Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sun energy in Tobago, part 2

The sun is on for everyone, in Tobago. A small village, like Charlotteville, could take advantage of solar energy. Photo Pat Ganase
“The only true and sustainable prosperity is shared prosperity.”
― Joseph E. Stiglitz, 2001 Nobel Prize for Economics

Climate change is real. The challenge for all the nations of the world is to keep the rise in average global temperatures under 2 degrees Celsius (1.5 degrees is the acceptable limit). The means by which we achieve the global target includes a menu of strategies and measures, including reduction in plastic waste and its removal from the oceans, reducing and removing atmospheric carbon, limiting fossil fuel use and finding sustainable renewable sources of energy. Scientists acknowledge that no one measure is going to be the magic solution to the warming world. We must all do what we can, and do it urgently.  This week, Ruben Smith of SM Solar, continues his discussion about how the villages of tiny Tobago could set solar power in motion, by asserting their characteristic solidarity and co-operative approaches. This is the second part of the feature, first published on May 25 in the Tobago Newsday.

Scientists around the world agree that renewable energy sources can result in a cleaner world. “The International Solar Energy Society (ISES) envisions a world with 100% renewable energy for everyone used wisely and efficiently.” ISES has been in existence since 1954. Solar Energy International (SEI) was established in 1991 to educate and empower technicians in the development and installation of renewable energy sources. The University of Trinidad and Tobago with the support of the SEI and the ISES regional contact is currently developing courses for the general public in photovoltaic installation with the participation of the several government agencies. It remains for the energy (fossil fuel) sector and associations in our country to expand the definitions of their businesses.

This week, we look at the practical steps to solar installations in a cohesive residential development, or co-operative (a mall even) in Tobago.

Let us look at how a small Tobago village, say a Castara or a Charlotteville or even a Cove Estate, would migrate to using solar power. One of the keys to optimum benefit is the co-operative. And villages that have a strong and effective community collective are the most likely to succeed. Some of the new residential developments, industrial estates and  mall complexes are also good prospects for solar power.

An existing cooperative such as the Castara Tourism Development Association or Charlotteville Estates would need to ensure that they have a membership structure that allows them to negotiate and secure financial arrangements on behalf of members; in this case, with TTEC and financial institutions such as banks, mortgage or lending agencies.

The relationship with TTEC is simple, based on pre-existing conditions. We are fortunate indeed in the distribution system that has been installed over most of the country; and which will facilitate the next step towards the use of renewable energy. The co-operative would need to have their designs approved by TTEC. Although most TTEC meters are bi-directional, T&T does not have a net metering system which means that power from the household or building will either stop the process of metering or turn the meter in the opposite direction. There are conditions that TTEC would require: among them, breakers or switches that, if needed, would separate the grid from the smaller system (island it off).

The next step might be financing of the system from traditional sources such as banks, mortgage companies, credit unions; or non-traditional sources, say a green fund or small grant provider. At this time, the financial industry needs to be educated and open to the possibility of new business. A solar system is a fixed asset. It may be considered a home improvement project, but it is in effect a long-term investment. Most solar panels have 25-year warranties; so you are looking at plans that may be structured along the lines of a mortgage.  It would be interesting to see which local bank is first to take up the challenge to finance solar systems.

Improvements in technology for solar panels and the “balance of system” (kiosks, circuitry and storage batteries) have resulted in sturdier smaller storage systems; automated to respond to fluctuations or intermittencies in sunlight. They can be monitored and controlled remotely and wirelessly, from your phone or computer. When such a system is installed, members of the community are educated to maintain the parts that are at their homes. All members achieve a level of knowledge and skill.

Servicing the loan, maintenance and operation of a solar system are jobs that belong within the community/ co-operative. The system can be expanded to new houses or buildings for new members of the village. The co-op can sell electricity and find ways to ensure the sustainability and expandability of the system. Of course, individual householders can choose to install solar systems for their own use. However, the advantages of a co-operative approach are many and self-evident: collecting the sunlight, sharing the risk and responsibility and lower upfront cost to the users.

