Episode 116 – The Caribbean Islands Clean Energy Program

Episode #116
Original Air Date: 11.02.2020

35 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Kaitlyn Bunker

Rocky Mountain Institute’s mission is to transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon future. Our guest is Dr. Kaitlyn Bunker, Ph.D., P.E. who is a Principal with RMI's Islands Energy Program. Kaitlyn leads a diverse team that partners with islands in the Caribbean to support and accelerate their clean energy transitions. She has worked closely with stakeholders in Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and Bermuda. Their projects result in many benefits, including the use of more local, renewable energy sources and less imported fuel. Part of their strategy is to implement microgrids – small, stand-alone energy networks that are more reliable and resilient to extreme weather.
 
Kaitlyn explains how a microgrid system works, and how they help minimize the impact of natural disasters, particularly hurricanes. As the project lead, Kaitlyn talks about how she has faced communication, and cultural challenges while working in various island communities with diverse teams. Each Caribbean island has unique priorities, and Kaitlyn explains the challenges in obtaining buy-in from local communities and governments, as well as regulatory considerations that must be respected during the development of new policies and standards for resilient renewable energy technology. Finally, she reveals lessons learned and project success stories in the transition to clean energy in the Caribbean Islands.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

“So we really come in and do a lot of listening, meet with as many people as we can, understand different perspectives and try to bring that all together, and then pair that with our experience”

- Kaitlyn Bunker

“...we consider ourselves more than a think tank. We’re really a “think and do” tank.”

- Kaitlyn Bunker

“...islands are really taking this opportunity to sort of flip that script and say, even though we’re not the major contributors here, we want to be the leaders moving to clean energy, addressing the climate crisis in ways that we can, and showing what’s possible.”

- Kaitlyn Bunker

Share With Others

The podcast for project managers by project managers. Dr. Kaitlyn Bunker, Ph.D., P.E. is a Principal with Rocky Mountain Institute’s Islands Energy Program. Kaitlyn leads a diverse team that partners with islands in the Caribbean to support and accelerate their clean energy transitions. Their projects result in many benefits, including the use of more local, renewable energy sources and less imported fuel.

Table of Contents

01:33 … Meet Kaitlyn
02:56 … The Rocky Mountain Institute
05:31 … Projects in the Caribbean Islands
08:20 … Program Partners
09:10 … Local Island Energy Resources
10:15 … Aligning Stakeholders, Local Communities and Project
Priorities
13:11 … Project funding
14:28 … Compliance and Regulatory Guidelines and Knowledge
Sharing
17:59 … Project Risks
20:10 … Leading a Very Diverse Team
22:27 … Leading Remotely
23:25 … The Resilience of Clean Energy
27:05 … Impact of Battery Technology
28:51 … Cultural and Communication Challenges
31:18 … Kaitlyn’s Lessons Learned and a Success Story
34:27 … Hear More about RMI
35:04 … Closing

KAITLYN BUNKER:  So we really come in and do a lot of listening, meet with as many people as we can, understand different perspectives and try to bring that all together, and then pair that with our experience.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  Please make sure to visit our website, Velociteach.com, where you can subscribe to the show so you’ll never miss an episode, or you can join us on Velociteach Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.  And if you know a friend who would like to hear our show, please tell them about Manage This.

I’m Wendy Grounds, and with me today is Bill Yates.  Bill, so you know I’m always trying to find interesting projects.

BILL YATES:  Yes.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Projects that are all over the world, not necessarily in one spot, and so this one is all over the islands, the Caribbean islands.  Our guest is Kaitlyn Bunker, and she’s a principal with the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Island Energy Program, where she leads a team that partners with islands in the Caribbean to support their clean energy transitions.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, and just to be clear, this is Ph.D. Kaitlyn Bunker, so Dr. Bunker, I just wanted to say that, Dr. Bunker.  She also leads modeling efforts related to small island microgrid opportunities.  So a microgrid, she’ll explain that further.  But it’s a new strategy for having power distributed across an island, especially in the cases of places like the islands in the Caribbean that are prone to hurricanes and other types of storms.  So a microgrid strategy is a very interesting strategy, and we’ll talk about her projects.

