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Oil prices are soaring again—this time due to uncertainty over the fate of major producers like Russia and Iraq. Expect to pay more at the gas pump and the grocery store in the months ahead, since everything from transportation to manufacturing to our petroleum-intensive agricultural system is a puppet flailing upon the strings of this volatile commodity.

barbadossolar
A solar bus stop in Barbados.

Haven’t we been through this drill before? A crisis—usually in the Middle East—causes oil prices to rise. Inflation increases and economic growth shrinks. At which point, we hear renewed calls for energy independence. 

The recent boom in natural gas has glutted the market with cheap energy, somewhat muting these calls of late. But the U.S. remains far from achieving energy independence. Because energy independence is not just temporarily producing enough of our own fossil fuels to get by. Real energy independence is freeing ourselves from the addiction to the fossil fuels which are destroying our environment and leaving our economy a hostage to events beyond our borders.

This is the message that I was hearing when I visited Barbados last month. I was surprised to see solar panels and water heaters sprouting from government buildings, hospitals, police stations, bus shelters as well as thousands of gaily colored private homes throughout the Caribbean island. I should not have been surprised. Conventional electricity prices in the Caribbean are more than four times what we pay in the U.S., due in part to high shipping costs for the Venezuelan crude that fuels the region’s power plants.

For Barbadian’s, the cost savings from solar are becoming too obvious to miss. A thermal water heater, which retails for $2,300. U.S., pays for itself in lower electricity bills in less than two years.

It is not just consumers who are noticing what a great deal solar energy is becoming. Industries like the island’s only desalinization plant are installing large photovoltaic arrays to help defray their own electricity costs. Solar advocate and advisor to the Barbados government William Hinds told me that there are already enough private investors who want to produce solar in Barbados, that the country would shift to 100 percent solar in less than ten years, even without government subsidies, if the free market were left to its own devices.

The free market, however, is rarely left to its own devices. Even in Barbados, industries are restricted in the amount of solar energy that they can produce, due to admittedly legitimate concerns about the stability of the power grid. There are real technical challenges in integrating intermittent power sources like wind and solar into the grid, while still maintaining the stability of the system that need to be worked out.  

In an address marking the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) World Environment Day in Bridgetown’s Independence Square in June, Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart pledged that the island nation would produce 29 percent of its energy from renewables by the end of the next decade.

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