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SXM Needs to invest in wind and solar energy

St. Maarten, “Today”, Monday June 9th, 2008


GREAT BAY – We haven’t seen anything yet as far as the global energy crisis is concerned, says Steve Spence, director of New York-based Green Trust. “Gas at the pump is now around $4 a gallon in the States, but within three years I expect to see prices like $10 a gallon. We have to conserve; there is no other solution. Renewable fuels will not solve the problem, simply because we are unable to plant enough crops to produce a sufficient amount of bio-fuel.”
What does this mean for St. Maarten? The price of gas has just gone up to Naf. 2.50 ($1 .404 per liter). If the price were to follow the trend Spence predicts for the United States, motorists would be paying Naf. 6.25 ($3.51) per liter by the year 2011 –  and that’s right around the corner. Such fuel prices will have a serious impact for the island, not only on motorists, but also on our whole energy supply system. “St. Maarten will have to invest heavily in solar and wind power,” Spence says. He outlined his vision on St. Maarten’s energy-future Saturday evening during an exposé at Enviro Week in the Emilio Wilson Park. Spence, 43, has been living off the grid for five years now, meaning that he does not buy any energy from a utilities company back home. He is an IT engineer and an electronics technician who describes himself as a green conservative. “I probably would have been a hippie in the 60’s if I had been old enough,” he says on his web site. Spence lives off grid, powering his energy needs with solar and wind energy. As a back up, he uses a diesel generator that runs on vegetable – oil.


Production is down, demand increases

Spence’s view on the future of the energy markets hinges on two principal observations. First of all, the emerging economies in China and India result in a higher demand for oil. Arab countries also start using more oil. At the same time, world oil production has peaked in 2006, and is now in decline. To sum up: demand is increasing, and production is falling. That makes oil –  and by extension gas at the pump, and the traditional production of electricity – more expensive. “There will come a moment when you will not be able to buy oil at any price,” Spence says. “So you need alternatives for the moment when oil is no longer available.” In St. Maarten, utilities company GEBE produces electricity using diesel generators. Last year, the company invested. $31.9 million in two new Wartsilä diesel generators that will be delivered to the island next year; they will become operational in 2010. If Spence’s doomsday scenario becomes reality, the island will have to invest in alternatives –  and fast. Sun and wind energy are two untapped resources, the New Yorker says. One wind turbine can produce enough electricity for 700 homes.”
Twenty wind turbines

There are approximately 13,500 homes on the Dutch side of the island. To cover all energy needs with wind power, GEBE would have to install 20 wind turbines with a production capacity of 2.3 Megawatt each. The investment would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $94 million, or 167 million guilders. What if GEBE does not jump on the bandwagon? Spence: “This island enjoys plenty of sunshine and there is plenty of wind too. It blows my mind that not every home in St. Maarten has at least one or two solar panels on its roof. Why this is so, I do not know.”  Spence also discovered a misconception about solar panels. “Many people think solar panels are only fit to heat water. But there are also solar panels that produce electricity.” If GEBE, for one reason or another does not make the switch to wind energy, citizens have the option to take their own measures. “I can install a 1000 watt residential wind turbine for $1,000,” says Spence. “They are not hurricane resistant, but there is a solution for that situation. When a hurricane approaches, you crank down the turbine tower and when the weather improves, you crank it up again.” Investing in wind energy does not mean that diesel-powered systems have to be discarded. They can function as back up. In remote locations, wind energy is a cost-effective alternative for grid-extension. Private investments in wind energy do not have to cost homeowners any money. They can finance their investment and pay off the loan to the bank in seven to ten years in installments they would otherwise have to pay to the utilities company. “You don’t pay more money every month, but you are disconnected from the grid,” says Spence.


The decline in oil production and the world’s ever-increasing demand make the need for conservation more pressing, Spence says. Energy efficient lighting and vehicles and insulated homes have to be part of the solution. “People will also have to consider car pooling, and limit the amount of trips they make with their cars.” Another energy-saving method is eliminating what Spence .calls “phantom loads.” This is the energy electrical appliances like TV’s, VCR’s and computers consume in stand-by mode. “I connect these appliances to an electrical strip and when I switch the strip off, they do not consume anything anymore,” Spence says. St. Maarten is also an ideal environment for the introduction of electric cars, Spence points out. “I could build an electric car with a range of around fifty miles that performs better than a gasoline-powered vehicle, even when it has to go up steep hills.”

Paul Mooij, founder of the Caribbean Foundation for Sustainability (CFS) that organizes Enviro Week, told Today that his organization will write a pressing letter to the Executive Council to draw its attention to the looming energy crisis and the possible solutions for St: Maarten.
For more information about living of the grid and other alternative energy solutions, go to




One could of course argue that Green Trust director Steve Spence has a product to sell and that we ought to take his message about soaring oil prices and the subsequent consequences for energy supply in St. Maarten with a grain of salt.
The Dutch Prime Minister Colijn famously told his citizens in a radio address on March 11, 1936, “I request that the listeners, when they go to bed, go to sleep as peacefully as they do on other nights. For the time being there is no reason whatsoever to be really concerned.”
These lines, later condensed to the more accessible term, “Why don’t you all go to sleep peacefully”, are often mistakenly contributed to Colijn on the eve of Germany’s invasion. In reality, Colijn spoke the words four years earlier, a couple of days after Nazi-Germany cancelled the treaty of Locarno, and after Hitler began to militarize the Rhineland.
Looking back, the four years that passed between Colijn’s unfortunate assessment and Hitler’s attack on the Netherlands, seem like an awfully short time. The Dutch had every reason to be concerned about Hitler’s activities. Had the government inspired them to take measures, many lives could have been saved. But the why-don’t-you-go-to-sleep-peacefully speech gave citizens a false sense of security.
A few years later, the Dutch government was off the mark again, when it told citizens how to deal with German firebombs (pick them up and stick them in a bucket of sand). Images of Rotterdam’s bombardment did not stop the government from repeating this type of ridiculous advice for a nuclear attack at the height of the cold war (cover yourself with a white sheet).
In other words, history proves that governments are not the reliable partners they ought to be. How does this relate to Spence’s predictions about the energy market and the way St. Maarten ought to react to it?
We let our readers be the judge of that, but it is almost certain that the energy markets will at least move in the direction that Spence has indicated.
That ought to be §sufficient reason to jump into action and to review the way St Maarten meets the community’s energy needs thoroughly. How our government will react to the situation is anybody’s guess. It will be a rainy day in hell when oil prices drop back to that idyllic level of $25 a barrel. That is not going to happen, ever:
Will it get worse? All indicators point in that direction.
Do we have alternatives to fend of the consequences of Spence’s doomsday scenario?
To make those alternatives a reality we need political awareness first, followed by the political will to create solutions for the future that makes the island less dependant on a commodity that becomes scarcer every day. That future is not a next-generation thing; it is right around the corner.
It brings to mind the American expression, “the light is on, but there is nobody home” – a reference to somebody who is mentally not all there. If we do not tackle the energy issue in a decisive manner, Country St. Maarten could end up in a situation where “everybody is home, but all the lights are out.”
For sure, nobody wants that to happen.