Meet Kaitlyn

WENDY GROUNDS:  Let’s meet Kaitlyn.  Kaitlyn, welcome to Manage This.

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Thank you for having me.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Tell us about your career path, how you got to where you are today.

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Sure, so I’m now a principal with the Islands Energy Program at Rocky Mountain Institute.  But my background is that I studied electrical engineering,  I went to school at Michigan Technological University and got really excited in the field of power and energy, and also control systems.  And so bringing those two topics together led me to the concept of microgrids, which are small electricity systems that have their own sources of electricity.  So they’re able to use that to serve local electricity needs in a small confined system.  But they also typically can connect to the larger electricity grid. So they’re able to operate in kind of those two modes.  And so that was really exciting for me, especially the concept of incorporating more renewable energy into microgrids and combining those concepts together.

So I got really excited about that in school and decided I wanted to dig into that further.  So I stayed right at Michigan Tech for graduate school, completed my Ph.D. in electrical engineering.  Really enjoyed that and then was ready to kind of zoom back out from a very specific research topic on control of microgrids with renewable energy, and so that brought me to Rocky Mountain Institute.  That’s where I’ve been the last six years or so, working on broader opportunities to really transform our energy systems.

The Rocky Mountain Institute

BILL YATES:  Kaitlyn, so tell us more about the Rocky Mountain Institute, what’s the mission of that organization?

KAITLYN BUNKER:   So Rocky Mountain Institute is a global nonprofit organization, and our mission is to transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon future.  So we were founded back in 1982 by Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins, who are really leading thinkers and implementers when it comes to energy efficiency and renewable energy.  And Amory is still with RMI as a chairman emeritus, so coming up on 40 years here of some great work in the fields of efficiency and renewable energy.

WENDY GROUNDS:  What are some of the impacts that RMI has had in communities worldwide?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  So because we are a nonprofit organization, we’re often in a very unique position to work with all kinds of different partners and bring them together in ways that they might not otherwise connect.  We also have a very strong analytical foundation for doing modeling and technical analysis, and we use that to identify opportunities for all sorts of benefits that renewable energy can bring.  So things like cost savings, increased resilience, job creation, all sorts of different opportunities for benefits that are out there that might be important to different people or groups. And so we often partner to try some of these solutions out.

So we consider ourselves more than a think tank.  We’re really a “think and do” tank.  Some recent specific examples include a prize program that we’ve been facilitating called the Global Cooling Prize.  It’s focused on designing efficient cooling options.  So as our world keeps getting warmer and warmer, how do we keep people cool without just adding to the warming problem with more emissions from traditional air conditioning?  So that’s been an exciting effort really recently.

We’ve supported a lot of cities in identifying and pursuing clean energy options, as well as moving towards electrifying their public transportation systems.  So we often take a very whole systems view of energy, not just electricity or transportation or buildings or industry, but how do those pieces fit together?  And then in my particular program we have supported resilience, redesign, and rebuilding of electricity systems that were damaged in recent hurricanes.  So those are just a few examples of the broad type of work that we do at RMI.

Projects in the Caribbean

BILL YATES:  Tell us more about these projects that you’ve been working on in the Caribbean.

KAITLYN BUNKER: So our Islands Energy Program is focused in the Caribbean, as you mentioned, and we do really three main types of work with the islands that we partner with.  We complete analysis to identify optimal pathways for clean energy transition, so what’s the long-term pathway that’s going to be the best fit for a particular island.  Then we help to prepare and de-risk specific clean energy and resilient projects to help get them actually in the ground and operating, get these first projects going with our island partners.  And then the third thing is we work to connect island stakeholders so that they can share their expertise with each other and build even more expertise through communities of practice.  So that’s broadly what we do with our island partners.

