Prioritising renewable energy in Caribbean agriculture

Opinion

 
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The Caribbean is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to the impacts of climate change. Concurrently, it is one of the most reliant on fossil fuels as the basis of its energy resource use. Oil amounts to approximately 90% of the region’s energy needs. In fact, all Caribbean nations, with the exception of Trinidad and Tobago, are net importers of oil. This makes the heavy dependence on imported fossil fuels the single most important cost problem in the region.

Recognition of the region’s reliance on fossil fuels has led to increasing support over the years for a region-wide transition to more sustainable energy sources in the form of renewable energies. Such a transition has also been deemed necessary in the context of regional support for the objectives of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris Agreement by regional stakeholders and governments alike.

In spite of the recognised need for a rapid transition to renewable energy sources, the shift away from fossil fuels has not been as quick or as widespread as supporters or proponents of renewable energy technologies (RETs) envisioned. This status quo exists in spite of the potential that the Caribbean possesses for RETs in hydro-electric, geothermal, solar, and wind forms. However, as the region moves towards greener, climate-resilient economies, many sectors are seeking guidance and support for alternative, cost-effective and reliable energy options – a cross-cutting factor underpinning sustainable development in the Caribbean.

Agriculture’s energy nexus: needs vs supply

The energy consumption profile of agriculture and agro-industrial sectors has been largely supported by the standard national energy generation, transmission, and distribution systems across the region. The systems are wholly run by government-licensed monopolies isolated to each individual island or country. Agriculture’s energy requirements are similar to the rest of the national profile: lighting, powering mechanical/electrical equipment, and processing technologies (namely grinding, milling, drying, chilling, freezing, and/or storage).

Some farms in the region can partially or wholly provide their own energy, usually through biomass-driven energy. However, the sector suffers from a lack of comprehensive analysis of its total power requirements in many countries. This is undoubtedly due to agriculture’s physically disparate nature, making it difficult to fully understand and support the sector’s collective needs and potential for a transition to RETs.

Consequently, the needs of farms and rural developments are not as high a priority in the national and regional energy planning context as other areas. Also, given the inherent nature of their locales, on-farm energy supplies are vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, which impact the Eastern Caribbean and Greater Antillean islands.

Overcoming the barriers to on-farm RETs

The most important barrier to RET uptake is the lack of economic and political will, alongside non-existent or limited regulatory frameworks supporting RETs across the region. Where national plans or planning processes have been initiated in support of a transition to renewables, there is a lack of coherent agro-centric policy targets and supporting implementation measures in place.

To devise and implementfavourable policies and regulations for farm-based renewables and micro-grids/embedded networks, there must be improved synergies between various ministries and line agencies with responsibilities for energy, rural development, agriculture, and finance, among others. Examination of existing tariff structures and a move towards the implementation of morefavourable tariffs in support of sector-focused RET deployment is an imperative.

Renewables, which can further support investment in agriculture through lower energy costs and ‘future proofing’ operations, must first overcome the high initial investment costs. This is a critical concern of land owners and farmers when transitioning to renewables. Providing appropriate financing strategies and sources for these stakeholders will enable them to establish renewable energy infrastructure.

Greater efforts also need to be made to demonstrate the viability of RETs to farming communities within their individual contexts. This can be supported through the establishment of RET pilots in a variety of farming arrangements. Such pilots should facilitate accurate research and evidence-based analyses of the benefits of renewable energy use in agriculture, providing data and information to support progressive decision-making and buy-in.

Investing in efficient, renewable energy systems is key to ensuring food security and economic development, while minimising the adverse effects of conventional, fossil fuel-based agricultural value chains. RETs can help to build self-sustaining agricultural ventures, and help local economies thrive where they may otherwise fail in a future without fossil fuels.