Tuesday, December 13, 2016

In this season of lights, let us consider the humble street light. It may lack the sparkle of a holiday display or the pizzazz of a neon sign, but the street light can play a big role in a country’s energy picture.

In fact, in some island states of the Caribbean street lighting accounts for the largest single source of public energy expenditures, said Sylvester Clauzel, Permanent Secretary of Saint Lucia’s Department of Sustainable Development, speaking at a recent ECPA meeting in Miami.

That’s the main reason Saint Lucia plans to retrofit every street light on the island to use energy-efficient LED lighting—a two-year process expected to begin early next year. The move promises to yield huge cost savings and dramatically cut energy consumption.

Saint Lucia, like many islands in the English-speaking Caribbean, has a first-rate public lighting system—not only in the capital, Castries, but in cities and towns across the country and along the roadways that connect them. Virtually everyone has access to electricity, and people expect their streets to be properly lit, Clauzel said in an interview.

“Parliamentarians are always asking for more lights for their communities,” he said. The more than 21,000 lights along the country’s streets and highways add up to a big public expense—about (US)$4 million per year, according to Clauzel.

Understandably, the government has been interested in bringing those costs down, and one logical step was to replace those energy-guzzling high-pressure sodium-vapor lamps with newer LED technology (the acronym stands for light-emitting diodes). That wasn’t a feasible undertaking for the local electric utility, because making back such an investment would take far too long, Clauzel said—especially since the resulting decrease in consumption would reduce its revenue stream.

Under the circumstances, he said, it made sense for the government to make the investment. (The utility that supplies the island’s electricity, St. Lucia Electricity Services Limited, or LUCELEC, has majority private ownership, though the government is a minority shareholder.)

A pilot project was implemented in two towns, to test lights and identify which models and intensities would work best for which areas. It was also important to select lighting options that could be upgraded with new technological advancements down the road, Clauzel said.

For a small country with large energy bills, the potential for cost savings was the main appeal for doing the conversion, though this project also allows Saint Lucia to “set an example” on climate issues, Clauzel said. The government has a goal of reducing public consumption of electricity by 20 percent by 2020, he said, adding that the LED project “is going to make a major contribution toward that target.”

Saint Lucia secured a “highly concessionary,” US$10.6 million loan from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) to replace the country’s street lights. The government has a decade to pay back the loan, though the savings generated will allow it to recoup its investment much sooner.

In announcing the loan earlier this year, CDB Director of Projects Daniel Best said this made Saint Lucia the first of the bank’s borrowing countries “to replace its entire network of street lamps to a more energy-efficient alternative in a relatively short space of time.” The CDB release said the loan would enable the government to reduce its street lighting bill by 58 percent, freeing up funds for national development initiatives; reduce oil imports; and avoid additional spending on electricity generation to meet growing consumer demands.

A loan has also been approved for Antigua and Barbuda to install LED street lights, and similar projects are in the works in several other countries, according to CDB Sustainable Energy Adviser Joseph Williams. “The savings potential is significant, so once the case is made to the countries they generally sign on to it,” he said in an interview.

The CDB, he said, can offer below-market interest rates for such projects by blending its own resources with lower-cost funds available through such programs as the European Investment Bank’s Climate Action Line of Credit, which offers an interest rate subsidy for up to half the project’s cost. Other grant resources are available to Eastern Caribbean countries through the European Union or the United Kingdom.

The loans are typically offered over 10-year terms with a one-year grace period, and depending on the type of lights the LEDs are replacing, the investment can usually be recovered in three to four years, Williams said. Although these types of projects often generate some industry resistance because they can be “disruptive” to existing providers and suppliers, they provide a clear public benefit, Williams said.

“It can never be a good thing to be inefficient,” he added.