April 2005

FSEC Completes Solar Water Heating and Photovoltaics Project in the U.S. Virgin Islands

If you ask John Harrison about the project he and Jim Dunlop just completed in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he uses the word "challenging" to tell about their activities.

Photovoltaic system
FSEC researchers wrote the specifications and reviewed the design for two solar water heating systems like this one on a shower facility at the Mt.Victory EcoCampground in St. Croix. The system includes a 4x10 collector, 89-gallon storage tank, and a PV panel to operate the pump.
(Photo credit: John Harrison)

Challenging indeed! All the two FSEC researchers did was direct a wide-ranging project for the Virgin Islands Energy Office, supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, that demonstrated the use of solar water heating and photovoltaics (PV) in a variety of buildings, determined hot water usage by system owners, conducted site inspections, wrote functional and operational requirements and design standards, worked with industry on everything from bidding out projects to installing and then inspecting systems, evaluated the performance of solar water heaters and PV systems, and coordinated work between the Florida solar industry and technicians and installers in St. Croix , St. Thomas and St. John.

That's only their solar work in this project, and doesn't even include what they did on building energy efficiency - conducting energy audits of various commercial buildings and sites, developing and conducting a series of workshops for builders, and even compiling detailed information for a website on the technologies. FSEC's Carlos Colon and Dave Chasar worked with them on these activities.

"This part of the project started back in 2002," Dunlop explained, "though John and I had done some work before then for the Virgin Islands Energy Office. We worked closely with Bevan Smith Jr., director of the U.S. Virgin Islands Energy Office, and had conducted training programs for the staff and others there and helped them with several projects. They called about having us put together this comprehensive program that would take advantage of the many benefits of solar in their climate. I don't think we even realized then what a huge project this would turn out to be, let alone even dreamed about how successful the results would turn out to be."

Photovoltaic water pumping system

This PV water pumping system in St. Thomas provides irrigation to the farmlands located beyond the hill in the background. The FSEC team prepared the specifications and reviewed the design for this portable system that pumps rainwater to the fields.
(Photo credit: John Harrison)

The main objective of the program was to implement solar water heating and photovoltaic lighting, pumping and emergency power applications, and conduct audit reviews for government buildings. If you visit the FSEC website at www.fsec.ucf.edu/pvt/VIEO/index.htm, you'll see details on every site they worked on, along with photos and project details. They range from PV utility interactive systems on residences and community centers, lighting at emergency, management and nursing home facilities, remote water pumping systems, mobile energy systems and building energy audits of numerous government facilities to a dozen solar water heating systems on private residences, an eco campground, a school and an Energy Office demonstration site.

Dunlop emphasized that the systems they installed were much more than sheer demonstrations. "Take the emergency management center in St. Croix , for example," he said. "This building is the emergency headquarters for the island and is the center of all activity during hurricanes and other major storms. They've now got a PV lighting system that will ensure power during and after these emergency periods when the grid is down. The system we installed even gives lighting for the staff entry area, parking lot and in the area around the building."

The two project managers were especially pleased with the results of their efforts. After three years of installations, inspections and monitoring, their findings included:

  • Photovoltaic water heating system
    Edwin Hatchette stands with the solar water heating system installed at his home in St. Thomas. In addition to writing the specifications and designing the systems installed as part of this project, the FSEC team also inspected each system to assure it was performing properly.
    (Photo credit: John Harrison)
    The solar water heating systems proved to be reliable and the owners were very satisfied and greatly valued the savings.
  • Solar systems are very cost-effective in the islands because of the high electric rates there (about 23 cents per kWh versus around 8 cents in Florida ). The solar installers in the islands were very competent and used high-quality collectors and other components primarily from Florida . The high electricity cost also makes PV systems very attractive, giving an excellent payback.
  • Based on utility and installed system costs, the simple payback for residents using solar water heating systems in the Virgin Islands averaged 5.5 years (this varied depending on the size of the family, size of the system and various other factors).
  • The many photovoltaic systems gave a lot of good experience to local installers while helping demonstrate the technology.
Photovoltaic lighting system

FSEC's Jim Dunlop (Right) talks with a solar installer from the Virgin Islands at this PV lighting system outside the John Folly's Institue emergency center in St. John. A number of PV lighting systems were installed in the islands to help provide security and safety, especially during tropical storms.
(Photo credit: John Harrison)

Dunlop adds that the energy audits the team conducted on a number of buildings and sites provided energy-efficiency recommendations, lighting guidelines and reference sources on the technologies. "We had a lot of solid data to use in developing our workshops for builders," he noted. "We included subjects like air conditioning, natural ventilation, solar water heating, PV, financing and other subjects of interest to residents of hot, humid climates." Smith, the Energy Office's director, has reported that he has gotten good feedback from the program and has seen a marked increase in interest in solar energy systems in the Virgin Islands .

One other part of the project that should be noted is FSEC's work on utility interconnection issues. These deal with all aspects of sending power from a PV system to the utility company after the onsite loads have been satisfied. Dunlop met with the islands' utility board and put on workshops for contractors specifically on this subject. As a result of his efforts, the Virgin Islands have now adopted an interconnection policy based on the Florida requirements.

Even though they have completed the work on this project, their web site will continue to serve as a resource for builders, homeowners, utility company representatives, government officials and others interested in using solar technologies and saving energy and money in similar climates. This turned out to be a highly successful win-win situation - a winner for the home owners and facility managers in the Virgin Islands who are enjoying the benefits of solar technology, and a win for both the Florida industry that supplied much of the equipment and the solar industry members in the islands who honed their installation and service skills under the guidance of the FSEC researchers.

Photovoltaic system
This PV utility-interactive system is on the Baboula Haven Community Center in St. Croix, and is one of the demonstration systems installed as part of hte FSEC project there.
(Photo credit: Jim Dunlop)

"The bottom line of all of our work," Dunlop explained, "is that we were able to work with government officials, utility companies, consumers and others to help them learn more about highly cost-effective technologies and the development of the needed infrastructure in an area with a very good solar resource. It was the perfect situation to do our solar work, and that's why it ended up to be so successful."

Along the way, Harrison and Dunlop even became celebrities in the islands by appearing on a number of radio talk programs to discuss renewable energy and answer consumer questions. All part of a day's work for solar energy researchers.


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