Advances in solar systems are happening so quickly now that it is estimated that by 2018, the tariff  of electricity generated from this would be close to TTEC’s current domestic rate. Saule Technology in Poland is currently working on a technology that offers solar foil that can be applied like contact film, ultra-thin, flexible, efficient, and will adhere to almost any surface. The advantages are obvious for old or existing structures.

The Eco-Industrial Development Company of Tobago (E-IDCOT) at Cove Estate could easily aim to generate 50% of its energy needs from the sun over the next two years, thereby reducing the need and cost for electricity from natural gas.

The sun is on! It is on for everyone, and for a long time.

Ruben Smith: renewable energy to tackle climate change and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

is a principal of SM Solar, a business established to specify, install and manage solar systems in Trinidad and Tobago. SM Solar is the regional contact for the International Solar Energy Society (ISES). It is the Coordinating Management Entity (CME) for the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) Program of Activities for the Caribbean and Central America. Mr. Smith’s areas of research are in the development of Financial Platforms and Stochastic Models to improve levels of Photovoltaic (PV) Availability, Grid Penetration and Integration.

SM Solar is currently conducting the assessment and installation of a solar array for the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago at Nelson Island.

Mr. Smith and his team are credited with the development of many renewable energy models, including the Grid Tied Government Assisted Model, Paradigm Shift Moving from Current forms of Electricity Generation to Distributed Generation using a Utility Assisted Structure.

Mr. Smith holds a Bachelor’s in Industrial Engineering from the University of Miami (1985), specializing in Management Science and Modeling. His graduate studies include an M.Sc. in Finance, Project Management and a Post MBA.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

The sun is always on: climate change brings opportunity


Climate change seems too big a problem for “me one” to take on. Isn’t this something the government is supposed to deal with? Something that the big countries like China and India must tackle? Ruben Smith says that climate change is all of the above. But he argues that small communities must be alert to the opportunities. He is hoping that the newly appointed members of the Tobago House of Assembly will meet the challenges for that island. This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on May 18, 2017

Opportunities for changes come with climate change: the sun is always on as a source of energy! Photo Pat Ganase
What does climate change mean? In very simple terms, global warming results from the release of greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide and monoxide, sulphur oxides, and other gases – creates a greenhouse effect, trapping heat in the atmosphere. At the same time, the growing population of the earth, our demand for energy and exploitation of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas); our demand for food which has depleted the ocean’s larger fish species and converted forests to fields; has reduced the earth’s ability to store carbon. The result has been rising (net) atmospheric temperatures, which will cause the polar ice caps to melt, raise sea levels and alter climate patterns. If the trend is not halted or reversed, coastlines of the continents will be submerged, small islands will disappear.

We should all be concerned because the changing climate will affect everybody.

In terms of vulnerability to the effects of climate change, Trinidad and Tobago’s
exposure to possible impacts has been well documented. As a Small Island Developing State (SIDS), the country is vulnerable to temperature increases, changes in precipitation and sea level rise. Other vulnerabilities include increased flooding, increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes, hillside erosion and loss
of coastal habitats. In fact, even though Trinidad and Tobago is not in the main Atlantic hurricane belt, one of the new natural hazards scenarios considered for the country is the increased potential to be hit by tropical storms.” – *Executive summary from the intended National Determined Contribution under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).

At the village or community level, it will affect our ability to grow crops and to find food. You may observe your trees fruiting in different months. Farmers may find it difficult, or easier, to grow crops. Fishermen may have to go further to find fish. Dry seasons are shorter or more pronounced; rainfall less predictable and intense torrential showers concentrated over an area more prevalent.

The personal reality may not be indicative of the big picture. While Trinidad and Tobago has substantial resources and a GDP higher than most of the Caribbean, over the last 20 years the disparity in income levels of the population has widened. The Gini Coefficient – which measures the relative differences between the wealthier and poorer sectors of the population – indicates that even with better education and nutrition opportunities, income levels over the majority of the population may be deteriorating. The advantage presented by our oil and gas wealth may be slipping away if we are not able to seize new opportunities for change.

We admire those nations that have banned plastics, have better air quality, have started industries based on recycling or – because they were not blessed with fossil fuel resources – have promoted new technology and alternate forms, solar, wind, water and waste. If you are building a new house, you can now install a solar roof. In truth, the development of a strong renewable energy market may depend on disposable income, a challenge for individuals in recessionary times.

