Taking Charge of Sustainability: Paul Lewis reimagines the bright future of Montserrat
Widely known across the island as a “servant of the people”, Hon. Paul Lewis’ distinguished reputation in the energy sector has won the hearts of a number of Montserratians at the community level as the President of the Civil Service Association, as well as earned him the respect of his political challengers as the astute Opposition Leader in Montserrat’s current Government. A former Minister of Energy, he has dedicated his career expertise to finding a balance in the Electrical Installation Industry, while advancing the sustainable energy agenda and developing renewable energy policies in his homeland. His professional achievements are a testament to his perseverance in providing world-class engineering solutions to unique Caribbean challenges, with a vision that is data-driven, community-based and wholly transformative towards the goal of policy-driven, actionable sustainable living for all.
With just under 6,000 residents on the island, the mountainous British territory of Montserrat is known for its beautiful coral reefs, shoreline caves, rugged cliffs and picturesque black-sand beaches littered in the northern area of the island. Although this country that isn’t exactly on the average traveler’s adventure radar, Montserrat has undoubtedly captured the hearts of many – having attracted some of the biggest musicians in the industry to record hits that have changed the world, including Sir Paul McCartney of The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Sir Elton John and Sting, just to name a few.
Neatly situated in the Lesser Antilles chain, Montserrat is also known for the volcanic Soufrière Hills – the eruption of which caused a mass evacuation of the capital city, Plymouth, which became uninhabitable in 1997. “Because we lost the town, we had to relocate the business facilities to the northern side of the island. We were using houses to operate and function as businesses and we had to replace our government,” Hon. Lewis explained. The sudden environmental changes brought on by the devastation of the volcano required adaptation and innovation that Lewis, a Senior Electrical Inspector within the Government of Montserrat at the time, was prepared to defend on behalf of his fellow citizens.
A graduate of the University of Technology (UTech) in Jamaica with over 20 years’ experience in civil service and electrical engineering, Lewis recalls a particular situation that found him in a face-off with government officials and a British private company, which inadvertently helped to shape the trajectory of his sustainable energy life’s work. During a routine inspection of building codes on a particular facility, he found the structure to possess woefully inadequate electrical configurations for offices. The company insisted that they would not adhere Lewis’ sound professional recommendations, while the government at the time applied pressure for him approve the building requests – despite the glaring inefficiencies in the company’s proposed plans. He refused, citing it as a betrayal of public trust. “From that point, I realized that it was important that we had laws of substance that represent good governance when it comes to electrical installation in Montserrat,” concluded Lewis. He subsequently began his political career from there: after conversations with the outgoing leadership and support from the general public, Lewis also served as President of the Caribbean Public Service Association; as President of the Montserrat Civil Service Association; as a Director on the Board of the Montserrat Utilities Ltd., Montserrat Social Security, Labour Advisory Boards as well as chaired the Accident Investigation Board. No stranger to marching to the beat of his own drum, these career-defining experiences would eventually give birth to his political career, helping to form the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) in 2014.
Meanwhile, there was a growing challenge in Montserrat that required immediate attention, as it pertained to making the transition to sustainable living. “In Montserrat, sustainable living is an interesting concept, because a large part of it is based on our energy capacity from our local resources,” he said. The heavy reliance on traditional fossil resources has consequences on socio-economic development, including the creation of jobs, purchasing of vehicles and families having the ability to feed themselves. With that in mind, taking a closer look at renewable energy and electric mobility became a pursuit of necessity for Lewis, to offer options that were economically sustainable and socially responsible.
After attending a CARICOM Energy Forum in Barbados in 2014 and listening to a resounding presentation by the Energy Unit’s Program Manager, Dr. Devon Gardner, Lewis recognized the importance and benefits of transitioning to renewable energy systems and optimizing energy efficiency. With Gardner’s support – who he describes as “a God-send” – Lewis understood that the identification of common policies and strategies for transforming the energy sector within Montserrat required addressing current insufficiencies and overdependence on the more traditional, mainstream fossil options.
In one of his proudest acts as Minister for Communications, Works, Energy & Labour, Hon. Lewis established a National Energy Policy, which placed Montserrat in a position to receive much-needed funding of €18Million from the European Union to sustain their efforts. “That accomplishment in itself – being able to get the strategy to a standard acceptable to the EU for collaborative works – was a defining moment,” said Lewis. “I felt so proud as a Minister, knowing that our team and our country had a symbiotic vision that was shared by the CARICOM Energy Unit and to have that alignment to aim for the projects that we had in mind.”
Building on that momentum in 2017, Hon. Paul Lewis moved swiftly to introduce a number of projects that incorporated elements of solar, geothermal and wind properties – including the implementation of the clean, green Renewable energy onto the national grid; the first 250 roof-mounted solar panels operating at 250kw. “There was a setback with installing panels with greater range because of challenges with the airport, but studies are being done to resolve and relocate to another side,” he clarified. With a clear plan to expand on the concept of the solar component which speaks indubitably to the ambitious vision of the 100% renewable penetration on the geothermal grid, the plan for expansion of this scaled solar project also included the completion the 1MW plant with batteries, which allows for renewable energy to produce 40% of the power peak demand. Diminishing this burden onto consumers remains a top priority for Lewis, who was quick to note that 45% of imported fuel is exhausted on electricity generation – which previously tallied to a whopping EC$8.4 Million annually. “The battery has the capability to operate independently of the main grid – which means that if there’s any unforeseen situation which may cause the power station to go down and interrupt the supply of current, what is now possible is that you can have a backup source. That means a reliable power supply for the hospitals, disaster management units and other essential services for 20 hours,” he justified.
The collaborative approach to this initiative extended to community outreach programs – operating like a harmonious choir that welcomed the involvement of other key public and private sector stakeholders to carry out various feasibility assessments to better understand the metrics of sustainable living. “We didn’t just put it on the grid, we wanted to build the resilience aspect of the initiative, which represents 14% of the annual consumption and demand,” Lewis rationalized. Other phases of this national sustainability energy drive included the retrofitting of LED streetlights; installation of solar streetlights; usage of LED lights and energy efficient appliances in commercial and domestic buildings and the popular electric and hybrid car pilot programme. “For the vehicles, we made them duty-free, removed the consumption tax, and persons actually went and purchased after the incentives were made official,” he said – signaling a key marker of success for the energy efficiency drive that was made easy and accessible for consumers. Taking the community involvement one step further, the administration also introduced solar exchange knowledge training workshops for electricians and students, quickly followed by mechanics, students and first responders.
For Mr. Lewis, renewable energy, energy efficiency and electric mobility are simply various instruments working together to play the same tune: highlighting an inextricable link to reducing the cost of electricity for Montserratians, achieving widespread energy security across communities and contributing to a healthier environment for future generations. “I think that people realized how they can make a difference, by doing the research, utilizing the resources and going forward. Indeed, let people speak about their (sustainable energy) experience, understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and be prepared to work together as a community,” he noted. More concisely, he stands firmly in the evolving vision, strategic directives and scalability of the Energy Policy on the island to stress on the regional need to focus on the innovation and resilience of a Caribbean-wide sustainable energy economy.
This article is part of the CARICOM Energy Personality Series, an activity of CARICOM Energy Month 2020 and is produced by the CARICOM Energy Unit, the Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (CCREEE), and the European Union (EU) and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ) funded, Technical Assistance Programme for Sustainable Energy in the Caribbean (TAPSEC). The series aims to give recognition to regional energy champions who have made exceptional contributions in the areas of renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy access, resilience, and rural electrification throughout the Caribbean Community.