And so some specific examples of things that we’re working on right now are looking at an integrated process for planning for the future of energy and resilience, to find optimal pathways for Belize’s electricity system. So in the Bahamas we’re working on redesigning and rebuilding the electricity system in specific islands within the Bahamas that were really devastated by Hurricane Dorian last year.  We’re working in Bermuda, supporting Bermuda in accelerating their transition to use more local renewable energy sources, while making a switch to electric transportation options at the same time.  And then one other example is in Puerto Rico, we’re working to increase opportunities for communities in Puerto Rico to build resilient and clean microgrids.

BILL YATES:  I was doing some reading on some of the things that you wrote about the project with the islands,  I was surprised that they import so much fossil fuel for consumption to create energy.  What are some of those statistics?  Because that’s one of the things the microgrid and your initiative is trying to change.

KAITLYN BUNKER:  So most islands in the Caribbean today get their electricity from burning diesel fuel which, just as you said, they have to import.  We are seeing islands move towards clean energy and start to make a dent in that, but still the majority of islands’ electricity today comes from that imported diesel fuel. So that makes it very expensive, Islands in the Caribbean might pay about three times what we would pay on average in the United States per kilowatt hour of electricity. 

So it’s quite expensive, and it can also fluctuate month to month based on global oil prices. If you’re a resident or a business owner in an island, it’s expensive to start with, and then it can change over time.  So lots of opportunities to use more local options that also happen to be cleaner, but are often much lower cost than importing the fuel as it’s done today.

Program Partners

WENDY GROUNDS:  Who are you partnering with in these programs?

KAITLYN BUNKER: So we do a lot of partnering, it’s really important to our strategy and being able to be successful in what we’re trying to do.  Our main partners are often the governments of the islands where we’re working, the electric utility companies, the regulators who regulate the electricity industry, local community groups, and then just people who live on these islands.  And then there’s a couple of really leading regional organizations that we’ll partner with, as well.  So often we’ll dive deep into a partnership with one island, do those types of activities that we were discussing around long-term planning and short-term project implementation, and then at the same time partner with regional organizations to create ties between islands and share information and knowledge among island energy practitioners.

Local Island Energy Resources

BILL YATES: So I’m going to be Captain Obvious here, in this environment you’ve got sun, you have waves, you have water power, and you have the wind power.  When you’re tapping into the local energy or local power as you guys talk about, that’s part of the strategy that you guys are taking on?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  That’s right, and then it can vary by island.  So for the most part sun or solar energy is a top opportunity for all of the islands in the Caribbean.  It’s a great resource in that region, but then other islands may have other great local resources, too.  So some have a really strong and consistent wind resource.  So we can look at that, some have the opportunity for hydro or other water-focused resources.  Some are volcanic islands, so there’s an opportunity to look at geothermal potential, as well.  So there’s a range of options, and that’s certainly something I’ve learned in working on this project is just because I know one island a bit from having worked there, I can’t assume that’s the same on another island.  And so it’s really important to learn the local context and what the local opportunities are.

Aligning Stakeholders, Local Communities and Project Priorities

WENDY GROUNDS:  Did you have any problems with buy-in from local people and local governments when, you know, you come to an island and say, hey, we want to introduce this program. So did you have any opposition to that?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Sometimes there’s some opposition, but I’ll say in general not a lot.  In general we’re seeing islands showing a lot of leadership in this area, even though their direct contributions to the global climate crisis are quite small when you think about the size of islands versus other countries. So they’re also some of the first places to be impacted by climate change and see things like sea level rise and increased strength of hurricanes.  And so islands are really taking this opportunity to sort of flip that script and say, even though we’re not the major contributors here, we want to be the leaders moving to clean energy, addressing the climate crisis in ways that we can, and showing what’s possible.  So often there’s a lot of buy-in from the beginning.

