Saturday, 19 January 2013

Geothermal - getting all steamy in paradise

It sounds so simple.

Take one volcanic island, drill some holes, lay some pipes and bingo! Hot water by the bathful, and steam enough to  power your island to clean green energy independence - with plenty left over to consider supplying your neighbour islands. That was certainly the plan on Nevis Island, the tiny Caribbean island paired with St.Kitts, back in 2007.

Nevis geothermal well letting off steam
According to the script, a 10 MW proof-of-concept geothermal plant, aiming to tap the heat simmering under Nevis Island's distinctive volcano, would be enough to cover all of the 12,000 citizens baseload electricity needs. And with up to 500 MW of geothermal potential remaining to be tapped, that extra energy could then be exported,via subsea cable, to neighbouring St Kitts, across the Caribbean Sea to Antigua - or even to Puerto Rico, 150 miles to the north-west, and beyond.

Murky start to project

The problem is that, five years later, there is little to show for the $10 million-costed project, apart from 3 holes in the ground. That and a grinding lawsuit in the court. The contract to develop Nevis Island's geothermal resource was signed with St. Kitts-based West Indies Power (WIP). But it was an opaque deal, by many accounts, lacking in any semblance of open process or competitive bidding.

When the funds for the project dried up following 2008's credit crunch, development stalled. The government of Premier Joseph Parry found its hands tied, when it came to guaranteeing loans for the project - the IMF, called in because of Nevis Island's debt problems, wouldn't allow it. The Premier has even taken to dark mutterings about 'certain forces' undermining efforts to get the US Export Import Bank (EXIM) to underpin the project's finances.

Geothermal go-it-alone

So the matter has ended up in the island's High Court, with the Parry administration wanting to cut itself free of the tangle-up with West-Indies Power, a compnay they now they claim are no longer able to deliver on the project. Parry, it seems, is determined to go-it-alone on geothermal. And this week the island's High Court agreed.

"Two days ago the Court ruled that West Indies Power was in no position to meet its obligations.. It means that because of that ruling the Government is in a position to end its arrangement with West Indies Power and to develop geothermal power itself and this is what the government is placing itself in a position to do,” Parry said yesterday.

Toys in the cupboard, til your ready to play?

Parry may be confident he can now secure funding directly, after recent talks with EXIM. But the sadly legal process shows now sign of abating - WIP has already said on Friday that it will appeal. So despite a promising resource, a  mature technology, and all the glittering potential for a Caribbean geothermal inter-island hub, Nevis Island's volcanic energy future remains stuck in a game legal and political ping-pong.

Proving once again that the technology is the easy part of the renewables equation. When switching to a new energy form that redefines relationships - between governments and utilities; companies and customers; and old energy industries and the new - it needs to be grasped as a social transformation, as much as a technical one. And it starts with people and process, not backroom deals.

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