Only a fraction of Roatan homes and businesses run on solar power. This is a bit surprising as the island has the highest energy costs in the hemisphere where paying off the sometimes expensive renewable energy systems is much quicker.
While the most energy independent community of off-grid homes is in Port Royal, one can find examples of solar powered homes in the heart of the island as well. In the growing Coxen Hole neighborhood of Brisas del Valle, a business owner from Brick Bay, Santos Cruz, has invested in a solar package which has made his home energy independent.
The system was installed by Vegas Electric in 2008 and cost around $15,000. With developments in technology and price cutting, a similar system today would likely cost about 20% less.
Four solar panels total one kilowatt and eight 539 Amps. Deep-cycle batteries make the engine of the system, which provides power to a large, two-story home full of appliances-fridge, microwave, two TVs-with the exception of air conditioning. “When the system gets to 20 Amps. the alarm will sound,” says Cruz.
While the deep-cycle batteries are scheduled to last around five years, Cruz says that by checking the water level of the batteries and equalizing them regularly, his batteries have tested to be 80% ok and should last another four years.
With the money Cruz has saved, he is looking to install a solar water heater in his home. “It’s $1,500 and can be paid off in three payments,” says Cruz.
Roatan is full of low-end energy consumers who use car batteries to charge their phones or even to light small bulbs. They live in isolated places where RECO doesn’t reach, or they just can’t afford RECO rates. They typically use car batteries worth Lps. 1,300-1,800, a bit less than a deep-cycle Trojan battery. The car batteries, not designed to cycle through deep cycles, rarely last for longer than a year.
One of these homeowners is Francisco Amaya Doblado, 66, known affectionately as Don Chico in Los Fuertes. Amaya moved to the island from Ciguatepece in 1969 to work at a seafood packing plant here. He now owns a small pulperia (a neighborhood store) on the main road that passes through Los Fuertes. He relies on a commercial size freezer to sell sodas and frozen goods to locals, and his biggest expense used to be his RECO bill.
In 2005 Amaya saw a sign in La Ceiba while walking around the city’s bus terminal. It said, “Sol y Luz,” sun and light, advertising a company that sold small solar systems to low-end consumers. “I bought the smallest system for Lps. 20,000 and installed it myself,” said Amaya. The very next month his Lps 4,000-5,000 RECO bill began sliding down.
A couple years later Amaya added a larger, more expensive system of three 100-watt solar panels and six batteries to his house and store. “I am paying Lps. 600-700 a month,” says Amaya, who also has to purchase the deep-cycle batteries for his system every two years. He uses a fridge, freezer, TV and fans in his residence and store.
Amaya says that once in a while someone will inquire about his solar panels, but he is not aware of a single person who has purchased the system. One obstacle preventing consumers from buying is the system’s high buy-in cost.
At the other end of the solar budget spectrum is Casa Sunburst, the home of Marvin and Susan Isles of Palmetto Bay Plantation. Their beachfront home is decorated with full size Copan Stella and powered by two independent solar systems.
The first independent solar system is the residence’s pool filtration motor that runs on DC power generated by two solar panels installed on top of the gazebo. “It turns the entire pool’s water [12,000 gallons] 2.5 times a day. The system will pay for itself in four years,” explains Isles about his $4,800 investment. “It’s simple: no batteries, no transformer. It’s solar, it’s clean and it has no interface with RECO.”
Isles believes that solar power could be much more widespread if it weren’t for the island’s energy company. “All the excess power goes to waste and it’s because RECO has no net metering policy,” says Isles who calculates that every year his home wastes around $1,500 worth of electricity because RECO has no buy-back policy in place. “They [RECO] really need to get on it. They are the biggest obstacle in expanding solar on the island,” says Isles. [/private]