of the steps are simply duplication of process and a reproduction of the same documents and schematics in a different form. It is estimated that for a process with an initial fee of $50 it costs the end customer over $750 to complete the process, and that is a conservative figure. Actual costs are likely closer to $1,200.
The end result is the SSRG process currently takes over eight months to complete for a solar installation that takes three days. This is not an ease of doing business and seriously slows the expansion of the industry. When solar integrators can only get two to three solar systems approved a year it is an unsustainable business model. This is an irony, since it is a sustainable endeavour! As a consequence of the slow process, customers are not joining the programme because they don’t want to pay the application fee, have their solar system installed in three days and then have to wait eight months to turn it on. It is also preventing solar companies from submitting their vast numbers of existing clients to the process. In the end, the government does not get credit for PV capacity it has not registered and does not march smartly towards the National Energy Policy Goals of 30 percent renewables by 2033.
What is the future of solar in The Bahamas?
The future of solar in The Bahamas can likely be split into two avenues, what the government will install through RFPs via presumed multinational (Bahamian/Foreign) corporations and what local Bahamian solar companies can install through the limited and untimely SSRG programmes.
Currently, the Rocky Mountain Institute, based out of Colorado, is spearheading the Requests for Proposals to provide solar power to the Family Islands, to provide a solar carport at the Prime Minister’s Office and to power two public schools.
At the rate of solar integration being made possible to the private sector, it is assumed by local solar companies that one day a large foreign company will come in and install the majority of the capacity in one installation. It is assumed the Shell deal will result in a large solar farm, once the generation station is stabilised. Shell, the largest oil company realised decades ago what the future was and made - solar panels!
The other way of integrating solar, via local solar companies serving local homeowners and businesses is simply not happening at a sustainable rate for local solar companies, who fought a decade for what now exists. Obviously. there is room at the table for large, medium and small players and the foreign companies will need local knowledge and expertise.
Assume, however that rapid integration was possible with the wave of a wand, there are significant impediments to integration. Today’s MW utility scale solar systems require modernized distribution and transmission networks and often a Smart Grid. This does not currently exist in The Bahamas and would have to be modernised in step with large-scale solar integration.
The world is also moving to a block chain grid, where you can purchase power at the lowest rate from multiple providers in real time. The utility wires are simply a conduit like the world wide web. The best option for The Bahamas would be to allow the free flow of electricity and unbundle the public utility. Look what decentralising telecommunications did for the Bahamian public with just a singular second option.
The problem of exorbitant financing must also be addressed and micro loans with reasonable interest rates should be provided to the average Bahamian with a steady job. While the Bahamian public waits for the utility to stabilise their grid, why not allow Bahamians to rapidly integrate solar battery backup systems in their homes and businesses so they don’t have to sit in darkness every day? Generators on a small scale are more costly than generators on a large scale, and have the same environmental issues and back end costs.
If government cannot move at the speed of business, it should free up the Bahamian to choose their own destiny and be self-sufficient. Back in the day, in a not too distant past, we made our own power, pumped our own water, grew our own food and had a feeling of accomplishment and community. Now we are forced to rely more and more on designated others to do what we could do better ourselves and at a lower cost.
Awake and Lift up our Heads to the Rising Sun, Bahamaland at a lower cost.
Awake and Lift up our Heads to the Rising Sun, Bahamaland!
• APS has been installing solar systems for three decades in both the United States and the Bahamas.