Then sometimes there’s not alignment on sort of the specifics and where an island should be going.  So that’s often our role, to bring stakeholders together and find alignment on their specific goals and priorities, and then complete the analysis that gives a common fact base that decision-making can then stem from to move forward.

BILL YATES:  I’m thinking about my own project experiences, and there are times when I would walk into a new engagement, and I would think I’d be able to tell the new customer exactly what problem we needed to fix for them.  You know, like I’m thinking in the islands, you may work in one island where maybe hurricanes is their biggest concern, but the next island that may not be the case.  It may be our costs are too high, so we need to lower our costs.  So it could be a different factor for success there, resilience could be a factor for success somewhere else.  So that must be interesting for you guys to have to go in with a clear mind.  How do you clear your mind before you start an engagement with another one of these islands and their governments and stakeholders?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  So it’s a great question, and it’s an interesting balance to try to strike because you’re right, on the one hand we bring a lot of expertise.  As Rocky Mountain Institute we work around the world, so we have things we can offer, certainly.  At the same time we want to show up, and we do show up very humbly and want to learn about each place.  What are their local resources?  What are the opportunities to consider? And so what are their priorities? So we’ve seen that exact situation you’re describing where for one island, lowering electricity costs is the top priority.  In another island it might be resilience, increasing the resilience of our system is the top priority, and so that’s really what we want to go for.

So we really come in and do a lot of listening, meet with as many people as we can, understand different perspectives and try to bring that all together, and then pair that with our experience, what we saw maybe in another island or in another part of the world, that we can then bring all that together and work together to see what’s going to be optimal in a specific location.

Project Funding

WENDY GROUNDS:  Has funding been an issue?  I mean, I think of some of these islands that have already been through devastating hurricanes or earthquakes, and then they’ve got to support this new system. So has that been a problem – how do you guys get funding for these projects?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Yeah, great question.  So we’re fortunate to fund our work to work with a range of funders – individuals, foundations, multilateral organizations.  And so that has allowed us to really be an independent and neutral partner to the islands that we’re working with because for the most part we’re funded through philanthropy, and we’re not asking an island government or utility to pay for our time and work, but we’re able to bring them together independently and be the third party to work with them when it comes to funding specific projects.

It’s often something that we try to facilitate where we can and so find opportunities for grant funding that an island could take advantage of to fund the upfront costs, or a financing opportunity, to mention a regional organization, the Caribbean Development Bank, for example, if we can line up a project that they’re able to provide financing for, looking for those kinds of opportunities so that islands that are going to actually build these projects and own them going forward can find the funding that they need to do that.

Compliance and Regulatory Guidelines and Knowledge Sharing

BILL YATES: So many times in initiating a project with an organization we already know what regulatory bodies or what rules are in place, what guidelines we have to abide by.  I imagine in your case that’s even more important than ever because in some cases you’re going to replace or hopefully cause less of a reliance on one type of energy, and now you’re introducing a new one.  So how do you guys figure out who’s the regulatory body for the island that you’re at, and how do you make sure that you’re complying with the regulations they have in place?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  So each island is a little bit different.  Some have a clearly designated regulator or regulatory body for the electricity system, and so in that case we engage with them and learn as much as we can from them.  In other cases there may not be a designated regulator, or that may fall under the government – who we’re typically partnering with anyways – and so then similarly we would work with them.  And it’s always a balance to make sure we understand the existing regulations, as you mentioned, and what’s possible today, what’s allowed today, what’s made clear in regulations, and what is maybe not called out, and so it’s a bit uncertain.

So that we’re working within those as they exist, but then looking at opportunities for, as this transition takes place, and just as you said, moving from using really one source of generation for electricity to a broader mix and just a system that’s much different, maybe much more distributed in nature versus centralized.  That could require changes to regulation, and so looking ahead to how we might advise on that change and support regulators.

