Letters to the Editor

Nonsuch a solar example for island

  • Powered by the sun: the solar panels that operate the buildings, small lab, cottage and Cahow Cam at Nonsuch Island

Dear Sir,

Way back in 1962 when I moved on to Nonsuch Island to fulfil my dream of creating a living museum of pre-colonial Bermuda, the landlord for this government-owned island was the Department of Public Works, and my mandate was to “serve as caretaker for the buildings only”.

There was no telephone or electricity on the island at that time because, although cables for both had been laid across Coopers Island from St David’s for the Nonsuch Training School in the 1930s, both had been abandoned when the school moved to Paget Island in 1948 and then subsequently destroyed by excavations for military purposes on Coopers Island after the war.

Initially, my wife and I made do with a small, portable, gasoline generator. Then, when Nonsuch Island became part of the parks system in 1966, and I was employed as conservation officer, my generator was upgraded to a 3.5-kilowatt Petters diesel. This fine old machine lasted for the duration of my 40-year tenancy on Nonsuch Island.

Now I am not a techno whiz, but the inconvenience of not having electricity full time — I used the generator only for pumping water and for lights at night — was a strong incentive to seek other options, and the 1970s and 1980s were also the dawn of the renewable energy era.

Wind power was not an option on Nonsuch Island because of the proximity of the nocturnal cahows and the abundance of longtails, which I feared might become victims of the fast-spinning turbine blades, but I was among the very first to try solar power on Bermuda.

The first step, to employ solar for water heating, was about as low-tech as you can get: just run your water through a black pipe under glass on your roof. Even I could have done it myself!

The commercial solar, hot-water heater that I did get installed by one of the first solar companies on Bermuda was directly above the bathroom shower.

Thereafter, I was able to get a warm shower at the turn of a tap, even on a cloudy, winter day.

That solar heater is still working, and when you consider that heating water is second only to cooking as an energy user, I cannot understand why every household in Bermuda hasn’t taken similar advantage of this low-tech, free energy source from the sun to save money.

The next step into solar panels for electricity generation was not so easy. In the early 1980s, both the efficiency of the panels and the batteries used to store the energy were still very inefficient. To avoid conversion losses, I first tried 12-volt direct current for lights and water pumping, but corrosion of terminals caused constant power outages. This problem was later overcome by switching to 120-volt alternate current with an inverter, but maintaining a large-enough bank of batteries continued to be a problem.

Those days are nearly over now. Solar panels have become incredibly efficient and storage batteries are improving rapidly, too. I was especially pleased when a few years after my retirement in 2000, the Ascendant Group, the parent company for electricity supplier Belco decided to adopt the Nonsuch project for charitable support.

The biggest benefit arising from this was the installation of a large solar-panel array linked to a battery bank and an inverter to provide all the island’s energy needs, including the power required to run the globally watched Cahow Cam.

My dream that Nonsuch Island would eventually be totally independent of the need for fossil fuel for power generation has finally been realised.

If we can do this on Nonsuch, why not on the rest of Bermuda?

There is a global imperative for this, not only because fossil fuels are essentially non-renewable on the human timescale and will become inevitably more expensive as they are exhausted, but because the dire threats from global warming, if we don’t act now on a massive scale, are all too real and undeniable. Indeed, sea-level rise and damage to our oxygen-generating forests and our agriculture are already well under way and accelerating.

Some have argued that Bermuda’s infinitesimal contribution to this global crisis does not justify making this effort, but our per capita generation of greenhouse gases being probably the highest in the world is reason enough to shame us into action.

It is for this reason alone that I support the Bermuda Better Energy Plan for the island, but it deserves our support for another very good reason, too.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky proposal. It has been more thoroughly researched, both for technical and economic feasibility, than the Belco plan and it goes so much farther to fulfilling the mandate of the regulatory authority for electricity generation.

DAVID B. WINGATE

St George’s