St. Vincent Embarks on Renewable Energy Path

St. Vincent and the Grenadines has installed 750 kilowatt hours of photovoltaic panels, which it says reduced its carbon emissions by 800 tonnes annually. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

St. Vincent and the Grenadines has installed 750 kilowatt hours of photovoltaic panels, which it says reduced its carbon emissions by 800 tonnes annually. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

By Kenton X. Chance
KINGSTOWN, Jan 12 2015 (IPS)

For decades, the fertile slopes of La Soufriere volcano, which occupies the northern third of this 344-kilometre-square island, has produced illegally grown marijuana that fuels the local underground economy, and the trade in that illicit drug across the eastern Caribbean.

But now the 1,234-metre-high mountain, which last erupted in 1979, is now being explored for something very different — its geothermal energy potential.”Even if you have a lot of solar, you are still going to need the hydro and the geothermal and the diesel to carry the base.” — Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves

The Ralph Gonsalves government believes that geothermal energy will be a “game changer” for the local economy.

In this country, where tourism is the mainstay, the cost of electricity ranges from 40 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour — several times what consumers pay in the United States.

Householders and manufacturers are hoping that the geothermal energy exploration, which has been underway for more than a year, will in fact produce the 10 to 15 megawatts of electricity that the country desperately needs to relieve its dependence on high-cost fossil fuels and give new life to the manufacturing and agro-processing sectors.

The geothermal energy exploration is a partnership between the Unity Labour Party government, the Icelandic Firm Reykjavik Geothermal Ltd., and Emera Inc., an international energy company with roots in Nova Scotia, Canada that also owns power stations in the Caribbean.

One year after the geothermal project was launched, Prime Minister Gonsalves, who will run for a fourth consecutive five-year term in elections this year, told Parliament in December that the geothermal power plant is on track for a 2017-2018 completion.

By June 2015, a technical report will be completed and well and plant site selection will be done, Gonsalves, who also holds the energy portfolio, told lawmakers.

“We are still on target. I have been advised by the Energy Unit. … Barring some extraordinary challenge which may arise, we should be having a production of 10 megawatts by the end of 2017,” Gonsalves told lawmakers.

The slopes of St. Vincent’s La Soufriere volcano, long the home of illegally grown marijuana, are being explored for geothermal potential. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

The slopes of St. Vincent’s La Soufriere volcano, long the home of illegally grown marijuana, are being explored for geothermal potential. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

The “very low interest monies” that the prime minister says his government will receive shortly may have been a reference to his government’s application for a 15-million-dollar loan through the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

The successful applicants will be announced at the Fifth Session of the IRENA Assembly, slated for Jan. 17-18 in Abu Dhabi, which Gonsalves will attend.

Putting the loan application of St. Vincent and the Grenadines into context, Gonsalves told IPS, “There are about 80 applications from which they are choosing eight, and the total sum would be 60 million [dollars] overall … which they will lend in this particular year.”

Notwithstanding falling oil prices recently, Gonsalves is still convinced that renewable energy is the way to go for St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

“In days gone by, when diesel was 15 dollars or less per barrel, there was no real urgency to address the other forms of energy,” he tells IPS.

One-quarter of the 20 megawatts of electricity generated during peak demand in this multi-island nation comes from the country’s three hydropower plants. The remaining 15 megawatts is generated by diesel, 70 million dollars worth of which was imported in 2013 for electricity generation.

“We want to make the hydro plants more efficient … and we want to do solar, and we are doing solar, and we want to do geothermal,” Gonsalves tells IPS, adding that geothermal energy can carry a base load of 98 per cent of the country’s energy needs, whereas solar could possibly generate 20 per cent — or higher with improved technology.

“So, even if you have a lot of solar, you are still going to need the hydro and the geothermal and the diesel to carry the base,” he tells IPS, adding that the country has a good geothermal source.

Among those who are hoping that the geothermal power plant becomes a reality sooner than later is 52-year-old furniture manufacturer Montgomery Dyer, who lives in Spring Village, a community in North Leeward, the district in northwestern St. Vincent, where the volcano is partly located.

