The Power of Bananas

An energy enterprise project based on the island of St Lucia is working to stop excess banana crops from going to waste – by using them to create power.

 

Ken Addonza, leader of the banana energy project in St Lucia
The project is being implemented by Applied Renewables Caribbean and aims to use the waste generated by St Lucia’s banana trade to produce environmentally friendly energy. At the same time, it will enable local banana farmers to supplement their income by selling the waste from their crops. The project is one of a number of award-winning initiatives from the 2009 IDEAS Energy Innovation Contest, a programme which aims to improve energy efficiency and expand access to renewable energy.

It is widely acknowledged that electricity generation is essential to economic development. However, most Caribbean island states currently have to pay a high price for their domestic and industrial energy consumption. A recent study commissioned by the CARICOM (Caribbean Community and Common Market)shows that its member states spend four times as much on fuel as on food (US$12bn a year compared to US$3bn). The majority of these countries have to import almost 90% of the petroleum products they need for energy. With electricity generation coming almost exclusively from these imported petroleum products, consumers are in turn faced with exceptionally high electricity prices.
 
So far, the development of alternative forms of energy – particularly renewable solutions – in the Caribbean has been limited. In many Caribbean countries, the most prolific renewable energy source is wood fuel, which poses health risks as well as creating black carbon emissions. Modern renewable solutions like hydropower are little used. Yet in recent years, interest in alternative energy has grown – prompted by the increasing numbers of large hurricanes and the political instability within many major oil producing countries.
 
There are still many barriers to the adoption of renewable energy. The private sector remains unwilling to adopt alternative energy because it is perceived to be high risk and involves high upfront costs. At the same time, the volatility of electricity prices discourages foreign investment. Industry development is hampered by low standards, ineffective enforcement of those that exist, and a weak base of skilled manpower. Despite all these problems confronting the energy sector, there have been positive developments. For example, in Barbados, solar water heating has been a huge success. And, on St Lucia, banana waste is being used to create power.
 
Banana exportation is one of St Lucia’s largest industries and the island is home to three international banana companies. Applied Renewables Caribbean aims to take advantage of this established industry, using the waste from these companies to create power. “People always complain about the cost of public transport here because fuel is extremely expensive – says Ken Aldonza who leads the project. “That’s why I thought of making biofuel out of banana waste.”
 
His new power plant will use banana waste to produce methane via biodigesters. The plant will use a new four-stage fermentation process, which is much more productive and cost effective than traditional batch processes. The methane created will be used to produce ethanol which will be sold to the transport industry. In addition, the plant will be able to power itself, ensuring low running costs.
 
Applied Renewables Caribbean is being supported in this venture by the 2009 IDEAS Energy Innovation Contest. In 2009, GVEP International partnered with the Inter American Development Bank and GIZ (the German Agency for international Cooperation), supported by additional funds from the Korean Government, and launched the contest to support the development of locally driven, innovative project ideas that promote energy efficiency, energy access and adaptation to climate change.
 
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the number of eligible applications was over 1,100. From these, 26 ideas were selected as the winners, who each received up to US$ 200,000 in grant funding. The winning ideas ranged from making organic waste, tyres, and algae into energy, to providing market-driven financing to support clean energy enterprises. Amongst them was Applied Renewables Caribbean’s banana waste project.
 
For Applied Renewables Caribbean, the majority of the funding provided comes from GVEP International. Ben Good, the CEO of GVEP, says:
 
“the Applied Renewables Caribbean proposal stood out as an all-round business idea capable of having impacts on energy security, environmental sustainability and social-economic growth, including increased employment and income opportunities for the local farmers. GVEP is extremely excited to provide funding and business development support to this project, as it is expected to have a significant impact on the development of low carbon growth - not only in St. Lucia but across the neighbouring islands.”
 

It is hoped that the project will have wide-reaching implications. Already, the development of the project has led to a high level interest within government institutions. As an interim result, the government of St Lucia is now aware of local biofuel and biogas production from banana waste and has approved special incentives to support the extension of the project at cabinet level. Many other Caribbean islands produce similarly sugar-rich crops, so there are potential opportunities for this project to be replicated and for the power of bananas to begin to fuel the neighbouring islands as well.