Abu Dhabi's Masdar brings renewable energy to Caribbean island

Since 1974 residents of Union Island have been suffering from noise and pollution caused by their diesel powered station

A UAE project to bring renewable energy to a remote Caribbean island is a breath of fresh air to residents, who say the prospect of a cleaner environment “feels great”.

For decades, residents of Union Island, part of St Vincent and the Grenadines, had to endure the noise and pollution that comes with a diesel power plant, as well as a coating of black soot over everything in their homes.

But in March, Abu Dhabi energy company, Masdar, inaugurated the island's first large-scale solar PV battery plant. It is part of the Caribbean Renewable Energy Fund, a $50 million (Dh183m) investment into clean energy projects for 16 countries in the region and is now supplying the island with enough clean energy to run entirely on renewables throughout the day.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Felix McKie, who moved to Union Island in 1971. He and his family live just 100 metres from the diesel-powered Union Island Power Station.

“I hope that eventually they will be able to implement full solar power and move away from diesel because we have suffered tremendously with the soot and the noise,” he said.

“But it is fantastic knowing that Union Island is leading the way in renewable energy for remote islands – and we are looking forward to the peace and quiet during the day.”

Another resident, Edwin Snagg, was just a boy when diesel electric power arrived to the island in 1974. He moved to Union Island with his family in 1969 from neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago when his grandfather retired.

“My biggest problem was moving to a new country that did not have electricity,” he said. The later arrival of electricity meant he no longer had the dreaded job of cleaning the two kerosene lamps his family used to light their home.

However, like many residents, he also suffered from the drawbacks of the diesel power station.

As the director of Grenadines affairs and a community leader on Union Island, he witnessed the inauguration of the new solar plant, a partnership between Masdar and St Vincent Electricity Services Limited.

The 600kW hybrid plant provides energy to 1,242 customers and was designed to withstand up to 160mph winds and extreme weather conditions. The plant also displaces an estimated 320,000 litres of diesel fuel per year, saving the island nearly $500,000 and offsetting 825 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

For Adelaide Allen, the launch of the solar energy plant was a day to celebrate. The 85-year-old still lives in the house she was born in, and has experienced all three types of energy on Union Island: from kerosene lamps to diesel electricity and now renewable energy.

“The noise that the power plant made! Every day I would complain to myself and ask ‘when will this stop?’” she said.

“I would have to close all my windows and doors because the smell and the noise was so bad.”

“But I hope things will improve,” she said, while holding her national flag at the inauguration.

“So now that it’s stopped, I brought my Saint Vincents’ flag with me today to celebrate. I feel great now thanks to [Masdar].”

Khaled Ballaith, director of energy services at Masdar, said the renewable energy plant is expected to last for 20 years.

It has created jobs for the people of the island – they are being trained to manage it themselves, he said.

“Generating electricity here costs 40 per cent or so more than on the main island, which means the rest of the country has to subsidise Union Island,” said Dr Ralph E Gonsalves, Prime Minister and Minister of Energy of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

“But this initiative with the UAE to develop a solar PV system is making Union Island almost completely green. It translates to tremendous savings of $500,000 in imported diesel.

“Without this kind of grant funding, it is very difficult to build the infrastructure to make it economical.”

In addition to Union Island, the first cycle of the CREF included a 925kW solar PV carport in the Bahamas and a 350kW solar PV carport and a 500kW solar PV plant in Barbados.

The plants, which are implemented and managed by Masdar, will save more than 895,000 litres of diesel per year, worth around $1m.

The upcoming phase of the project will bring renewable energy to Cuba, Jamaica, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.

UAE foreign aid for renewable energy projects stands at US$1 billion since 2013, supporting over 40 countries.