One August day four years ago the skies cleared, allowing one of these authors to pick pumpkins in Moruga, on land farmed by a neighbour’s friend who was not harvesting his crop that year. In the proceeding days, tropical showers had intermittently swept in to turn the farmland plots to bog. Lugging heavy sacks of pumpkins, knee-deep in mud is not an experience one quickly forgets.
Many readers will know Moruga as home to the Scorpion pepper, reputedly the world’s hottest. They may not have driven through the largely flat landscape of acre upon acre of arable fields, sectioned off by narrow tracks, producing a variety of fruit and vegetables.
This agriculture must be protected. T&T needs to increase self-sufficiency in food production and cannot afford to sacrifice the fields of Moruga to energy needs, just as we must preserve our pristine tropical forests. But it is exactly such areas of the country that would eventually need to be sacrificed if T&T pins its clean energy future on solar.
We should applaud the Government’s efforts to make T&T a cleaner nation. As reported by Guardian Media, the Project Lara Solar Park will see construction of solar sites near Point Lisas and Trincity, generating a combined ¼ (or .24) Terawatt-hours of electricity annually.
Based on T&T’s current electricity usage of 8.63 Terawatt-hours per year, 35 projects on the scale of Project Lara would be needed to supply all of T&T’s electricity, using a few hundred square kilometres.
Unfortunately, electricity accounts for only 4% of T&T’s overall annual energy consumption of around 200 Terawatt-hours. For solar energy to provide the other 96% of T&T’s energy, the country would need to devote more than 60% of its land area to solar farms, or 815 Project Lara-scale sites.
Alongside southern farmland, this would inevitably mean cutting into the forests of the northern or central mountain ranges. This would amount to a destruction of valuable resources of the highest order and destroy the prospects of a major potential revenue stream: eco-tourism.
Like wind and other renewable energy sources, solar makes us feel good; that we are doing something to meet the climate emergency challenge facing our planet. But we need to be open-eyed about the realities of what renewables can deliver.
As elsewhere, T&T needs to de-risk its energy infrastructure whilst simultaneously adapting to climate change. However, if renewables are the centrepiece of the energy strategy moving forward, then a serious rethink is required.
Let’s factor in the intermittent and unreliable nature of renewable energy production. Renewables rely on the existing energy distribution system, namely the national grid.
This centralised architecture lacks the resilience to withstand the extreme weather conditions—both predictable and unpredictable—T&T increasingly faces. Those who live in Moruga and across rural southern Trinidad are accustomed to power outages and renewables will not fix this.
The solution, as we adapt to a warming climate and rising sea levels is to reduce our reliance on the grid. The solution is a new type of distributed energy source that is low-carbon, compact, stable, flexible and geographically unconstrained.
The solution is portable “plug and play” nuclear microreactor technology, such as the Nuclear Batteries (NB) being developed by US companies Westinghouse, X-energy and BWXT. This revolutionary innovation provides on demand, clean, economic, resilient and safe energy in any location.
The NB is a small but powerful stand-alone energy platform that can be directly integrated into manufacturing functions or industrial plants, including an offshore oil rig.
It’s a solution bypassing the need for massive, low-use centralised infrastructure such as the national grid, energy storage, and fuel distribution networks. The NB can operate for 5-10 years, powering virtually anything with no need for continuous fuel supply, after which they are “recharged” with nuclear fuel.
Whilst innovative, the concept of small portable microreactors is not new. In the early 1960s the US. Army designed, built and tested ML-1, a 500-kW gas-cooled microreactor that could be hauled around by truck and provide power in the field in less than a day and for over one effective full power year without refuelling. Of course, NBs are a world away from that technology.
Unlike large wind or solar farms, NBs can provide any desired amount of electricity and heat on site, eliminating the need for long-distance transmission and large centralised infrastructure. A single 10 MW NB can power some 7,000–8,000 homes, a shopping centre like Trincity or Gulf City malls, airport campuses larger than Piarco or a midsize data centre.
It could power a standard oil platform and produce enough desalinated fresh water for over 150,000 people. And all from a system small enough to fit within standard shipping containers.
To build a windfarm of 100 MW requires about 20,000 tonnes of steel, 50,000 tonnes of concrete as well as 900 tonnes of plastics used in the blades. Solar photovoltaic farms producing similar outputs require 50% more materials, though less steel than wind. In contrast, NBs generating 100 MW would require around 20 tonnes of low-enriched uranium, 1,600 tonnes of steel and 4,600 tonnes of concrete.
NBs use a fully standardised, mass-produced, factory-fuelled, simple design with few moving parts, combining a small nuclear reactor and a turbine to supply significant amounts of heat and/or power (on the order of 15–30 MWt or 5–10 MWe) from a very small footprint.
Because they are compact enough to fit in standard shipping containers, transport to the site of use and installation is quick and easy, with the battery made operational in a matter of weeks.
Embedded intelligence and established advanced monitoring systems enable semi-autonomous and remotely monitored operation, with inherent digital security. NBs use low-enriched uranium fuel, and can be safely shipped back to a centralised facility for refuelling and refurbishment at the end of the operation period. There is no need for the user to handle the refuelling.
We are at a juncture in history requiring us to make a fundamental shift, away from an electrical grid model that is the product of a century-long co-evolution of markets, fossil fuels, and centralised power production.
Combined with urbanisation, the result has been a highly interconnected system, requiring tight controls over electricity production fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, uranium) and their transport (pipeline, truck, rail) to large centralised power plants, lengthy power lines for distribution, and supply and voltage synchronisation to deliver energy to demand. At every step, harmful CO2 emissions are being added to the atmosphere. This must not be perpetuated as we move forward.
The recent addition of variable renewables has simply added further complications. While renewables play a role in decarbonising the grid, they contribute to vulnerabilities in systems that are already fragile and susceptible to external concerns, whether natural (eg, tropical storms, tornadoes, earthquakes) or caused by humans (eg, malicious cyber-attacks, anti-satellite, or kinetic attacks). By contrast, NBs are unobstructive and can be built into the landscape or even hidden within buildings and structures.
NB technology is at advanced development stage and can be ready for market by 2026-2027. Within the first few years of mass production, the cost of each NB would come down to US$20-US$50million.
T&T could be a global leader by adopting NB technology as a central part of its strategy to unlock the potential for a new and resilient energy-industrial model, transitioning out of its current oil and gas commodity dependency.
Rather than remain hostage to global oil price volatility, NBs could enable T&T greater control of its economic destiny, building a more sustainable and prosperous future.
As we look ahead, we ask Business Guardian readers to imagine a future without polluting power stations burning fossil fuels.
A future without pylons and grids, where acres of countryside and essential farmland are not surrendered to metallic rows of solar panels. Imagine a future where we can “plug and play” clean energy, anywhere, whatever the business. Imagine a future of resilience to floods and extreme weather, where talk of “net zero” targets is a thing of the past.
Well, imagine no more, because we don’t have time to waste. We must usher in the future, starting today. So that Moruga may continue to provide us with pumpkins and peppers.
Nick O’Hara is the founder and director of Renovata, a UK and Caribbean-based social purpose consultancy. Jacopo Buongiorno is a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.