One alternate plan would be for the State to use its power generation facility to incentivize the renewable market. While the State controls the energy resource and distribution of electricity, it is reasonable therefore to use TTEC as the engine for change: to introduce solar equipment for households, perhaps providing the equipment at a rental rate that is on par with electricity consumption. It may not be a net revenue-generating venture, but an opportunity to introduce photovoltaic generation – with surpluses going back into the grid – towards savings on natural gas (and opportunity to deploy elsewhere). It is estimated that the technology is now so advanced that the investment might be recovered in three to four years.

Trinidad and Tobago currently produces about 52 million tonnes of carbon per year: power generation, transportation, the manufacturing sector and homes account for less than half that output. The large proportion of the country’s carbon footprint is produced by the downstream energy industries. If we have the political will we can curb greenhouse gases, principally in the energy sector: by means of an Enhanced Revolving Fund where the polluter pays in an eminently sensible tax system and proceeds go to finance Distributed Energy Resources. If we were able to bring solar energy use to 10 or 15 percent of our generating capacity in five years, the saving would translate into billions US$ per year.

The National Determined Contribution under the UNFCC seems to fall far short of what is both possible and beneficial: and also seems to omit the huge contribution that might be expected from the downstream sector, which produces more than half of the country’s carbon footprint. Trinidad and Tobago’s ecological footprint is 8.8 hectares per person, more than five times the biocapacity (1.7 hectares) for the current population of the planet.

Carbon Reduction Strategies for Trinidad and Tobago have already been presented to the Government’s Energy Committee. These include, among others,
·      Carbon sequestration for enhanced oil recovery;
·      CNG as fuel for vehicles;
·      Renewable energy, from solar, wind and wave sources.
As yet, none of these have been activated. Of these opportunities, the greatest sustainable benefit comes from the introduction and support for renewable energy.

I believe that the challenge must be to maximize the penetration of renewables into all sectors; using models to find the optimal grid-tied penetration co–generation mix for the country; one which would allow different financial platforms while maximizing the resources available.
Village communities like Castara ma have what it takes to run their own solar grid. Photo Pat Ganase

For Tobago, we are talking about micro grids or nano grids that would substitute out 30 to 50% of fossil fuels over the next four years. It should take a simple model to provide electricity for say 10,000 families. What we don’t want is to set up a utility-scale project which only provides work for a small percentage of the population. Through village scale distributed energy resources, you create more permanent employment for installation and maintenance. Five or ten kilowatt systems mean that villages become self-sufficient, creating opportunities for training and employment, empowering enterprise and creativity at the ground.

What would it require? It would be timely for the divisions of the THA to run with a programme for renewable energy. There is sunshine all year round; wind and wave on every coast.

Further, a carbon tax on (downstream) industries for their carbon footprints would stimulate the economy according to Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate Economics 2001). With renewable energy, the government can monetize a higher amount of natural gas. Allow the private sector to pick up the bill for renewables. The banks can support an approach that provides credit to customers; there’s money to be made in allowing people to invest in renewable systems.

According to Stiglitz, by bringing renewable energy on stream in this way, we bridge the inequality in and across communities.  The sun is on, for everyone.

Ruben Smith is a Trinidadian engineer pioneering solar energy systems.

IGNACIO RUBEN SMITH is a principal of  SM Solar, which is the Coordinating Management Entity (CME) for the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) Program of Activities for the Caribbean and Central America. SM Solar is also the regional contact for the International Solar Energy Society. Mr. Smith’s areas of research are in the development of Financial Platforms and Stochastic Models to improve levels of Photovoltaic (PV) Availability, Grid Penetration and Integration. Mr. Smith holds a Bachelor’s in Industrial Engineering from the University of Miami (Class 1985), specializing in Management Science and Modeling. His graduate studies include an M.Sc. in Finance, Project Management and a Post MBA.
SM Solar is currently conducting the assessment and installation of a solar array for the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago at Nelson Island.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Buccoo Reef Crisis: Facts and Fiction

Is Buccoo Reef "predominantly dead" as some say?  Marine scientist Jahson Alemu presents the case to support an ecosystem that endures in spite of everything that's dumped in it. Resilient and renewable, this is the Buccoo Reef he describes. Alemu strongly advocates ecosystem-based management in order to maintain the legacy of the Buccoo Reef Marine Park. This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on May 11. 2017.

*Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) one of the pioneers of wildlife conservation in the USA, described "system" health before the word "ecosystem" was coined, but his definition and wisdom still apply: "Health refers to the capacity for self-renewal" and "conservation is the effort to understand and promote the capacity for self-renewal." As scientists, it is our role to understand the conditions necessary for self-renewal; and the role of managers/ stewards is to use science to create conditions that promote self-renewal.

To the statement that "Buccoo is predominantly dead", I would argue that Buccoo is far from dead, but it is in trouble if things continue as they are. 
"Coral reef death" is a misnomer. Coral reefs are ecosystems, and unlike living organisms cannot die. They can cease to support optimal conditions for coral growth resulting in reduced coral cover (we want reefs with high coral cover), and in some instances can shift to an alternate or undesirable state. There is no doubt in the minds of most, that coral reefs are valuable to Tobago:  a source of food, livelihood, recreation, biodiversity, shoreline protection and national identity. But subtle shifts are happening, resulting in less coral cover, facilitating less desirable alternate states such as soft coral dominated hard bottoms (called gorgonian plains) or macroalgal dominated plains. It is this algae dominated state that is often referred to as a dead reef.

An ecosystem responds to biological, chemical, geological, and physical conditions along a continuum; it changes. An organism also responds as it is exposed to different conditions, but exposure to too much or too little outside the range of adaptation (e.g., higher seawater temperatures, toxicants, substrate collapse, loss of food resources) can lead to its death, and it will no longer exist. There are parts of Buccoo where the combination of dead corals and algae dominance, have lead some to say that the reef is "predominantly dead”: in fact, it continues to exist, just not in the same stable state we recognized. This is an issue challenging reefs throughout the Caribbean.

Scientific semantics aside (but these distinctions are important if the message is to mean anything), Buccoo is far from dead. Data from as far back as the 1980s show that coral cover in the Buccoo Reef (coral cover is used as an indicator of reef condition and the effectiveness of management), is on a downward trajectory, due to impacts associated with growing populations, development of tourism markets, non-compatible activities within the coastal zone and ocean warming.

The data show that Buccoo Reef complex is relatively one of the most resilient reef systems in southwest Tobago, where self-renewal is demonstrated in spite of impacts from multiple mass coral bleaching events, disease outbreaks, frequent physical damages and a regime of declining poor water quality. Strong grazing by herbivores such as parrotfish help regulate algal growth (an indicator of poor reef condition); and ample substrate for coral recruitment and good recruitment all help to improve the resilience of the ecosystem. Additionally, the connectivity of the reefs to the nearby seagrass and mangrove areas helps to maintain the life cycle of the organisms present. The Buccoo Reef Marine Park (a no fishing zone) has encouraged the proliferation of a rich diversity of fish and other invertebrates, especially when compared to what exists outside the park.

Here we use “resilience” to mean the capacity of an ecosystem to absorb recurrent disturbances or shocks and adapt to change while retaining essentially the same function and structure (Holling 1973). Ultimately, major changes in how we interact with the marine environment are needed if we are to continue to benefit from coral reef ecosystems as we do today.  There are a number of ecosystem indicators (~60) to measure reef condition as it changes with time and space, but practically 10-15 are used; some of the major indicators being biodiversity, herbivory, recruitment and productivity.

Most of us view the Buccoo Reef through the lens of a glass bottom boat tour. These tours are conducted along the areas referred to as the reef flat (the landward side of the reef). These areas are dominated by monospecific (one species) stands of corals with relatively low coral diversity. Fish diversity is rich, dominated by several species of small bodied fish (usually juvenile life stages and adults of smaller fish) including parrot fish, grunts and snappers, as well as elusive apex predators such as sharks and groupers, and other charismatic species such as turtles, rays and octopi. These heavily trafficked areas are highly disturbed (due to years of physical damage from storm surges and human disturbances and sedimentation), and support fewer fish. It’s easy to perceive these areas as impoverished. But they are not dead.