The in a similar way we’ve talked about connecting island stakeholders, we’re working to do that now specifically with regulators.  So as different island regulators are dealing with these great big questions that are coming up around clean energy and energy storage, that they can connect with each other, share best practices, things that they’re trying and figuring out and really learn from within the island community on that topic, too. 

BILL YATES:  That’s a great approach, and that’s something that’s different than my experience, and so I really appreciate that.  I think about the projects what we used to work, and sometimes our clients, those that were going to use our product, were competitors.  So we were just totally focused on that one engagement, that one project, and legally we could not share the results or the takeaways with other clients that may be competitors.  In your case, again, kind of the position of your organization and the mission of it, not only are you able to do that, but it’s encouraged. You’re able to share best practices, lessons learned from one project to the next, so that’s really got to be satisfying for you guys on your project teams to see that knowledge base grow and help the next person.

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Absolutely, and it’s great because it has direct impact in specific islands that we’re working, where we’re digging deep and having all these local partners and moving things forward.  Then we can kind of zoom to the regional level and see how these opportunities and information are being shared among islands.  And then there’s even one more zoom out, I would say, and part of why we’re engaged in small islands, is of course that direct impact for the communities that live there and the opportunity to share their experience and see what’s relevant as they transition to more and more clean energy, what relevant lessons actually apply regardless of your geography or the size of your system, and be able to share some of those things much more broadly, as well.

BILL YATES:  As you said, you guys are a think tank and a do tank.  I like that.

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Yes.

Project Risks

WENDY GROUNDS: So what have been some of the project risks that you’ve identified on these projects, and how do you mitigate those risks?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  So there’s always some risks, I think two that I want to highlight, one is around lack of alignment.  So I mentioned earlier there’s often sort of general broad alignment that, yes, we want to move towards clean energy options.  We see there’s benefits there, but in terms of the specifics – how to get there, what should be pursued and when – we often see lack of alignment on that.  So our role is again often as an independent and neutral partner to bring stakeholders together and find those areas of alignment, both around broad priorities, you know, what’s most important when it comes to lowering electricity costs versus being more sustainable versus being more resilient.

Often you can certainly do all of those, right?  It’s not a either/or, but let’s prioritize and see what’s really important and what stakeholders are aligned on, and then align around specific project opportunities, too.  What’s the most important projects to move forward quickly?  So we’re often really bringing stakeholders together and asking them to talk about those and see where they’re aligned.

Another risk that we’ve seen just shows up because we’re working on a lot of firsts, actually – first large-scale clean energy projects in a specific island, first battery energy storage project.  So just as an example, if you’re the permitting office with the island government, you’ve maybe never seen a proposal for a large-scale solar PV project.

BILL YATES:  You want to put a battery where?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Exactly. So you maybe don’t know what you’re looking at or how to assess this, and is this a good project, and should it move forward?  And so that has the potential to cause significant delays, as you can imagine, which is a big risk for the projects.  But again, as the neutral partner here, what we often try to do is facilitate some of this, work through the questions that are coming up, the permitting processes, do a lot of that project preparation and take a lot of the risk out beforehand, before we go to procurement, to actually build the project.  So we try to limit that.  But it happens when it’s the first of something.

Leading a Very Diverse Team

BILL YATES:  I’m just thinking about that. So if your team is introducing potentially new technology to an island, I’m imagining your project team is probably a combination of maybe some engineers from the United States, maybe some engineers and other team members from the local community.  So what’s some advice you have for those who’ve had to lead those kinds of teams where you’ve got people that are from a diversity of background experience?  How do you bring everybody together and get things done?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  On the one hand, it’s a huge strength because we have built a very diverse team, as you mentioned.  People from the United States, people from the Caribbean who live there and have lived there all their lives, and then people with just different backgrounds, right? Engineering, like myself, I would say I’m a bit more on the theoretical side, right, doing a lot of analysis and modeling, then we have colleagues on our team that are engineers much more on the practical side, that have done more installation of systems and specific design of systems.  And then of course we have people from a whole range of other backgrounds, too – business and finance, just international development work.  And so bringing all those backgrounds and perspectives together really makes us a strong team.

