Expanding Access to Electricity in Belize

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Belize is on a “fast pace” to produce more electric power from renewable sources, as part of a strategy to bolster its energy independence and ensure that everyone in the country has access to electricity. The head of the country’s Ministry of Public Service, Energy and Public Utilities, Frank Mena, sat down for an interview with the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) and talked about a recent pilot project that has brought off-grid solar power to a farming village called La Gracia.

Located in the Cayo District in western Belize, La Gracia is an agricultural community that produces vegetables sold around the country. The more than 200 residents, many of whom are originally from El Salvador, live about seven miles past the reach of the nearest power lines.

Goal No. 7 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals calls for countries to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” With this in mind, the government has undertaken a rural electrification effort that will eventually take solar power to some 30 villages around the country that still lack easy access to electricity.

Minister Mena inaugurated the first smart solar off-grid facility in La Gracia in May of this year. Data collected from the pilot project in the coming months will help determine what adjustments need to be made to expand the effort, he said.

“We have a plan to ensure that all the Sustainable Development Goals are accomplished in a timely manner,” Mena explained in an interview in September, during the meeting of energy ministers in Viña del Mar, Chile.

Before the solar facility was built, residents of La Gracia had only sporadic electricity produced by small generators or even car batteries. Although the 25-kilowatt solar facility is designed to meet only basic needs for now—the modular, expandable hybrid system includes 96 solar photovoltaic panels and a backup generator that runs on liquid petroleum gas (LPG)—having a steady supply of electricity is already changing people’s everyday lives.

In a video produced by the Energy Unit of the Ministry of Public Service, Energy and Public Utilities, the owner of a small village grocery store said her solar bill is about one quarter of what she used to pay for gasoline to run the store’s generator. The principal of the village school said that with the new lighting, a rainstorm no longer interrupts learning; before, when classroom windows had to be closed against the rain, it was too dark to continue lessons. Another resident, Elvira Duarte, said her four children are happier now because they no longer have to go to bed as early and can stay up watching videos.

Speaking to residents of La Gracia at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Minister Mena said the solar energy they could now harness would be “a springboard—a springboard for agriculture, a springboard for education, for health, and of course for prosperity.”

In addition to the pilot solar project, the government is taking other steps to expand access to electricity. For example, it has installed solar lights in many community parks and recreational areas such as basketball courts, which before had either poor lighting or no lighting other than nearby street lamps. “These are some comparatively small efforts, but they’re having their effect,” Mena said in the interview with ECPA.

The Big Picture

Belize currently generates close to 60 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, with hydroelectric power leading the way (about 38 percent in 2016) and biomass coming in second (19 percent). Sugar is one of the country’s main exports, and the industry is a large consumer of electricity. Two sugar companies generate their own power from bagasse—the dry pulp left after juice is extracted from sugarcane—and sell any excess to the grid.

Solar power accounts for a “minute” amount of the electricity generated in Belize, according to Mena, although he said the government is negotiating power purchase agreements with private companies for a solar project with two locations, as well as two additional hydropower projects. The goal is for the country to generate 80 percent of its electricity from renewables in five years, cutting the use of fossil fuels and reducing dependence on imports.

More than 35 percent of the country’s electricity comes through power lines that cross into northern Belize from the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. As important as it is for Belize to be able to buy electricity from Mexico, it needs to expand its own sources too, Minister Mena said.

“Energy security is important. You can’t consider yourself a secure nation if a large chunk of energy is dependent on being supplied by another country,” he said.

Belize is also getting support from the World Bank to increase the resilience of its electric grid, through the Energy Resilience Climate Adaptation Project.

The country has also implemented a range of measures to improve energy efficiency. For example, it has developed energy-efficiency standards and labeling, conducted energy audits of public buildings, and carried out visits to low-income households to educate people about energy use and identify opportunities to improve efficiency. It is also gradually replacing conventional street lighting with LED lighting in cities.

The government has also promoted an approach in which an energy service company, or ESCO, takes on the up-front costs of investing in renewable energy or energy efficiency in exchange for a portion of the long-term savings.

“We’re trying to gear it toward the commercial and industrial sectors,” said acting Energy Director Ryan Cobb, who explained that office buildings, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses might be able to realize considerable savings but be unwilling or unable to undertake the initial investment.

Belize is partnering with the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, which is based in the Belizean capital of Belmopan, to test the use of ESCOs for these purposes, under a regional project called “Energy for Sustainable Development in Caribbean Buildings.” Belize’s Development Finance Corporation has recently established a “green fund” to provide preferential loan rates for investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy, Cobb said.

Belize’s expertise in several areas—including the ESCO model, the resilience project, and its efforts on standards and labeling—was mentioned during one of the side events at the ministerial meeting in Chile.

In the interview, Minister Frank Mena said that he was also benefiting from other countries’ expertise. For example, he said, Belize still does not have an Energy Act that would provide a broad legislative framework on energy-related issues beyond the country’s Electricity Act. At the ministerial meeting, he was finding organizations and experts who could help make that happen. “It’s dangerous to operate in isolation,” he said.