Dyer tells IPS that he is excited about the prospects of lower electricity bills, as the cost of energy represents some 10 per cent of the production cost at his business, which employs 28 persons.

“The cost of energy in St. Vincent is very high. In any way we can reduce the cost of energy, the production cost will go down,” he tells IPS, adding that a spinoff effect would be increased competitiveness.

“We will be in a better position to compete, simple as that,” he says, even as he notes that the relatively high labour cost is also a challenge.

Dyer pays some 1,100 dollars for electricity each month, a substantial amount that would be even higher had he not taken steps to reduce electricity consumption at the factory.

“The factory is a mechanised factory, so everything [runs on] power. We try to use machines with smaller motors, and machines that rely on pneumatics. In any case, the compressor has to generate the air to power the machines where pneumatics are required,” he explained.

Outside of geothermal and hydropower, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is already taking steps to cash in on the warm tropical sunshine that bathes the nation almost year-round.

The country has some 750 kilowatt hours of photovoltaic installations, including a 10 kilowatt-hour installation on the Financial Complex — which houses the Office of the Prime Minister — that has seen the cooling cost at that building slashed by some 20 per cent.

Most of the solar installations are owned by the state electricity company, St. Vincent Electricity Services Ltd. (VINLEC), which has a legal monopoly on the commercial generation and distribution of electricity.

VINLEC has 557 kilowatt-hours of solar photovoltaic panels at its Cane Hall Power Plants, east of Kingstown, and another in Lowmans Bay, west of the capital, where another diesel power plant is also located.

The state-owned company has invested one million dollars in the panels, but the impact on the size of consumer’s electricity bill is expected to be negligible — a few cents annually.

All of the solar panels installed across the country, however, are expected to reduce by 800 tonnes annually the amount of greenhouse gases that St. Vincent and the Grenadines emits into the atmosphere.

“Now, 800 tonnes is not a significant number in global terms, but what it points to is that we are making our contribution as a small island developing state, and it is in that context of the geothermal that this visit arises,” Prime Minister Gonsalves says.

Greenhouse gases are a primary driver of climate change, which has resulted in several — sometimes unseasonal — severe weather events in St. Vincent and the Grenadines over the past few years.

These include a trough system on Christmas Eve 2013 that claimed 12 lives, and left loss and damages of 122 million dollars, or 17 per cent of the gross domestic product, according to government estimates.

Furniture manufacturer Dyer lost 445,000 dollars as a result of that trough system and had to borrow “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from commercial banks to restart his business some months later.

“It destroyed the factory,” he told IPS. “The water came through the factory — created a river in on section of the factory. It washed out everything on one side and deposited about 50 truckloads of stone, sand, and debris in the factory.

“It left the machines under about two feet of mud and silt,” he said. “It was crippling.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at Kentonxtchance@gmail.com

Women ‘Sewing’ a Bright Future in Northern Pakistan

Afghan widows and orphans in Pakistan have few livelihood options, but a women’s charity is teaching them basic embroidery and sewing to help them start home-based businesses. Credit: Najibullah Musafer/Killid

Afghan widows and orphans in Pakistan have few livelihood options, but a women’s charity is teaching them basic embroidery and sewing to help them start home-based businesses. Credit: Najibullah Musafer/Killid

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jan 12 2015 (IPS)

At 46, Naseema Nashad is starting her life over, not out of choice but out of necessity. The Afghan woman was just 25 years old when Taliban militants stormed Kabul and her family was forced to flee to neighbouring Pakistan to escape what they knew would be a brutal regime.

“My father stayed back to run his small business there and he would send us money on a monthly basis,” she told IPS. “We used it to feed our seven-member family, and pay rent on our house in Peshawar [capital of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkwa province].”

“The worst victims of the three-decade-long conflict are women, who have lost their fathers, husbands and male family members [and] are finding it hard to earn a living.” — Ahmed Rasool, professor of international relations at Kabul University
But in 1999, “for no reason” she says, the Taliban killed Nashad’s father. Since then, it has been a daily struggle for the family to survive. Aged 12, 14 and 15, her three brothers quickly found work in local hotels, though they were paid paltry salaries for their labour.

