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Transitioning to Renewable Energy in the U.S. Virgin Islands

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Biden School researchers support sustainable solutions in the U.S. overseas territory

A sign against a fence reads "please excuse our appearance. We are rebuilding from the 2 hurricanes (Irma and Maria)."

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​A sign outside of the Cyril E. King Airport in the USVI highlights the impacts of hurricanes on this island territory. Photo courtesy of Pravesh Raghoo.​

From developing a green economy to reducing individuals' carbon footprints, environmental concerns have become a top priority for engaged citizens and public agencies alike over recent years. The impacts of climate change—and the need to adapt our practices to become sustainable for future generations—are evident. One particular area that has seen an increasing amount of interest is the field of clean renewable energy. Pravesh Raghoo, a doctoral student in the energy and environmental policy program in the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration, recently had an opportunity to work on an applied research project in the clean energy field.

Working under Kalim Shah, assistant professor in the Biden School, Raghoo traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) over the summer of 2021 to collect data with the goal of designing pathways to deploy more renewable energy to the islands.

Raghoo, who originally hails from the island nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, feels a personal connection to the work. Island nations are uniquely impacted by some of the effects of climate change, and they have specific needs when it comes to developing renewable energy infrastructure.

“I understand the vulnerabilities that islands face when it comes to the transition to renewable energy and transformation of existing energy systems. Our research is addressing a key gap in finding solutions for this overseas U.S. territory," Raghoo said.

Raghoo hopes to contribute to a more general understanding of how modeling techniques in a specific environment can be used to inform policy creation.​

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​​Brewers Bay in the USVI as seen from the University of the Virgin Islands campus. Photo courtesy of Pravesh Raghoo.

“The U.S. Virgin Islands are endowed with abundant renewable energy in the form of solar and wind, but they are heavily dependent on petroleum," Raghoo said. “To transform its energy sector toward more renewable energy, we need to look at a number of variables such as costs of technologies, technology constraints, demand and supply capabilities and different combinations of policies that can lead to the desired transformation."

Aside from data collection needs, the trip allowed the team to interact with energy experts and key stakeholders in the USVI which included scientists and engineers at the USVI Caribbean Green Technology Centre, utility professionals with the USVI Energy Agency and Utilities Commission and several local business leaders who could weigh in on the local energy situation.

Raghoo found the hands-on, in-person data collection experience to be a valuable supplement to what he has learned in his courses. The team gained first-hand experience with some of the challenges that the USVI is facing. “We experienced an 8-hour power outage on a busy workday, with no explanation from the utility providers. This itself tells you a lot about the frailties in the energy system of the USVI," Raghoo said.

The USVI has been made economically fragile due to Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, and the region is still recovering. This has increased demand for solar energy generation as households and local businesses alike seek more energy independence. Solar is the most in-demand technology, which makes long-term energy planning complex as households seek to become electricity generating sites rather than solely consumers of energy. But, adoption of solar technology remains low due to a variety of issues, including inconsistencies in local building regulations.

The research project was funded by a University of Delaware Research Funding grant through Shah's Island Policy Lab. Shah's work is focused on energy and environmental science-policy research for small island economies.

“As a society, we need radical changes to move toward more renewable energy and meet the terms of the Paris Agreement. This research will improve planning for these necessary changes in the USVI and could serve to inform planning and implementation in other locations as well," Shah said.

The research builds academic understanding of the issues and is also actively applied in the communities being studied. Shah was asked to apply his expertise by joining the USVI national expert task force and the National Renewable Energy Lab in developing a comprehensive strategic plan for energy needs in the USVI. He hopes to use some of the results from his ongoing research to inform the strategic plan and make it more effective and impactful long-term.

The scenarios developed in Shah and Raghoo's research, which were achieved through multi-stakeholder engagement, allowed for more realistic clean energy transition policy intervention models to be built. The results of these models show the effects of declining costs of solar and wind energy in the USVI, and shows that wind offers the maximum potential benefit to the country. Commercial solar presents the next best option to augment wind energy and optimize renewable energy by 2050. The models incorporated data on energy grid disruptions due to potential hurricane activity, which is always a concern in the region.

Shah plans to return to the USVI and was also invited to present his research to government agencies in the British Virgin Islands in the summer of 2022.​

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