There is a wide continuum of ecosystem conditions that exist in Buccoo, from rich underwater aquariums to impoverished zombie-like reefs. The question is which end of the continuum would we like future generations to enjoy.

Backreefs at Buccoo are thriving. Photo courtesy Jahson Alemu

Certainly, the Buccoo Reef Complex is a shadow of what it used to be, as evidenced by over 30 years of scientific research, and by the oral history of the area, related through stories shared by local fishermen, divers, some of the first glass bottom boat operators and general recreationists (all before my time). Unfortunately, the uptake of science into management has been slow and an ecosystem approach to management remains elusive.  Diving in Buccoo, you can see the relics of what it used to be. Large fallen treelike corals (Elkhorn corals) which once dominated Buccoo, now lie broken and dead on the seafloor, providing the bedrock on which the current Buccoo Reef has developed: an altered state, but still acceptable.  A new regime of conditions (a combination of conditions necessary for reef growth and stressors limiting growth) has re-shaped our current reef ecosystems. It is very likely if these stressors continue to intensify and synergise, there will be another change in Buccoo Reef to an alternate state, one which provides fewer goods and services.

The Buccoo Reef is a dynamic system. It is constantly changing. It will not remain a treasured part of Tobago’s heritage without appropriate management. The Buccoo Reef Marine Park is an effort to protect the legacy of an iconic part of Tobago’s identity, but, like our Australian counterparts at the Great Barrier Reef, much of the effort to protect and conserve the Buccoo Reef, must deal with managing activities outside the park. 

Leopold, Aldo. "A Sand County Almanac. 1949." New York: Ballantine (1970).

Holling, Crawford S. "Resilience and stability of ecological systems." Annual review of ecology and systematics 4, no. 1 (1973): 1-23.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Advocate for an Underwater Education

Alvin “Dougie” Douglas was born and lived in Tobago all his life. Curiosity about the creatures in the ocean led to his passion and career as master diver and a leader of Tobago underwater expeditions. He is an advocate for our ocean home, and continues to work to inspire more Tobagonian children to explore their marine heritage. In this feature published in Tobago Newsday on May 4, 2017, Alvin Douglas talks about his life and love for the waters around Tobago.

When I was about 14, at Signal Hill, my biology teacher brought a fisherman to tell us about sharks. He said that in order to stay alive, sharks had to swim continuously, something about their gill slits. This idea of constant motion intrigued me. In those days, the early 80s, there was one (scuba) dive shop, a club really, on the road to Pigeon Point. Dive Tobago was run by Jimmy Young. I started hanging around there after school. After almost a year of sweeping the shop, cleaning the boat, scraping the hull, generally doing whatever I was asked, I went on my first dive. And the first shark I saw was resting on the bottom, asleep. I proved the fisherman wrong for myself. When I was not in school, I was diving. At 17, I qualified as a dive master.

By the time I was 18, I went to the Coast Guard in Trinidad as diving instructor. I dived every chance I got. On the weekend, or my days off, dive operators in Tobago would ask me to mind their business when they went on vacation.

After 13 years in the Coast Guard, in 2001, I set up my own shop in Tobago, Frontier Divers. I have dived all around Tobago.
The Tobago Lionfish Hunters is a group of young people that Dougie has taught to scuba dive. All photos courtesy Alvin Douglas.

Tobago is uniquely located at the point where the outflow from South American rivers, the Orinoco and the Amazon, feeds our reefs with rich river nutrients. From Crown Point, on the Atlantic side you’ll find a dozen dive sites; and on the Caribbean side, you’ll find a dozen more. The average visitor spending a week or two to dive in Tobago will have choices every day.  On average, Tobago’s coastal waters are between 30 and 60 feet deep. One of my favourite dive sites, the Kariwak reef, is right there off Store Bay: you can walk in from the beach; we go there for training dives.

I’ve done and continue to do PADI certified training; for students and visitors, for the Coast Guard (based in Trinidad) and with the Tobago Emergency Management Authority. We train all the rescue divers. It would be a boost for education in Tobago if we could train in schools.

Old anchor on Flying Reef at southern end of Tobago.