It also leads to challenges, as you noted, both just coming from different perspectives, focusing on different things, but being located in different places and all coming together to work together.  So because we are so geographically spread out, we were already doing a lot of virtual work together before the COVID pandemic that we’re in now.  So that did make that transition a little bit easier.  But part of our approach has always been a lot of travel, as well, spending time on-island with generally not our full team.  We’re close to 20 people on our Islands team now, so we don’t all always get together in person.  But subteams would travel to an island together.

And so for team building, that was really valuable, as well as interacting with the stakeholders and our partners directly.  So we have been missing that during the pandemic quite a lot.  But that approach of staying connected virtually and then maximizing our time in person when we have that helps make us a really effective team and be able to utilize that diversity that we have within the team.

Leading Remotely

BILL YATES:  That’s great.  That makes such a difference.  You can get things done.  When you know somebody, you’ve spent time with them outside of work, and you’ve built that trust, that makes such a difference.  So I cannot imagine, that would be so difficult during this pandemic to try to lead those teams remotely, not having the advantage of working elbow to elbow like you’d had before.  I’m sure that had to present fresh challenges.

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Yes.  We’re missing that time together for team building and working effectively.  It’s just challenging because we’re a team who likes to travel.

BILL YATES:  Right.

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Right?  Everybody’s used to traveling.  I’d say on average about once a month most team members were making a trip to an island, and so having made no trips since early March, that’s just been tough for individuals on that team and the team as a whole to kind of be stuck in place.  I will say it’s been great to still be able to engage with our island partners.  We’re able to do a lot of video calls, phone calls, and move a lot of great work forward, so our partners have been great through this, as well.

The Resilience of Clean Energy

WENDY GROUNDS:  So Kaitlyn, we talked about the pandemic and how that has been a setback.  What about other setbacks?  Particularly I’m thinking of hurricanes, so we’ve just had Hurricane Laura come through.

BILL YATES:  Yup.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Are solar energy grids more resilient forms of power that are able to minimize the impact of disasters?  And is the rebuilding easier?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Absolutely.  And we are in the active hurricane season right now, as you know, and so we’re sort of always watching what storms are forming, thinking about our teammates and our partners that are in the Caribbean region and how to best support them in this active storm season.

But to your question around solar, or I would say just clean energy in general, how does that impact resilience and the opportunity to rebuild more quickly?  The idea is yes, it would support that quite a bit, and so we’re starting to see that as islands make this transition.  A couple of the reasons are using a more diverse set of electricity generation types, so not just depending on one source, where if you have a problem with that source, let’s say if you have one centralized plant that’s serving the island, if that gets damaged, that’s a problem.  If you couldn’t get fuel in for some reason, that’s a problem.  So just depending all on one thing is much more vulnerable than if you have a mix of let’s say solar and diesel, and maybe there’s wind or whatever that mix is for that island.  So diversity of types.

Then looking at more diverse locations for electricity generation is really the key, as well. So we mentioned that centralized plant that’s often the setup on many islands today.  There’s one or a few electricity plants that are located centrally, and then there’s a grid system that gets that electricity to everybody who uses it.  That’s often done with overhead transmission lines, electricity wires like we’d see here, as well, in the U.S., and so even if the plant itself survives the storm, the grid is often what sees a lot of damage.  A lot of those poles and wires are knocked down, and so that’s what can take a lot of time to rebuild.

And so if we think about the opportunity to be much more distributed in the electricity system versus centralized, and site different types of generation in different locations, that means that you could restore perhaps small pockets or segments of the grid more quickly than having to restore the whole thing coming out from that central plant.  And that really opens up the opportunity to think about, okay, so where should we site these resources to get started here, to move towards a more distributed system?

