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September 04, 2013

Geothermal Energy Becomes Hot Topic on Caribbean Island of Dominica



Dominica, a tiny and pristine island nation in the Caribbean Sea, is planning to reach zero-carbon status on its own steam—literally.

The youngest land formation in the Lesser Antilles, Dominica still is being formed by geothermal-volcanic activity, as evidenced by one of its major attractions—the world's second-largest hot spring, Boiling Lake (smaller only than Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand). A hot spring is produced by the emergence of groundwater from the Earth's crust—and it is that naturally produced geothermal heat and steam that the island wants to harness.

Local officials are hoping that geothermal energy is the answer to mounting climate change concerns and an ambitious commitment to become carbon ‘negative’ by 2020, according to a report just released by the Thomson Reuters (News - Alert) Foundation.

What’s more, aside from environmental concerns, fossil fuel independence also has become increasingly important to the island’s population of 70,000 in recent years because Dominica remains highly dependent on imported oil and residents pay the highest electricity prices in the Eastern Caribbean.

Project Details

The geothermal initiative will comprise the construction of a small power plant for domestic consumption and of a bigger facility, capable of generating up to 100 megawatts (MW) of electricity, for export to the neighboring French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit told Parliament in July that his government already had invested US$ 11.2 million in test drilling —which confirmed that the Roseau Valley, home to the Boiling Lake, would provide a geothermal resource of “excellent quality,” sufficient to generate more than 120 MW of power.

Now, the Dominica government plans to spend an additional US$13.3 million to develop geothermal power in the valley, which is also one of the most popular destinations for the island’s eco-tourism industry, boasting lush rainforests, rivers, waterfalls and hiking trails.

Energy costs in Dominica continue to affect “the quality of life of families, individuals and the competitiveness of businesses,” and this project could reduce the price of electricity by 40 percent, he said.

Vince Henderson, chairman of the government’s geothermal negotiating team and the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations, told Thomson (News - Alert) Reuters that the project has the potential to transform the island’s economy and ensure commitments to the environment are met.

“Dominica has tremendous geothermal capacity. This project will not only bring us energy security and independence, but geothermal energy will reduce our contribution to climate change and demonstrate leadership in switching from over-reliance on expensive, dirty, fossil fuel generation,” he said.

Objections to the Plan

However, according to Dominica News Online, the project also has vocal critics. In fact, while the government of Dominica is moving ahead with exploring the island’s geothermal potential, it doesn’t appear that its plans is favored by the United States embassy in Barbados, according to a leaked diplomatic cable released by whistle blower site, Wikileaks last April.

The cable said that although Dominica is blessed with bountiful hydro power and potential for a large scale geothermal plant “the problems of a mountainous geography, dispersed population and minimal consumer use frustrate distribution efforts.”

Instead, the communiqué suggested smaller and simpler solutions to the island’s energy needs. “The best approach to renewable energy may well rest in simple solutions of micro hydro units, residential mini wind turbines, and solar panels that would provide local ownership  and a decentralized system,” the cable stated, also suggesting that the authorities allow businesses and citizens who generate their own electricity to be connected to the national grid.

Some residents also have their doubts. Speaking to Reuters, Alfred Rolle, 46—who has lived in the community of Laudat, in the valley, all his life, and worked as a mechanical engineer with the island’s sole electricity company, DOMLEC, for over a decade—commented that he, like many other residents, wants authorities to fully answer their questions about potential risks.

“I believe the level of secrecy surrounding the project is troubling. We should have been brought to the table to discuss what is about to happen in our area, with our land and with our health. We are not opposed to it. We have heard of geothermal. They have explained geothermal, but they haven’t explained how much land is required, how much of our forest will be used, the possible negative effects of the drilling,” he said. “We know of the dangerous gases down there and we fear possible contamination of our streams and water supply. We just want our questions answered.”

In response, the government’s geothermal team says great care has gone into ensuring that Dominica’s residents will not be adversely affected by the project. A spokesperson pointed out, “There is wide global experience with geothermal power from volcanic sources that has proven to be safe over its more than century-long history. Geothermal energy provides significant benefits as one of the least-polluting forms of energy. Dominica’s project is being developed with highly reputable global partners, and global best practices will be followed for the environmental impact assessment and ongoing monitoring, which is contractually required and of the highest importance.”




Edited by Alisen Downey

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