Moray eels are reef dwellers.

There’s an outdated policy in the Education department about not taking children in or around water, that needs to be changed; with precautions yes, but not a blanket ban. Tobago is a marine society; all our communities are built on the coast. The sea is recreation and education, it is life; it’s what visitors come here for. When you introduce children to the marine environment in the right way, they are very excited. Youngsters, say 9 to 13, would be easy to teach, before they are distracted by devices. They are the ones who need to love and protect the environment. Diving opens up science, history and archaeology to our children; gives them confidence and teaches responsibility for themselves.

I have a group of youngsters called the Tobago Lionfish Hunters. We connect through Whats App and meet once a month, to hunt out the invasive lionfish that prey on our reefs. But there’s a lot more that we could do. Diving is a life skill that island people need.
Alvin Douglas shows a conch. The green tint in the water is from high chlorophyll content in the outflow from South American rivers.

I’ve just registered another company, Tobago Marine Safety and Security Services, with a mandate to protect the Tobago marine environment and provide emergency services around the coast. It is very important for Tobago to be able to provide an immediate response in Tobago waters if needed; not have to wait for the Coast Guard to come from Trinidad. This presence, visibility and rescue capability gives visitors a sense of security; and provides jobs in communities around the coast.

We need this group to also ensure that visitors who come into our waters on their own boats, respect the Tobago environment: ensure that they are equipped to not flush toilets directly into our bays for instance; or drop anchor on reefs. We must be the watchdogs of our marine interests.

We have seen a lot of changes in the ocean over the past three decades. There are changes and there are cycles. For instance, we have seen mantas in Store Bay; they stayed three weeks this year. Hammerhead sharks used to school at Sisters islands, but we don’t see them there any more. There were always a lot of sea eggs (black spiny urchins) at No Man’s Land; then they disappeared; now, it seems they are coming back. Kariwak reef off Store Bay is still beautiful though severely damaged by rough seas and run off from the land. In every bleaching event, we’ve seen corals changing, and we’ve also seen them coming back.

We are consulting with the Cropper Foundation for the positioning of the Minshall designed sculpture garden. Remember we sank the Scarlet Ibis ferry (now called the Maverick divesite) off Mount Irvine (1997), and that is now one of the most interesting sites for the diversity of corals and fish species. We expect that this could happen with the sculptures, but they need to be in a place that is not too far for the glass-bottomed boat tours: maybe somewhere between Store Bay and Mount Irvine.

This year, we’ve had a very small high season; we’ve probably been busy for three weeks of the months between November to March. Only my return clientele is keeping the business alive.

So we added glassbottom kayak tours into No Man’s Land and through the mangrove. It is an educational tour in which visitors are told about the different types of mangrove, and why they are important.

I know Sandals is a desperate attempt to jumpstart the tourism industry, with their marketing machinery. But we need to ask ourselves what are we willing to give up to bring people to our shores. We need to know the environmental impact, and to estimate whether we can bear this cost. On the other hand, there is a pressing need to deal directly with the problems of transportation between the two islands.
Frontier Divers has expanded its business and now offers glassbottom kayak tours

All of us need to appreciate life on our planet. The ocean is 70% of our planet. In ten minutes underwater, you’ll see more life than you would in a rainforest.

Who could not enjoy being weightless, stimulated by colour and creatures and movement, with no distractions (no phones, tablets, media) for an hour at a time?

The educational value for everyone who ventures underwater is immense: not just biology but the history of our island. There are artifacts off Mt Irvine and ships at the bottom of Scarborough Harbour.

Scuba diving opens tremendous career possibilities: marine science, tour guides, environmental science and management, underwater welding, medicine and industrial applications. A boat captain or rescue diver earns more than a taxi driver or security guard.

It is possible that the ocean holds the future for at least half of our children growing up on Tobago. And it is a future that is available to them right here, today: all their training can be done in our waters. They all learn the same protocols, earn the same internationally accepted certification.  No matter where in the world they go, they can make themselves at home and understood underwater, for the rest of their lives. (Pat Ganase)

Brain coral at Kelleston Deep, Speyside. This photo was taken three years ago.

Alvin Douglas and Frontier Divers can be found at Store Bay.