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HomeBusinessJury is out on BEC and renewable energy

Jury is out on BEC and renewable energy

In the absence of any nationally adopted energy code, the Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC) has provided us with electricity using fossil fuels. Up until fairly recently there has been very little pressure on BEC to do things differently through a compelling political mandate or public outcry.

To my surprise, on Sept 22 of this year it was announced that BEC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation (OTEC) for the proposed construction of two plants that it, OTEC, would build, own and operate. After I did some very basic research on the topic, I came away, however, with more questions than answers and indeed will look out for more light to be shed on what is exactly being proposed for The Bahamas.

The concept of harnessing electricity that’s free from fossil fuels and can also produce potable water, assist in sustainable food production and even provide sea water district cooling sounds outstanding. This technology was first researched in the 1880s by a French physicist, and in 1930, Cuba built a 22kW plant. Additionally, Japan has had a 120kW operational plant since 1981 and research into this technology is underway in India. Further the possibilities were demonstrated with a pilot 210kW plant in Hawaii in the 1990s.

This gives the technology some track record, but these plants are still rather small. In fairness though, like most other forms of renewable energy, the abundance of inexpensive fossil fuels made it difficult for this technology to gain any traction.

According to the OTEC website, the system works by using heat from warm surface water to boil liquid ammonia, thus producing steam which drives a turbine generator. The process would involve pipes being placed in the ocean and pumping up cold water, the exact location and depths I gather would be revealed in time.

OTEC states that their chief science officer was instrumental in the demonstration of the plant’s capabilities in Hawaii.

I wonder, though, why wasn’t a large scale plant produced in Hawaii or elsewhere in the United States where appropriate conditions exist? It just seems to be a natural progression from pilot study to actual plant. Further, the rules surrounding economies of scale make a compelling argument for starting off where the demand is greater. Why is this technology gaining traction in the Caribbean, but generating little interest elsewhere?

It was further revealed that about $100 million will be needed to construct the plants in The Bahamas and OTEC is going to build them free of charge. A power-purchase agreement is planned so OTEC can recoup its costs and ultimately earn a profit.

This technology also apparently produces copious amounts of potable water. Does this mean the Water and Sewerage Corporation will be involved in some way?

From what I have gathered, this agreement would result in BEC purchasing power from OTEC. I wonder if any projected sales costs have been discussed to ensure that we end up paying less not more for electricity?

I would hope that much thought is being given to the location of the plants to reduce vulnerability to storms and hurricanes and reduce impact to ocean life. I certainly trust that discussions are being had around the reliability of this technology. Who needs more blackouts?

Perhaps the answers to all of my questions are in some document somewhere on someone’s desk.


Challenge:  Before investing, read about the technology, the company, and be an informed participant in public forums


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Sonia Brown is principal of Graphite Engineering Ltd and is a registered Professional Engineer

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