Nashad, on the other hand, could never land anything but odd jobs, which barely gave her enough to survive. What she needed was something fulltime, ideally work she could do from home, that would bring her a regular income.

It was a pipe dream at first, but thanks to the efforts of a vocational centre established by the Afghan Women Organisation, an NGO based in this border city, she is close to making it a reality.

“Now, I have learnt stitching and embroidery and will open a home-based shop very soon. Some of the women who have previously been trained at the centre are helping me,” she added.

She is one of thousands of women, all from war-affected families, who have acquired embroidery and sewing skills over the past five years.

Each woman has her own unique story. Fourteen-year-old Gul Pari, for instance, migrated to Peshawar from Afghanistan seven years ago. As a daily wage-labourer, her father could scarcely make ends meet. There was little choice but for his young daughters to go out in search of work.

Today, Gul and her younger sister Jamila are the owners of a small home-based business, where they take on clients who need garments stitched or altered. They still in a simple mud hut, but at least they now make enough money to comfortably feed the entire family.

Safoora Stanikzai, who heads the Afghan Women Organisation, says she has imparted skills to about 4,000 women since establishing the centre in 2010.

“A majority of the trained women were either widows or orphaned children who had lost their male family members in Afghanistan and were facing severe economic problems here,” Stanikzai tells IPS.

The organisation lacks space and sufficient resources but soldiers on with the little it has. After the women complete their training, they even receive a sewing machine from the centre to facilitate home-based enterprises.

Stanikzai also recruits women found begging on the streets and in marketplaces, and offers them the chance to start their lives afresh – a rare opportunity in this war-torn region, where civilians are often caught between militants and the military, and a massive number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) jostle for space with a resident population already battling a scarcity of homes, jobs and food.

Female Afghan refugees face double-dependency

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, Pakistan is home to 1.6 million ‘legal’ Afghan residents, while an estimated two to three million undocumented refugees are also believed to have crossed the 2,700-km-long border since the 1979 Soviet invasion.

Passing easily through various unguarded or unchecked entry points in the mountains that form a rocky border between the two nations, Afghans fleeing the war were once welcomed by their brethren in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and what was formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, now called KP.

But when the U.S.-invasion of Afghanistan pushed former Taliban militants into the mountains, leading to a rise in armed groups operating with impunity in the tribal belt, the hand of friendship was snatched away and many Afghans now live on the margins, blamed for the rise in militancy and soaring crime in Pakistan’s northern regions.

According to Ahmed Rasool, a professor of international relations at Kabul University, poverty-stricken Afghan refugees have no choice but to remain in Pakistan since they have little to no economic opportunity back home.

“The worst victims of the three-decade-long conflict are women, who have lost their fathers, husbands and male family members [and] are finding it hard to earn a living,” he told IPS.

Some of these widows and orphans are new arrivals, joining the wave that fled Afghanistan in 2001. Others have lived here much longer, and consider Pakistan their home.

But aid that was once was abundant has dwindled. International NGOs and aid agencies followed closely on the heels of departing foreign troops, leaving Afghan refugees in the lurch.

Barely able to meet the needs of its own impoverished population in the north, the Pakistan government has offered little assistance to visitors who are now being told they have outstayed their welcome.

So initiatives like Stanikzai’s vocational centre represent a welcome oasis in an increasingly hostile desert.

Some Afghan women earn as much as 150 dollars per month by altering or stitching women’s garments. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Some Afghan women earn as much as 150 dollars per month by altering or stitching women’s garments. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Women like 49-year-old Shamin Ara, who received training at the centre five years ago, is just one of the organisation’s many success stories.

She arrived in Pakistan in 1992, and lost her father to tuberculosis six years ago. His death left the family no choice but to seek alms from their rich relatives, she tells IPS.

Now she earns about 150 dollars a month by practicing the skills she learned at the centre. It is a decent wage in a country where the average annual income is 1,250 dollars.

She says she has not yet been able to find a husband, since she still lives in abject poverty. But at least now she can feed her four siblings, and harbours dreams of expanding her business further.

Already she has helped five other Afghan women set up their own shops, and hopes to do more for those like herself, who just need a helping hand.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida