The hurricanes of 2017 appeared to put an end to the years of negotiation and construction for a 4.2-megawatt solar farm on St. Thomas. The solar farm was to lessen the V.I. Water and Power Authority’s dependence on fossil fuels and lower residents’ monthly light bills.
For the past three years, the site on a hillside behind Home Depot has had nothing to show but broken solar equipment.
All that changed earlier this month when BMR Energy, a Virgin Group Company, began site work there. BMR expects construction of a new 6.4-megawatt facility to be completed in October. The necessary testing and commissioning could be completed four weeks after that.
Not only is the facility to be about 50 percent larger than the one destroyed in 2017, but measures are being taken to enable it to withstand the next Category 5 hurricane.
“It is a significant engineering and construction challenge to ensure the St. Thomas project is built to withstand the elements in the Caribbean. As owner and operator of the project, it is in our best interest to fully understand why the previous project failed and to design the new facility to avoid those pitfalls. We hope this project will model how to effectively build resilient solar power facilities in the Caribbean,” said Bruce Levy, chief executive officer of BMR Energy, in an email to the Source this week.
Designed and supplied by Polar Racking, the racking is engineered to handle 180 mph wind, according to Levy, and is being mounted on stronger, driven piles that are installed deeper into the ground.
Levy says an extensive Geotech exploration and pile pull-out test program was conducted by PRI Engineering to characterize the soil conditions throughout the site and determine the required size and length of the piles to properly secure the system.
He said that during installation, resistance for each pile will be monitored and the pile will be grouted with concrete if it is found to be below targeted strength. Additional structural support is designed into the racking on the end and edges to strengthen rack tables.
The new project will also benefit from the latest solar industry technology. Each panel is rated at 450 watts.
In earlier solar systems, when part of the system was damaged the whole system could go down. This will not be the case in the new Donoe system.
According to plans, the panels are to be wired in approximately 800 separate strings of 18 panels per string. These strings are connected to 80 separate inverters. If some panels are damaged, only the strings involved will be affected and the system will operate at a reduced output.
Longtime solar advocate and Director of the V.I. Energy Office Kyle Fleming told the Source Wednesday, “The Donoe solar farm reconstruction demonstrates tangible progress toward diversifying the renewable energy portfolio of the Virgin Islands. What is most impressive is the anticipated project commissioning by end of 2021. This is testament to how quickly renewable energy can be put to use, to benefit the Virgin Islands through third-party developers utilizing PPAs [power purchase agreements].”
WAPA interim Executive Director Noel Hodge said in a press release last month that reducing reliance on fossil fuels will result in operational savings to WAPA and lower the cost of electricity to customers. “Projects such as the Bovoni wind turbine initiative and the redevelopment of the solar facility at Estate Donoe have the potential to drive down the overall cost of electricity.”
In March, the WAPA board approved a wind power purchase agreement with Advance Power, LLC. Advance Power will develop, finance, design, construct, operate and maintain a wind farm at Bovoni Point on St. Thomas. The wind facility, comprised of six wind turbine generators, will produce approximately 10 megawatts of wind energy and is expected to be completed within two years.
At Donoe, due to the increased efficiency of solar panels, only 85 percent of the original site of about 32 acres will be used. Levy said, “Areas not used include the steepest areas closest to the peak of the site and areas around drainage channels … The site is on a curved hill, so the new facility will have a similar amphitheater look but be reduced in the overall footprint. There will be additional drainage improvements that may be visibly different particularly on the west side of the site where erosion was significant.”
When the agreement was signed for the Donoe project in October 2019, then WAPA Executive Director Lawrence Kupfer said, “The new agreement includes a pricing structure that better protects our customers as it more closely follows the Authority’s avoided cost over time.” He added that the previous agreement was at a fixed and escalating price over the term of the agreement. Under this agreement, pricing will be fixed for the first six years, and thereafter, will be tied to the WAPA’s LEAC with a fixed floor and cap.
Kupfer further explained, “The provisions of this agreement stipulate that WAPA will never pay more than 20 cents per kilowatt-hour for the solar energy captured at Donoe, and the floor is set at 11.5 cents. Otherwise, after year six the rate will be tied to LEAC.”
Hodge said in an email on Wednesday, “WAPA welcomes the opportunity to enter another partnership with BMR Energy as we endeavor to diversify our generation mix. While this agreement increases the volume of solar energy we capture for electrical generation, this and other renewable projects set WAPA on a path to lower operating costs and reduced reliance on fossil fuel. These reductions will ultimately translate to savings for our customers.”
Editor’s note: This story has been edited since it was originally posted to add information about the project.