When Hurricane Dorian slammed into the northern Bahamas in 2019, the Category 5 storm caused nearly inestimable damage on a number of islands.
There’s a growing consensus among scientists that climate change is making hurricanes stronger and more destructive. That’s very bad news for the Bahamas, a string of more than seven hundred low-lying islands stretching from Florida nearly down to Cuba, in the heart of what’s come to be known as “Hurricane Alley.”
When we visited in late 2019, hurricane recovery was really just beginning, but we discovered that the Bahamas had found a ray of hope – specifically, a solar array – that can survive future hurricanes. And in the process, it may have important lessons for the rest of the world.
With sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, gusts above 200, and a storm surge well over 20 feet in some spots,Dorian wreaked unimaginable havoc on the Bahamian islands known as the Abacos.
“There’s not enough words in the dictionary to describe what Hope Town looked like after that storm,” Vernon Malone told correspondent Bill Whitaker.
Hope Town has been Malone’s home for all of his 82 years. His family has lived here since 1785. He’s the town baker and grocer, and he and his wife rode out the storm in his store. It survived, but their home just up the street did not.
Vernon’s son, Brian, had a home just around the corner. Had a home.
“That’s actually two and a half houses,” Brian Malone said when Whitaker pointed out a pile of rubble. “Mine’s on the bottom.”
Hope Town is a Bahamian landmark. Its candy-striped lighthouse dates to 1863 and is pictured on the country’s ten-dollar bill. The lighthouse stood up to Dorian, but as we saw coming into the harbor, not much else did.
“I hear generators everywhere,” Whitaker said to Brian Malone and Matt Winslow, an American who owns a vacation home on the island. “Is this how you guys are getting through?”
“Yep,” they both said.
Winslow told Whitaker why all those generators are still running.
“The substation in Marsh Harbor which feeds us the power’s destroyed,” Winslow said. “And then, of course, you can see all the utility poles– are pretty much destroyed. So this isn’t a case where you– you come in and replace some poles, and you flick a switch. This is months, and months, and months of– of work.”
Hope Town is on one of several small islands ravaged by Dorian, which then moved across 7 miles of open water to Marsh Harbour, the largest town in the Abacos. At least 60 people died in Marsh Harbour, and destruction is still everywhere. Total damage and loss from Dorian is estimated at $3.4 billion.
“When you see the extent of the destruction, where do you even begin?” Whitaker asked Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis. “How do you even begin?”
“That’s always the question,” Minnis said. “Where do we begin?”
The Bahamian prime minister at the time, Hubert Minnis, and his aide, Viana Gardiner, visited Marsh Harbour with us and pointed to a top priority: restoring electric power.
“How do you bring this back?” Whitaker asked.
“The power,” Minnis said. “We had to make determination to set up micro-grids.”
The microgrids Prime Minister Minnis is talking about are small-scale systems. More and more, they’re solar arrays with battery storage for when the sun’s not shining. They can either feed electricity into the larger grid or operate independently to power a single facility or a neighborhood. The way electricity has been produced in the Bahamas is with diesel-fueled generating stations on each inhabited island, about 30 in all, feeding power to everyone through overhead lines.
“The main power plant for this island is literally 25 miles south of here, Chris Burgess said. “That’s 25 miles of line that has to be rebuilt.”
Burgess and Justin Locke run the ‘Islands Energy Program’ for an American non-profit called the Rocky Mountain Institute. They have solar projects throughout “Hurricane Alley.” After Category 5 Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, they put microgrids on the roofs of ten schools. Maria also brushed St. Vincent, which has now installed its first microgrid. Now, the Islands Energy Program has come to Marsh Harbour.
“So how big will this solar array be?” Whitaker asked.
“15 acres,” Burgess said. “Right through here.”
That microgrid will satisfy 10% of Marsh Harbour’s total power needs, and will be built right between its government center and hospital, both of which were without power for weeks after Dorian.
“This is high ground, which makes it less vulnerable to storm surge or other types of disaster events,” Locke said.
“So if a storm like Dorian hits again, the power to these two critical facilities stays on?” Whitaker asked.
“Correct,” Locke said.
The push to build storm-proof solar microgrids in the Bahamas began in 2017 after Hurricane Irma, another Category 5 storm, tore through tiny Ragged Island, at the southern tip of the island chain.
“After Ragged Island was devastated, I made a statement: Let us show the world what can be done,” Prime Minister Minnis said. “We may be small, but we can set an example to the world.”
Minnis said it’s his goal to make Ragged Island a green island.
“Absolutely. After which, we can expand it. We can expand it,” Minnis said.
To see the prime minister’s green experiment, Whitaker flew to Ragged Island with Whitney Heastie, CEO of government-owned utility Bahamas Power and Light. Engineer Burlington Strachan met them there and took us to what he calls the very first hurricane-proof solar microgrid being installed in the Bahamas.
“Unlike other solar designs, it’s very low to the ground,” Strachan said. “So this installation is rated to withstand 180 mile an hour winds.”
180 mph winds are an even harder punch than when Irma landed back in 2017.
“It was significant devastation on this island As you can see, some of the poles snapped right at the very base of the pole,” Strachan said. “That happened throughout the island.”
