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4 Reasons Natural Gas Is a Bridge to Nowhere in the Caribbean
Caribbean island residents pay some of the highest retail electricity prices in the world. Most islands generate 90 - 100 percent of their electricity by burning expensive imported diesel or heavy fuel oil in large generators. Thus Caribbean electricity users pay between $0.20 and $0.50/kWh (kilowatt hour). By comparison, the average for mainland U.S. residential customers is $0.13/kWh; in Hawaii, where they burn oil for much of their electricity, the average is $0.39/kWh.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
Naturally, Caribbean islands are in the market for more affordable alternatives. Some islands are seriously pursuing renewables—witness Jamaica’s 20-MW-and-growing wind farm and the Dominican Republic installing one of the largest solar arrays in the Caribbean. Some other islands such as the U.S. Virgin Islands are experimenting with different fossil fuels that don’t require major capital investments, like propane.
But another option looms on the horizon: natural gas. A recent U.S. Energy Information Administration article and a soon-to-be-released International Development Bank study note liquefied natural gas (LNG) is increasingly being touted as a cost-effective solution for the Caribbean.
This is more than unfortunate. Switching from one imported fossil fuel (diesel/oil) to another (LNG)—the latter of which is currently slightly less expensive but much more price-volatile—overlooks the Caribbean’s abundant, domestic supply of cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy.
One Colombian island in the western Caribbean, San Andres, is grappling now with the future of its electricity generation, including the relative merits of LNG compared to efficiency and renewables. It becomes quickly clear that there are at least four important reasons LNG is the wrong choice for the Caribbean’s electricity.
1. Efficiency and Renewables are Cheaper than LNG and Diesel
Perhaps the most powerful argument against LNG in the Caribbean is fundamental economics. Both wind and solar undercut the prevailing levelized cost of natural-gas-based electricity in the Caribbean and elsewhere. And the Caribbean is blessed with world-class amounts of renewable resources.
For example, Caribbean wind resources are excellent, measuring an average 7.5 - 9.0 meters per second throughout the year. The wind resources of Colombia’s San Andres exceeds even that of world wind leader Denmark, where wind generated 33 percent of the country’s electricity in 2013, 54 percent for the entire month of December, and more than 100 percent for briefer times. A utility-scale wind turbine in the Caribbean can produce 50 - 100 percent more energy than it would under typical European wind conditions.
Sunshine is also bountiful in the Caribbean, with insolation similar to the sunny Southwestern United States. This again is significantly higher than places like Germany, which recently generated over half its electricity from solar photovoltaics on a single day in June this summer.
Figure 1 below illustrates San Andre’s excellent renewable energy potential, comparing its solar and wind resources to other leading renewable energy countries and U.S. states around the world.
Couple these abundant resources with dramatic, ongoing cost reductions for solar and wind, plus the expensive nature of most Caribbean islands’ diesel-powered electricity grids, and renewable electricity is simply cheaper to generate than fossil fuel-based electricity in most places throughout the Caribbean (see Figure 2).
For LNG, three increasing price estimates illustrate how sensitive gas is to market price volatility. Under high LNG prices, switching from diesel to LNG barely makes a dent. Meanwhile, switching to wind could cut the LCOE of electricity on San Andres almost in half. Also unaccounted for here are additional benefits of distributed resources, such as reduced line losses, deferred new distribution system investment, and renewables’ hedge value.
Even more compelling than renewables, however, is energy efficiency. Utilities throughout the Caribbean should make deep investments in energy efficiency first. The payoff is profound. On San Andres, most refrigerators and home air conditioning units are 40 - 60 percent less efficient than similarly priced, more-efficient units currently available on the market. By spending about $8 million up front (which equates to a very modest $0.04/kWh) to replace the island’s existing refrigerators and air conditioning units with newer, more-reliable, and more-efficient ones, the island could save more than $65 million dollars net present value on a 15-year basis. In other words, such an investment would pay back in less than two years.
2. LNG Infrastructure Isn't Cheap
At first glance, switching to LNG may seem inexpensive because islands’ existing diesel generators can be converted to run on natural gas at a “relatively” low cost. However, LNG retrofits for diesel generators can cost $4.8 million for a 14 MW diesel generator, plus there are also additional capital costs, including tanks to store LNG after delivery to the island and the need to upgrade ports to be able to accept shipments of LNG. San Andres, for example, will need an estimated 250 LNG storage tanks at a cost of $170,000 - 200,000 per tank. Each tank is about the size of a shipping container, so a significant amount of land would be required to house them—a serious challenge for an island half the land area of Manhattan.
