September 26, 2020

Renewable-energy plant could cost millions

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Sacha Tibbetts, Manager of Engineering Services

Costs are likely to run into multi-millions of dollars, while construction and commissioning of a renewable-energy electricity plant could take as long as three years and occupy as much as 100 acres of self-supplied land.

The winning bidder will share the transmission network of the Caribbean Utilities Company (CUC), but pay for its own interconnection to that grid, and after operating any renewable-energy plant for an agreed length of time, may be asked to sell it to the utility company.

Speaking in the wake of the company’s “Request for Expressions of Interest” last week, CUC’s Sacha Tibbetts, Manager of Engineering Services, told iNews that he “had no preferences” among sources of renewable energy, whether solar, wind, geothermal or ocean waves, saying “We will leave the creativity open to the market”.

Seeking 13 megawatts of electricity, CUC has asked alternative-energy power providers internationally to supply designs and feasibility studies, ultimately entering into a partnership with the company.

The request, he said had been “posted to bulletin boards” and industry magazines. Responses had already started to trickle in.

“My email has been rather busy,” Mr Tibbetts said. “There could be a hundred responses. Someone might be prepared to provide 500 kilowatts, but not the whole 13 megawatts.”

He appeared to focus on solar and wind alternatives, however, pointing to a 2008 CUC exercise that asked for wind turbines. The company was on the point of signing a contract, he said, when government erected a Doppler radar station on the site.

This time, however, CUC will not provide the site.

“We have no site in mind. I don’t know where it might go. The provider must acquire land, maybe lease it, maybe the developer has access to land at a low cost.

“Renewable energy, though, takes up a lot of land. Solar, for example, typically needs between five acres and six acres per megawatt. Wind, while the towers do not take so much space, needs a certain area clear of buildings, about 50 acres per tower.”

Depending on technology, a wind tower can generate anywhere from two megawatts to 10 megawatts. Turbines are also modular, meaning more can be added as demand grows. Making the project “scalable”, in fact, is key to the project, Mr Tibbetts said.

To make renewable energy economical, oil must reach about $100 per barrel, he said, and economies of scale depend on manufacturing costs for the equipment and the efficiency of the turbines or solar panels.

Installation represents the highest cost of all, he said, meaning critical reductions on construction have a direct impact on the cost of power.

In any case, Mr Tibbetts said, renewable-energy generation would supply only between 3% and 6% of Grand Cayman’s 600 gigawatt hour annual energy needs, met chiefly by diesel fuel. Growth projections are in single digits for the forseeable future, he said.

Bidders have until the end of October to respond. Winners will be announced at the end of the year, launching a prolonged licencing and negotiation process with CUC and its Electricity Regulatory Authority overseer.

“We have 45 years of expertise,” Mr Tibbetts said. “We understand the technology very well, but don’t have a lot of experience in bringing these kinds of things to fruition. And while it depends on the technology, a 13 megawatt renewable-energy plant will typically cost several million dollars to construct and commission.

“This invitation, though, is absolutely the same as anywhere in the world,” he said. “This will be very routine for some of the alternate-power providers. Some of them provide much greater scales than this, although the regulatory requirements in Cayman may be a little different.

“This is just the start, and for the size grid we have, it is manageable and could create a small industry here, generating jobs and knowledge transfer.

“In general we are excited about this project,” he said. “The general perception is that CUC is not interested in alternate energy, but this shows differently. We are not against renewable energy. We are creating an opportunity here.”

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