And so what we often focus on is the most critical infrastructure.  So things like hospitals, schools, water treatment facilities, can we site – I’m using solar PV as an example, but it could be other resources.  Can we site solar PV and energy storage at those most critical infrastructure locations?  During most of the time they’re connected to the grid and providing value to the system, providing electricity, providing stability so that the whole system can operate really well.  But then they can separate and become a microgrid and serve just that local infrastructure, and maybe even just the most critical parts.  What’s the most critical things that we need to keep on at the hospital?  You know, the system could be designed to serve that, so if there’s an outage on the main grid that’s going to last a longer time.

So that’s really where we see the opportunities with clean energy, it’s local, doesn’t have to be imported.  It’s a mix of resources that you’re relying on, so it’s not just one thing and is more spread out and distributed in different locations so can allow different areas to get their power back up more quickly than the full system.

Impact of Battery Technology

BILL YATES:  This is a compelling vision, I so get it.  Just the way you described that, it just makes so much sense, it brings the risk down so significantly, just relying on one source of power or one grid versus those microgrids. So that makes a lot of sense, it could be a game changer for those communities, for sure.  Now, it brings up one question that I’ve got, and this is a bit nerdy, but with projects many times we rely on a particular type of technology or tool, and in this case I’m thinking of batteries and just what’s been the impact that you’ve seen as battery technology gets better?  How is that impacting some of the solutions that you guys pursue?

KAITLYN BUNKER: So the trajectory the batteries have been on has really been amazing in terms of the technology improving, as you mentioned, and the costs coming down. And so we’re seeing more and more islands implementing their first energy storage projects, sometimes in smaller sizes, maybe trying out some of these approaches of siting them in different locations; sometimes in larger battery sizes, as well, and seeing a lot of benefit from that.  So thinking about what do you really want the battery to do because there’s a whole range of how it could support your system, and then designing and selecting the right battery for that.

We’re even seeing in some islands, before there’s a lot of renewable energy, an opportunity for batteries to provide a lot of value in terms of how efficiently the diesel generators can be run.  So having the battery there allows the generators to stay at their more efficient points of operation, directly leading to fuel savings, even in the systems today that are highly diesel still.  And then I think we’re going to see more and more, as renewable and clean energy options come online, there’s other opportunities for batteries to contribute to the system, as well.

Cultural and Communication Challenges

WENDY GROUNDS:  As a team lead, leading this project, how have you overcome some of the communication problems, and then maybe even some cultural challenges?  I’m sure that there are so many different cultures, and every island has its culture in itself, so how do you overcome those challenges?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  So we were talking a bit about the fact that the team is very geographically spread out across the U.S., across the Caribbean.  And so we’ve had to figure out some ways to communicate really well, we do, you know, quite a bit of video conferencing so that we can see each other.  Prior to the  COVID pandemic, where we’re sort of all at home and calling in individually, we would still call in individually to video meetings, even if, say, there were four of us located in the same office in Colorado. So that way, when we’re having the video call, we all show up the same, one face per screen.  And we don’t create a sense of, okay, there’s groups that are in offices perhaps, and then some people that are individual.

So we try to show up the same and just have a really inclusive environment for the team and so really focus on just frequent and clear communication so that expectations are known, both within the team and with our partners, and of course doing that in person when we can.  But when we can’t, video is the next best thing.  So that’s something we’ve utilized quite a bit to overcome communication challenges.

And then culturally you’re exactly right.  Each island has a bit of unique culture to it, and so it’s been a really great experience to learn about all these different places and understand them better.  And so it’s really been about taking the time to do that, learning about them, listening to people that we meet there. So I think it may be easy to picture us traveling to islands and just enjoying our time there and going to the beach.

BILL YATES:  That’s what I’ve got in my mind.  I want to be on this project, too.

