Sep 12, 2016

Opportunities and Challenges for Solar in the Dominican Republic

My only solar photo is of a rusty solar water 
heater. Brilliant.
I was in the Dominican Republic for a lovely, September 4 wedding. Of course, my main focus was the wedding but I was also able to incorporate solar. I had a number of questions in mind: Where is the existing solar? Where could solar be plugged in that it's not? Where is electricity lacking? Where is the demand! I'm glad to report that I found some answers.

Solar
I visited a bunch of the island including the cities of Puerto Plata, Sosua, Santo Domingo, La Romana, Punta Cana, and Bavaro. The most solar I saw was in Santiago. There were a number of covered parking areas and commercial spaces covered with solar panels. I didn't get any photos of the photo-voltaic systems so you're going to have to trust me on their existence. To the right, there's a photo of one of the solar water heaters. 

My trip across the DR--plenty of opportunity for solar spotting. A special 
thanks to Marien Perez, who drove me from Punta Cana to Santiago
I traveled back and forth from Santiago to Punta Cana and back to Sosua (left). To give you an idea, it was 250 miles from Punta Cana to Sosua alone. In the rural areas between cities, I noticed a lot of single solar panel installations (probably powering the lights in homes). However, I was disappointed that I didn't see any large-scale solar farms along the highway. My friends tell me that there is a big solar installation in Monte Plata--the biggest in the Caribbean. Next time.

I imagine in the years to come, the Dominican Republic will be going a lot more solar. They've got a lot of space and a shortage of energy as I will discuss below.

Energy Efficiency
It seemed that every building I entered was equipped with Compact Fluorescent Light-bulbs (CFLs). One example was the Alta Gracia Free Trade Zone I visited. They make tee-shirts and sweatshirts for American universities. In addition to good salaries, employees enjoy a work environment illuminated by CFLs. Although it costs more up front, a CFL can last 5 to 10 times your average incandescent light-bulb and it uses about 75 percent less energy than a traditional light bulb (EarthFriends). That's pretty good motivation for Dominicans looking to save money on electricity.
CFLs illuminate the Alta Gracia Free Trade Zone

In addition to CFLs, most of the places I stayed relied on ceiling fans instead of air conditioning. It's not as comfortable as AC, especially if you're in 90 degree heat, but it's very doable. Fans can moderate room temperatures for a fraction of the cost of AC. In fact, a ceiling fan isn't much more in cost than a 60 watt incandescent light-bulb. To give you a sense of the commitment to fans, as I was leaving the country, the main hall of the Puerto Plata Airport was ventilated by a 14 foot diameter Big Ass Fan

Energy efficiency is a big deal in the Dominican Republic because energy isn't cheap and isn't always available. During my stay, I learned that in many areas, electricity is cut regularly during the days. The fancier buildings can afford diesel generators to fill the electricity gaps--but these are noisy, smelly, and expensive.

A rural house in Constanza, DR with corrugated tin roof. Photo credit: 
my Airbnb  host in Santiago, Ryan Bowen
My Recommendations
If you're looking to install solar in the Dominican Republic, I'd recommend a few things. 

First, make sure your panels can be installed on corrugated tin roofs. Many of the rural residences are made of this material. Be sure about how much weight it can bare and what it will take to secure the panels from blowing away in a strong wind. 

Second, consider approaching the many resorts. The Dominican Republic has an enormous tourism industry. Each one of these resorts draws a huge amount of energy and if you play it right, you could be a big energy provider. One way in particular would be golf cart charging stations. Golf carts are by far the most popular way to get around and a covered charging station could provide shade, reliable electricity, and eco-tourism.

Third, if you can produce a solar-powered water purification unit that is affordable and easy to use, you could dominate the market. No one--not even the locals--drinks the tap water. Think of how much that adds up to in bottled water...people would be willing to pay good money for an alternative. One group I would recommend collaborating with is Litro de Luz. My Airbnb host in Santiago works with them and I'd be happy to put you in touch. 

Fourth, empty lots. There were a lot of empty lots in the cities if you could figure out a deal with the cities and utility company to use this land for a commercial solar farm, you could sell electricity back to the grid or to neighboring businesses and residences. Of the four options, this would probably be the most bureaucratic.
In conclusion, the Dominican was an eye-opening experience and I got to see a lot of different sides to the society. I'm excited to plug in this experience to my upcoming voyage to Cuba with Vittoria Energy Expedition.