Sunday, November 8, 2015

Does Montserrat's volcano hold the key to its future?

Soufriere Hills has been one of the world's most active volcanoes over the last 20 years
Janet Edwards
By Gemma Handy:

Montserrat's devastating volcano - which has left two-thirds of the Caribbean island an exclusion zone and the former capital city buried deep in ash - may now hold the key to its future.

Multi-million dollar tests carried out by Icelandic experts indicate promising potential to power the British territory using geothermal energy.

The cheaper, greener electricity would not only slash bills for householders - currently the highest in the Caribbean - but could stimulate external investment by ending decades-old problems of prohibitive utility costs and an unreliable supply.

Hopes are also high that switching to renewable, low-emission energy would increase the number of holidaymakers to the "emerald isle" by cementing its status as an eco-haven.

Exploratory phase
In 2013, two exploratory wells were drilled to depths of up to 2,900m (9,500ft), striking temperatures of 260C.

A third well will be built to help meet the island's energy requirements
Dr Graham Ryan
The £8.5m ($13m) initiative was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) which has now agreed to pay for a third well to further the project.

A tender process is currently under way, with works due to start in early 2016.

The two existing wells are thought to be capable of producing 1.5 megawatts of power each, says Dr Graham Ryan, an expert helping with the research.

"Together that's much more than the 1.7 megawatts the island uses," he told the BBC.

"But there's a catch - environmentally, best practice is to re-inject spent geothermal fluid back into the reservoir. This means using one of the wells for that purpose.

"An extra well would allow the current energy requirements of the island to be met and potentially give room for expansion."

Montserrat has been looking into geothermal energy since the 1970s, "but it's risky to spend several million dollars drilling a well to then find it doesn't produce fluid," he added.

Volcanology and geothermal exploration expert Dr Graham Ryan is assisting with the research
Roderick Stewart
Geothermal energy is produced when hot molten magma - driven by plate tectonics - rises, warming surrounding rocks.

Rain and seawater running through the cracks and pores in the rocks several kilometres underground, in turn, absorb that heat.

As the hot fluid rises it can be tapped by drilling wells and the pressurised steam it produces used to rotate turbines and generate electricity.

Montserrat would not be the first Caribbean country to make use of its volcano in such a way.

St Vincent, St Lucia, Nevis and Dominica are among those making significant headway in the sector.

But in Montserrat's case, it is hoped the move would put the 39-sq mile island, home to about 5,000 people, on a path to greater self-sufficiency as well as reducing reliance on the UK for funding that amounted to £31m in 2013 and a total of £420m since 1995.

Geothermal energy can generate power 24 hours a day, regardless of weather
 Graham Ryan
Montserratians currently pay higher electricity tariffs than their Caribbean neighbours, a DfID spokeswoman confirmed.

Residential customers fork out around $0.50 per kilowatt-hour, compared to the regional average of $0.33.

UK householders paid the equivalent of around $0.15 last year.
Montserrat is presently wholly dependent on expensive fossil fuel imports to power its five very old and unreliable diesel generators, leaving it at the mercy of fluctuating oil prices.

The DfID spokeswoman said reducing rates and providing a more stable electricity network "will encourage new industries to be established".

Financial independence
Mr Ryan said another benefit of geothermal energy was the possibility of using the waste heat for other things like refrigeration, curing concrete blocks and drying agricultural products - which in turn would help tourism.

Montserrat's tourism industry suffered after the volcano started erupting
Dr Graham Ryan

He added: "Tourism has flagged ever since the volcano started erupting. It would be great if we could use this to bolster Montserrat's uniqueness.

Local tour operator Sun Lea agrees. "Montserrat would become an attractive place to live for the environmentally conscious and small, green-based industrial entities.

"I think it could take quite a while to become more financially independent from the UK, but I do believe that one day it's possible. We carry ourselves with unequivocal national pride as we already know that what Montserrat offers naturally, culturally and socially is only one of the best secrets that hasn't been shared yet."
Montserrat's two-decade volcanic crisis began when Soufriere Hills began to emit ash and gases in July 1995 after lying dormant for several hundred years.

A series of ensuing eruptions - including 75 in a single month in 1997 - buried entire villages under repeated mudflows and forced two-thirds of the island's population to flee.

Although activity has abated in recent years, it continues to this day.

Now the volcano - which serves as an ongoing reminder of the darkest period in the country's history - may just become its boon."
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