OPINION: Belize’s Persistent and Silent Electricity Emergency

Updated: Jan 8

By Amb. F. Daniel Gutierez

Early in the morning 4 days before we celebrated our 40th anniversary as an independent nation, the Commision Federal de Electricidad (CFE) in Mexico had to undertake maintenance on their own power system to which we are tethered as a nation, and just like that, lights out in Belize. Now let me be clear, this type of maintenance is expected in grid systems and I am imputing no untoward reasons for CFE leaving us in the dark. These things happen.

Notwithstanding our northern neighbor’s historic and I believe genuine friendliness toward Belize, the fact remains that this dependency on a foreign nation comes a cost. Belize’s complacency and abandonment of basic responsibility where energy is concerned has been foretold by energy study after energy study.

There are many costs and pitfalls associated with not addressing the energy dependency. The huge economic and opportunity cost of electricity importation is usually a silent topic in Belize. However, in this era of precarious economic balance and hard currency crunch the importation of close to 50% of our electricity does need urgent visibility. Put simply, electricity importation means we bleed foreign currency that Belize and Belizeans desperately need. In 2020 alone in Belize dollars we paid over $38 million for CFE electricity. This exsanguination of our precious reserves, especially at peak demand time, happens every time you turn on your AC, your blender, your computer etc. It happens quietly and constantly, and it hurts Belize in the long run.

Covid aside, it’s hard to look at any of the energy cost trends in Mexico and argue that the price for CFE power is decreasing. To the contrary the growth in demand for power in the Yucatan, and the stalling of announced generation plans have caused the perfect storm of increased prices. Post Covid, the prices of power at the Xulha node will increase and Belizeans will be hit hard, again.

The dependency on CFE as a spinning reserve for electricity not only hurts our pocket book but it’s an impediment to the full development of reliable and competitively priced native power generation that can realistically be supplied to the legacy grid we have in Belize. At age 40, this nation must move ahead with plans for electricity generated in Belize.

The question is what can we do and what can we do in the medium term? First, let’s underscore what we should not do. We cannot de-couple from CFE. We simply do not have the generation capacity to contemplate that. In addition, we should in the long term develop our own generation to the point where we can export power to the Yucatan peninsula. If we are wise, we should see the Xulha node as an energy export hub.

Many people champion that we go renewable. I will not dispute the science of climate change. But just as we cannot ignore the science that underpins climate change, neither can we be blind to the same science that tells us in no uncertain terms that we do not have, yet, commercially available grid level storage to make renewables operate independently. Yes, hydro can provide that independence, but as blessed as Belize is with hydrological resources, the best research tells us that we probably have another 20 Megawatts of hydro available in areas that will not be detrimental to our riverine systems. 20 megawatts maybe.

That then leaves us with solar, biomass, wind and geothermal. As excited as we were to think the sleeping giant was awake, the sad reality is that Belize has no known places where geothermal energy can be produced. Wind studies have also been undertaken and they tell us that although we have offshore capacity, its harvesting is not that straightforward. I cannot see Belizeans happily searching for the moonrise over our reef through wind farms. Not to mention the costs of bringing that power back to the grid.

Biomass is proven science, and we should improve the bio fuel harvest by improving yields from our farms. The reality is, though, that to improve the bio fuel available, we must look to new acreages to grow that biomass. Which forests are we willing to bulldoze to replace with sugar cane or switchgrass?

Then there is solar. Solar is embraced by many and there is good reason to like it. Solar is clean and available for a few hours during day for free. I liked it so much that I installed it myself as I live off grid, 16Kw of installed capacity are available and its really nice. Until the sun sets that is.

Unlike the grid system which does not have a viable option for battery storage yet, my batteries keep me going through the night when it’s a sunny day. When it is not a sunny day, or worse yet in the rainy season, when there can be days of minimal sun, I have no choice but to run my generator. It’s a sore point with my wife, but in my house there is no using toaster ovens, curling irons, and ironing is strictly when the sun is out during the day. Sure I can spend huge money to upgrade to lithium ion and add more panels but the only thing I cannot replace is my generator.

The thing with science is that it does not take sides in an argument. What the science is telling us is that in an ambiance of 17% solar efficiency in Belize, is that at peak power when we are most dependent on our Mexican power supplier, solar simply cannot and will not help us. Not yet, maybe in a few years, maybe. What the science and in our case the economics are telling us is that Belize needs firm, reliable, competitively priced electricity to supply our growing nation now 40 years old.

To be able to produce the clean renewable power we want, Belize needs first and immediately to install firm thermal power. We should only consider the cleanest of these. Once we have that installed and we can supply ourselves consistently, we can capitalize on our nation’s capacity for renewables. With this sort of energy mix, Belize can become a net exporter of power.

I’m told the lights are back in town. That is good news. Here at the farm, it rained yesterday and we were using power tools all day. The power outage never affected me this morning; I ran my generator last night.

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