The territory's been chosen to be a model for energy efficiency in the Caribbean, and this week scores of local and federal experts gathered on St. Thomas to figure out exactly how to get that process started and who's going to be involved.
"Where we're at right now is really completing the set-up stage," said Mary Werner, executive manager of integrated deployment for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) under the U.S. Energy Department.
"What we're trying to accomplish is to get to that implementation phase where things are happening," she said.
The collaboration with NREL and the U.S. Interior Department has been ongoing since last November, when the territory was selected to participate in one of three International Partnership for Energy Development in Island Nations (EDIN) pilot projects seeking to find an alternative to oil for island nations.
As the U.S. participant, the territory's efforts have been funded by $31 million in federal economic stimulus money, which could continue to flow as long as there are results, Werner said, adding that nothing is going to happen overnight, possibly pushing the partnership between the territory and federal government on for years.
According to a memorandum of understanding signed a few months ago by Gov. John deJongh Jr., the territory is on its way to reducing its dependency on fossil fuel by 60 percent over the next 15 years. And right now, there's a lot in the pipeline to try and meet that, she said.
"This is an opportunity for the U.S. Virgin Islands to transform its energy system and use it as a model for islands across the world," Werner said. "And we want to create a model that can be used over and over again."
Along with the possibility of a new deal with Alpine Energy Group, there are requests for proposals (RFP) in the hopper through the V.I. Water and Power Authority for solar energy and, through the V.I. Energy Office, another for anemometers needed to measure and track wind data on St. Croix and St. Thomas. Meanwhile, another RFP to determine the feasibility of interconnecting the territory with Puerto will be released next week, according to WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr.
The benefits of interconnection are numerous, but the long and short of it is that Puerto Rico has more energy in its reserves than is needed to power the entire U.S. Virgin Islands, Hodge said. Meanwhile, there are also wind farms on the eastern side of the island that the territory can pull energy from, he added.
NREL has continued to provide the technical assistance needed to help develop the RFPs, and has continued to meet regularly with local officials to discuss the next steps for getting some of these projects off the ground.
But the purpose of this week's workshops, according to Werner, is finding the right stakeholders to pull into the process and developing some work groups that will continue to piece out solutions to some continuing challenges.
The work groups discussed topics such as transportation, renewable energy, policy development and educational outreach -- all areas that they can keep discussing in weeks to come. Looking at the territory's current energy use, what exists in terms of policies and how to develop a workforce to implement some of the energy initiatives are some areas of immediate concern and will reappear at meetings over the next few months, she said.
At a press conference held after the final workshops ended Wednesday, Hodge and V.I. Energy Office Director Bevan Smith Jr. said they found the kickoff conference "productive" and were "enthused" by what was discussed by the participants.
But, there's still the challenge of getting local residents to "really understand the issue of energy efficiency," Smith added.
"There's still a lot of work ahead of us," Smith said later. "And part of it is getting out this knowledge, so we can use this as a launching pad to get a buy-in from the entire community."
Werner said the goal is to conduct teleconference meetings every three weeks or so, and in-person meetings -- such as this week's conference -- three times a year to discuss the next steps.