Aruba Leads Caribbean Islands On Clean Energy

Last month, while many environmental leaders went to Bonn, Germany for the U.N. climate talks, I journeyed to the Caribbean island of Aruba for the Green Aruba 2017 energy conference to speak on an environmental panel.

Before going, the only thing I knew about Aruba was that it was the first lyric in the 1988 Beach Boys hit Kokomo. But it turns out Aruba is a leading island on clean energy in the Caribbean. And that’s a big deal.

As the Clean Energy Finance forum detailed, small islands are often perfectly positioned to benefit from a transition to clean energy:

  • First, they typically pay a lot of money for dirty electricity, as they usually rely on imported oil to burn to generate power. This leaves them vulnerable to price shocks.
  • Second, they often have abundant renewable resources from sunshine, wind, wave and sometimes geothermal and biomass.
  • Third, they need to be more resilient in the face of extreme weather anyway, so relying on locally generated power for a decentralized grid is an important resilience strategy (a need that’s become clear with Puerto Rico’s continued blackout in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria). Moody’s even recently rated some of these islands as risky for investors due to their exposure to climate events, per Bloomberg.

Aruba is one of the best positioned to go green. The island is relatively wealthy, as it pivoted from an economy heavily dependent on oil refining in the 1980s to one big on tourism. Many Americans from the East Coast spend a lot of money there, given the picturesque beaches, pleasant weather (very little rain and almost no hurricanes), and the ability to use dollars and get by with English on the island (it’s a former Dutch colony with a local Papamiento language, but everyone learns English).

The island’s political leaders committed in 2012 to a 100% clean energy goal by 2020. As a result, the utility has been a leader in investing in renewables, with plans for more. The island residents and visitors use about 100 megawatts of electricity, and a wind farm on the windy north coast, which is mostly in the national park, generates 30 megawatts of power. They also built a 4 megwatt solar park at the airport. Together with some other resources, the island can credibly generate 40% of their power from renewable sources, depending on the sun and wind.  Plans going forward include another wind farm, Tesla batteries, more solar, and a waste-to-energy facility.

But notably, these projects have faced some community opposition that might be familiar to clean energy advocates elsewhere. The new wind farm, for example, is proposed in a major bird area, as local bird expert and activist Greg Peterson told me. With land in limited supply, and increasing development pressure from a growing population and economy, birds and other wildlife are suffering on the island. So island leaders will need to find a way to develop clean resources in a way that preserves Aruba’s wildlife and natural beauty.

But despite these conflicts and pressures, Aruba is a pioneer on green energy and a leader for other island nations to follow. And if the island is successful in achieving its 100% clean energy goal, it will be a leader for larger countries like the U.S. as well.

Meanwhile, to get a taste of the conference, here is a video of a workshop for youth held the day before the formal conference began. As you can see, Aruba is worth visiting for more than just the beaches and weather, given its green energy policies.