ROSEAU VALLEY, Dominica (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Government officials on the Caribbean island of Dominica are hoping that geothermal energy is the answer to mounting climate change concerns, high electricity costs and an ambitious commitment to become carbon ‘negative’ by 2020.
Known as the ‘Nature Island of the Caribbean,’ Dominica – in the Lesser Antilles region - is prone to climate-linked natural disasters such as hurricanes, flooding and landslide. While hydropower accounts for 40 percent of the country’s electricity mix, Dominica also remains highly dependent on imported oil and residents pay the highest electricity prices in the Eastern Caribbean.
The geothermal project involves the construction of a small power plant for domestic consumption and a bigger plant of up to 100 megawatts of electricity for export to the neighbouring French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, who is also the country’s finance minister, told Parliament in July that his government had invested 30.5 million EC dollars ($11.2 million) in test drilling and would spend an additional 36.7 million EC dollars ($13.3 million) to develop geothermal power in the island’s Roseau Valley.
Located in the interior, the Roseau Valley is one of the most popular destinations for eco-tourists, with lush rainforests, rivers, waterfalls and hiking trails. It is also home to the world’s second largest boiling lake and accounts for 65 percent of tourism revenue in Dominica.
The prime minister said test drilling confirmed that the valley’s geothermal resource was of excellent quality and sufficient to generate more than 120 megawatts of electricity.
Energy costs in Dominica continue to affect “the quality of life of families, individuals and the competitiveness of businesses,” and this project could reduce the price of electricity by 40 percent, he said.
Harnessing alternative, renewable sources of energy is seen as crucial for Dominica. Vince Henderson, chairman of the government’s geothermal negotiating team and the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations, says the project has the potential to transform the island’s economy and ensure commitments to the environment are met.
“Dominica has tremendous geothermal capacity. This project will not only bring us energy security and independence, but geothermal energy will reduce our contribution to climate change and demonstrate leadership in switching from over-reliance on expensive, dirty, fossil fuel generation,” he said.
The benefits of the project are not disputed by residents of villages in the Roseau Valley, but some fear potential negative impacts.
Alfred Rolle, 46, has lived in the community of Laudat, in the valley, all his life, and worked as a mechanical engineer with the island’s sole electricity company, DOMLEC, for over a decade. Rolle says that he, like many other residents, is not opposed to the project, but wants authorities to fully answer their questions about potential risks.
“I believe the level of secrecy surrounding the project is troubling. We should have been brought to the table to discuss what is about to happen in our area, with our land and with our health. We are not opposed to it. We have heard of geothermal. They have explained geothermal, but they haven’t explained how much land is required, how much of our forest will be used, the possible negative effects of the drilling,” he said. “We know of the dangerous gases down there and we fear possible contamination of our streams and water supply. We just want our questions answered.”
Environmentalist Atherton Martin, who is president of a community-based environmental organisation called the Morne Trois Piton National Park Geo Tourism Stewardship Council, has similar concerns. Like Rolle, he says the idea is a good one, but lacks transparency and a clearly articulated vision.
“I believe there is an absence of an overall planning framework within which this energy development project is being developed. Climate change concerns have not been mentioned. Those of us who have been part of climate change (advocacy) for decades looked for them. We did not see them,” he said.
For instance, “there could be a negative impact from a project like this on the carbon footprint. Depending on how much forested area is cut down to establish the wells to obtain the output spoken about, the government could end up deforesting sufficiently to offset the gains from its clean energy output. These kinds of calculations need to be done, from a climate change and resilience standpoint,” he said.
Henderson of the geothermal team says great care has gone into ensuring that Dominica’s 70,000 residents are not adversely affected by the project.
“There is wide global experience with geothermal power from volcanic sources that has proven to be safe over its more than century-long history. Geothermal energy provides significant benefits as one of the least-polluting forms of energy. Dominica’s project is being developed with highly reputable global partners, and global best practices will be followed for the environmental impact assessment and ongoing monitoring, which is contractually required and of the highest importance,” he said.
The exploratory phase of the geothermal project ended in 2012 and the drilling of production and reinjection wells was expected to begin in August.
Alison Kentish is a journalist based in Dominica.