As all CARICOM Member States and Associate States now have confirmed COVID-19 cases and, as predictions indicate that cases will continue to rise globally, humanity’s vulnerability and that of the systems we utilise, are again being highlighted. When we think of resilience in the Caribbean Community, we tend to think of the natural hazards we often face: tropical storms and hurricanes, earthquakes and threats of volcanic eruptions; indeed, the Caribbean is often referred to as the second most disaster-prone area, in the world. But no one in this generation has faced vulnerability and risk in the way we are currently, with a health pandemic of this order and magnitude. This time, we are not able to rely on the knowledge of our elders who often mention Hurricanes Janet and Gilbert as life changing experiences. This experience is entirely different, though it may be exasperated by the swift approaching hurricane season.
Many Caribbean borders have closed to visitors, and in some cases even nationals have been refused re-entry. COVID-19 is a grave concern for Caribbean governments and citizens, with rightful cause. Supply and logistics chains have so far been minimally affected by the pandemic (with the exception of some medical equipment being confiscated), and regional borders remain open to trade. Can we envision a region where trade is significantly compromised? This is not far-fetched, as we cannot assume that trade will remain unaffected if international restrictions persist. The impacts of trade constraints on our region, so highly dependent on imported food, fuel and supplies, would be disastrous. CARICOM countries who can produce food and energy to supply the needs of its people, should do so now.
Trade matters aside, COVID-19 presents a very real concern for the Caribbean’s energy sector. This becomes crucial when we consider that energy demands have changed with the advent of the crisis and, they will continue to change in unpredictable and unprecedented ways. Currently, commercial and industrial energy use are reduced as many businesses are closed or have reduced operations but, use at the household level has increased due to government mandates to stay at home. Utilities will therefore have to adapt to these changes since the amount of energy being consumed and the pattern of its consumption have changed considerably. If energy generation capabilities exceed the demand, utilities may also consider running the powerplant at a reduced capacity, with possible negative financial implications and impacts on the quality of service provided. Importantly, as energy intersects with health, the ability to reliably power essential medical equipment – like ventilators – becomes critical.
Significant shifts in oil prices have also been predicted and are already emerging. Globally, there has been a steep decline in oil prices, due to decreased demand. These dynamics do not augur well for our Member States who have recently found large deposits of oil. Conversely, an increase in prices is expected when the crisis recedes and commerce and industry are able to function in earnest again. In anticipation of this, the Caribbean Community needs to be prepared and use this time to ramp-up renewable energy and energy efficiency capacity, where possible. The timing is right, as most CARICOM Member States desire an energy transition to achieve energy security.
Householders can also prepare by reducing consumption now, as much as they are able. Pay attention to your electricity bill, track your usage and unplug appliances and devices when they aren’t in use. Amidst the hundreds of thousands who are now unemployed due to COVID-19, a spike in household electricity bills and other energy-related costs to be met by the most vulnerable can have an untold impact. Though high unemployment rates have incredible impacts on economies, businesses and households, these unemployed individuals do now have the option of learning new skills, to place them at an increased advantage when the crisis has passed.
In 2008 when oil prices rose above US140 per barrel, the region’s thrust toward renewable energy peaked. Subsequently, our renewable energy targets became very ambitious. Let us not wait until our backs are against the wall again, to see the necessity of energy resilience and self-sufficiency. We need to implement energy efficiency and renewable energy measures now throughout our operations, particularly in high-energy use sectors such as tourism. Tourism industries can benefit from sustainable operations as they seek to rebuild the tourism product during this period of inactivity.
Renewable energy and energy efficiency can provide tremendous benefits to Caribbean territories by minimizing costs and improving our environment. We can accomplish this and more with the long-term view of transforming the energy sector, for the benefit of Caribbean people. We can appreciate, it is not business as usual.
Dr Gary Jackson is the Executive Director of the Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, a CARICOM institution.