Additionally, LNG must be transported from the port where it is received to the generators that will use it, which are not located near the island’s shore. Even on a small island like San Andres, this requires additional infrastructure for transporting LNG, either by truck after the tanks are filled or by using a new pipeline. After arriving at the power plant, LNG also needs to be re-gasified—in an additional multi-million dollar LNG plant—in order to finally generate electricity.
Finally, Caribbean islands are small; they don’t need bigger, more-efficient LNG plants that benefit from economies of scale. San Andres would thus spend a disproportionately large amount of capital to build a small LNG plant and fuel delivery system at a very high levelized cost. That LNG infrastructure is not useful in any other capacity, so if an island migrated away from LNG—such as to renewables—those tanks and pipes would sit largely unused. Investing in renewable technologies now, while also improving energy efficiency, would be a much better use of capital.
3. LNG = Energy Price Volatility
Swapping out a fossil fuel whose price escalates slowly (diesel) for a marginally lower-cost resource (liquefied natural gas) injects a new kind of risk into the electricity system: extreme price volatility. The price of natural gas itself, as well as the export price of LNG from the U.S., has varied greatly and been especially volatile in recent years. In other parts of the world, there is similar natural gas price volatility, as well as large variations in price between different regions. Given natural gas price uncertainty, it is difficult to estimate the costs of importing LNG from the U.S. or other countries over time. More volatility means less predictability in future energy prices for Caribbean island nations like San Andres, and in a region where 15 percent of total GDP is spent on electricity (in the U.S. that percentage is closer to 8 percent), such dramatic exposure to price volatility from natural-gas-fired electricity generation can be a serious hindrance on economic growth.
When talking about liquefied natural gas at small scale like we are in the Caribbean, a different kind of volatility also comes into play: capital cost uncertainty. For example, shipping costs for LNG are notoriously difficult to predict. Such costs include chartering fees, brokerage, fuel consumption, port costs, canal costs, and insurance costs, all of which vary based on where the LNG is shipped from. Along with shipping, liquefaction costs vary dramatically, as do re-gasification costs at the final location.
Each of these cost components include uncertainty, which makes estimates for LNG electricity generation for islands like San Andres extremely wide, from $10 to $30 or more per MMBTU. Given a heat rate for LNG of 7,203 BTU/kWh, the cost of LNG fuel is between $0.07 and $0.22 per kWh. While this does provide an improvement over diesel fuel, which currently costs $0.28/kWh on San Andres, this major uncertainty makes it difficult for islands to understand the true cost of switching to LNG.
Finally, LNG facilities across the globe are significantly larger than what’s needed on a Caribbean island. While there are examples of small-scale LNG in places such as Norway and Japan, these nations are moving LNG short distances within their own region, not shipping the fuel over long distances. Islands the size of San Andres would likely need only one terminal to receive LNG shipments. This may seem beneficial, but it also creates a single source of potential failure for the islands’ electricity system. Installing various distributed and varied energy resources, including renewables, mitigates this concern.
4. Small-Scale LNG Faces Serious Contractual Challenges
The LNG prices we estimated are only valid if there is a seller willing to provide LNG at that price to an island.
Currently, LNG prices are set regionally and are hugely sensitive to the volume of LNG under contract. The world’s main LNG customers, like post-Fukushima Japan, are truly massive customers and can command a lower overall LNG price: Japan alone imported 11.5 cubic billion feet per day of LNG in 2011. By comparison, San Andres would need less than one-tenth of one percent of Japan’s annual import volume. And since natural gas is a regional commodity (as opposed to a truly global one like petroleum where prices are largely uniform regardless of volume purchased), this leads to an important question: Can small islands like San Andres secure contracts for (globally) miniscule amounts of LNG at competitive prices?
Plus, under current natural gas prices, agreements can be reached before natural gas export facilities have been fully approved and constructed—resulting in an uncertain timeframe for when LNG might actually available for import to an island like San Andres.
Furthermore, if LNG is a “bridge fuel” to future alternatives, such as renewables, the amount of LNG needed over time to generate electricity would go down as more renewables come online. As renewables and energy efficiency decrease the needed amount of electricity from LNG plants, the volume of LNG purchased goes down dramatically, further increasing the per-unit price of LNG and making long-term contractual LNG even more difficult.
A Bridge to Nowhere
Given the abundant wind and solar resources available in the Caribbean, and the still-falling costs of installing renewable generation compared with converting existing diesel resources to LNG, choosing renewables over LNG now is a smart economic decision. As the case of San Andres illustrates, sinking capital into LNG would be a poor decision for most Caribbean islands facing similar challenges. There’s simply no reason to build this expensive, unnecessary natural gas bridge when the cost-saving benefits of renewables and efficiency can be captured here and now.
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By Tara Smith
Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.
Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.
Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.
From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.
Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.
Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.
Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?
Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.
When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.
The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.
The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.
But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.
Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.
This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
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