This microgrid will produce enough electricity for Ragged Island’s roughly 100 residents. The prime minister calls it a laboratory for the solar future. The past is a diesel generator needing boats to deliver fuel from hundreds of miles away, a system Whitney Heastie says is “a nightmare.”
“You know, in summer we’re almost on the verge of running out of fuel in some of these islands, because bad weather sometimes prohibits the ships from actually getting to some of these locations,” Heastie said.
The Bahamian government spends nearly $400 million a year on imported fuel to keep its power plants running and passes that cost along to its citizens. They pay three to four times what people in the mainland U.S. pay for electricity.
“Right, and that isn’t price gouging, Burgess said. “I mean, that’s just inherent cost.”
Everything costs more in the islands. The bill to install one new solar microgrid on Ragged Island is $3 million. Heastie insists it’s money well spent.
“So you have this initial big outlay to build these panels,” Whitaker said to Heastie. “But over time, the cost of generating power actually goes down?”
“Absolutely,” Heastie said. “By using what God has blessed us with, which is the natural sun.”
It’s not a perfect solution on Ragged Island; notably, the power from these panels will still feed into the vulnerable overhead power lines; the money’s not there yet to bury them.
“One of the first things that I think everyone can agree on is everything has to go underground,” Matt Winslow said.
Back in Hope Town, Winslow said they have the funds to bury their lines. Americans with second homes here add a lot to the economy, Winslow’s family foundation has donated nearly a million dollars to rebuilding efforts. They already have a makeshift microgrid powering the fire station and health clinic and Winslow has hired engineers to help plan a much bigger one on a nearby island.
“It’s possible that over in Great Abaco we could put, you know, a solar array, 18 acres,” Winslow said. “That power is piped through… preferably a new undersea cable to the island. And that could be a main source of our power.”
Winslow said that would be enough to power the island.
The Bahamas’ goal is to produce 30% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. Justin Locke and Chris Burgess of the Islands Energy Program believe the country can do even better.
“The price of renewables have come down to the point where they’re now very, very competitive with diesel,” Burgess said. “And in most cases, way cheaper than diesel.”
“The key game changer has been battery storage,” Locke said. “Battery storage has decreased in cost over 60% over the last five years. And what battery storage does is it enables the sun to shine when the sun is not shining. Renewables make more sense here than anywhere else in the world.”
And in the Caribbean, microgrids are starting to show their value. When earthquakes struck Puerto Rico in 2020, the entire island’s big electric grid was shut down for days. But remember those solar micgrogrids installed at schools? They kept providing power. The lessons can really apply anywhere.
“California has the same system architecture as here in the Caribbean, right? Fossil fuel, long transmission distribution lines,” Locke said. “And you see that PG&E had to proactively shut off power to millions of people in order to prevent fire.”
“If there had been these micro grids might it have been that PG&E would not have had to cut off power to millions of consumers?” Whitaker asked.
“Correct. Correct,” Locke said.
Here in the Bahamas there are still huge economic obstacles. Losses from Dorian equal nearly 30% of the country’s entire annual GDP.
“You’ve got this incredible outlay to rebuild these islands that were devastated by Dorian,” Whitaker said to Prime Minister Minnis. “Can you afford to bring on a new form of electrical generation?”
“We cannot afford it,” Minnis said. “We recognized from day one that we cannot do it alone.”
Just weeks after Dorian hit, then-Prime Minister Minnis spoke at the United Nations. He emphasized that most of the Bahamas was not damaged and eager for tourists, lifeblood of the economy. Then he said that first-world countries and their pollution are at least partly to blame for the threat of ever-stronger hurricanes.
“First World nations– and this is what I said at the U.N. I said, ‘First World nations make the greatest contribution to climate change,'” Minnis told Whitaker. “They are the ones responsible for the changes that we see. The increase in velocity and ferocity of the hurricanes and the different– and the changes, typhoons that we see today, but we’re the innocent victim. We’re the ones that are being impacted by what you have created.”
Minnis and leaders of other island nations have proposed that the U.S. and European countries contribute to an insurance fund – think of it as a “really rainy day” fund – to help rebuild from future storms.
“That’s what you say, and what you said at the U.N., the First World nations should do?” Whitaker asked Minnis.
“Absolutely,” Minnis said.
But are they doing it?
“It’s an ongoing discussion,” Minnis said. “It’s an ongoing discussion.”
“Does this make the change to renewable energy that much more important, imperative, urgent for you here in the Bahamas?” Whitaker asked.
“It is,” Minnis said. “Because even though our contribution to climate change is minimal, it’s miniscule to compare with First World nation, but we still have a responsibility.”
Since this story first aired in 2020, that microgrid we saw being installed on Ragged Island is now operating and supplying all the electricity the island needs. They haven’t had to ship diesel fuel to run that old generator in many months, which is especially welcome news given that the price of fuel has skyrocketed.
The Bahamas has a new government and new prime minister who says he’s just as committed to solar power as his predecessor.
Produced by Rome Hartman. Associate producer, Sara Kuzmarov. Broadcast associate, Emilio Almonte. Edited by Matt Richman and Aisha Crespo.
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