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Actually, so we really try to pack our time in there, to meet with as many people as we can, formally and informally.  And certainly see as much of the island as we can to really understand the context there, so just hear different perspectives from people and fold that into our thinking and our work.  And then we do hire from the regions that we’re working in as much as possible.  So hire people who grew up there and have that context that they can bring, as well as their own professional background and personal background, and just bring all of that to the team. And so a big focus on diversity for us, and then creating an inclusive environment for our team, everybody really bring everything that they can bring and work together to find the best solutions that we can.

Kaitlyn’s Lessons Learned and a Success Story

WENDY GROUNDS: So what has been your biggest lesson learned that you’d like to share with us?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  I think my biggest lesson learned from working with island partners, working in the Caribbean, is the importance of an inclusive approach and then bringing together lots of stakeholders.  You know, I come from a technical background as an engineer, and so I still really enjoy that type of work, diving into the numbers, doing the modeling of electricity systems.  But I also really enjoy and appreciate the value of talking to different people, understanding their perspectives and their priorities, and then bringing people together to align on what those are and find the best solutions together.  So that opportunity for an inclusive approach, bringing the right stakeholders together, I think is my biggest lesson learned and how that then complements the more technical side or the analysis that is also important to inform decision-making.

BILL YATES:  Kaitlyn, so that goes right in line with what you said earlier about showing up humbly.  That really struck me, “Show up humbly.”  That’s such a great attitude for us to have as we walk into new engagements and get to know those stakeholders and then ultimately the customers that we’re trying to serve and solve problems for.

WENDY GROUNDS:  So do you have a success story?  I’m sure there are many, but is there one that you’re really excited about that’s working well you want to tell us about?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Sure, yeah, happy to.  You’re right, there are many islands that are clear leaders when it comes to clean energy transitions, but I can share one specific example where we’ve had the opportunity to work deeply, and that’s in Saint Lucia.  So we worked with stakeholders in Saint Lucia on a very inclusive and integrated planning process to develop their national energy transition strategy.  So that’s looking at sort of both what should happen first and the long-term pathway that they can pursue.

Then we also helped complete the first large-scale clean energy project in the country of Saint Lucia, which is a 3-megawatt solar PV farm. So it’s right by the international airport, so if anyone does get the opportunity to visit Saint Lucia, you’ll probably be able to see it out the airplane window.  And so to give you a sense of the scale of that project, it displaces about 1.3 million liters of fuel every year and generates electricity equivalent to about 3,500 local households in Saint Lucia.

So it’s an exciting project, a great first step for the country, and they are now advancing additional clean energy projects, what are the next clean energy options that should be pursued, as well as energy storage.  And so Saint Lucia’s really continuing to be leaders in the clean energy transition, both in the Caribbean region and as an example for the broader world, as well.

BILL YATES:  That’s fantastic, 1.3 million liters of fuel replaced.  So put on your sunglasses when you’re landing in Saint Lucia, you’re going to catch the reflection off of that grid, and we’ve got you to thank for that, Kaitlyn.

WENDY GROUNDS:  I love that, I so love what you guys are doing, and I love that we can tell that story.  And you’re showing us that it can work, and hopefully it can start to mushroom out and more and more countries take on this.

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Yes, exactly.

Hear More about RMI

WENDY GROUNDS: So if our listeners want to hear more about the Rocky Mountain Institute and the work that you guys are doing on the islands and worldwide, how can they find out about that?

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Absolutely, so I would point folks to our website, there’s a lot of great information on there.  As much as we can we’re publicly sharing, you know, things that we discover through our work and with our partners, and so you can check it out, it’s RMI.org.

BILL YATES:  Thanks so much, we really appreciate all that you shared, and just such interesting projects and unique challenges that your team has.  Appreciate it.

KAITLYN BUNKER:  Thank you so very much for having me, and thanks for the great conversation.

Closing

WENDY GROUNDS:  Thank you for joining us this week on Manage This. So you have also just earned some Professional Development Units, to claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps.  So that’s all for this episode, until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

One response to “Episode 116 – The Caribbean Islands Clean Energy Program”

  1. Avatar Kristin Smith says:

    Great information!

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