Removable solar panels boost storm readiness in Dominica

Reuters | Dec 13, 2019 at 3:57 PM

LONDON, Dec 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Hurricane Maria flattened the Caribbean island of Dominica in 2017, the fierce storm left the country in the dark.

"Everything was out. There was no electricity. The whole electrical grid was down," recalled Williams Fitzroy, an engineer and inspector for the Ministry of Public Works.

The blackout caused huge problems, especially at surviving health centres, which were left battling without lights or power for equipment to treat victims of the Category 5 storm, the island's most powerful in nearly two centuries.

"Nurses had to be working with flashlights and lanterns in the evenings," Fitzroy said of the hurricane, which killed more than 50 people and ruined 90% of the island's buildings.

But two years on, health centres on the tiny mountainous island of 72,000 people are better prepared for the next storm, as climate change fuels more powerful hurricanes across the Caribbean.

With help from the French group Electriciens sans Frontieres (ESF - Electricians Without Borders), six of the island's health centres have now been fitted with solar panels and battery storage systems that allow them to run off-grid.

When hurricanes approach, the roof-top panels can be removed and stored inside to protect them, then quickly put back after the storms pass, said Jeremy Gallet, ESF's executive director.

The battery systems also allow health facilities to run for up to three days without electricity, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

The installations are part of a larger push, launched by Dominica's prime minister after Maria, to turn his country into the first "climate-resilient" small island developing nation.

"I come to you straight from the front line of the war on climate change," Roosevelt Skerrit told the U.N. General Assembly just days after Hurricane Maria, as he announced the new goal.

Paying for such transformations can be difficult, however, particularly for small islands that can sustain losses equivalent to a year's income - or two in Dominica's case, according to the World Trade Organization - from a single storm.

In Dominica, ESF helped fill that gap by sourcing solar panels, batteries and other supplies from donors, and having its volunteers supervise and carry out some of the installation work.

The organisation also hired local contractors to help with the installations, building their skills, Fitzroy said.

The solar panels are still holding up a year after they were installed, he added.

In a country where fossil fuels meet about three-quarters of electricity demand, two of the smaller health centres now run entirely on solar power, he said.

The others have cut their power grid use, with the largest solar installation feeding excess electricity back into the national grid, Fitzroy and Gallet said.

"It's saving the Ministry of Health a huge amount of money," Fitzroy said.

The effort was recognised at the international climate talks in Madrid this week as a "lighthouse" project under the U.N. "Momentum for Change" initiative, which showcases novel solutions to tackling climate change.

Gallet said his group, which has 1,300 volunteers, has carried out similar projects on other storm-hit islands, including in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and is also trying to work in Haiti.

ESF, which a decade ago focused largely on providing small emergency diesel generators and repair work in disaster-hit communities, now has made renewable energy a focus, Gallet said.

Generators are still needed to provide short-term immediate power after disasters but, in most places, solar energy is a cheaper way of restoring power systems, he said.

"After the storm, you put the panels up and you're open in no time at all," said Fitzroy.