Harnessing the Sunshine at Tropic Air
“Every year, the water comes a little bit closer to my front door.”
Tropic Air President John Greif III is talking about the very real effects of climate change, having witnessed it himself from his beach home on Ambergris Caye.
“In spite of the doubters of man-made global warming, I see it on my beach…I have no doubt…and…logic tells me, that at least part of it is man-made.”
Hence, San Pedro’s Terminal Building is housing solar panels, which he admits might not make the biggest dent in the world of carbon offsetting, but is a start in the right direction.
Greif’s interest in natural sources of energy goes way back, particularly with his fascination with sailing; capturing the wind and using it to propel a vessel across water. Harnessing something from nothing is incredibly appealing. Similarly, solar power is a viable option to offset carbon production, collecting the energy from the sun. Upon designing the terminal building, one option included a roof tilt to the south. “For solar cells, you want to aim the cells due south,” said Greif, who admits he did a lot of research and became fascinated by the entire process. “The tilt in the roof needs to be the same as the degree of longitude – we are at 17.” He noted that the initial design had the roof sloped at 13-14 degrees, and the architect was able to adjust the design without compromising visual integrity or structure. The building went up, the roof tilt was adjusted according, brackets to hold the panels were installed, and then…they ‘forgot’ about it for a while!
It wasn’t really forgetting, but rather a monitoring of the market to decide when to strike. Greif explained that over a decade, he saw solar prices going down, while gas (fossil fuels) prices kept going up. Once the prices met at a crossroads, it was time to revisit the plan. A complex option included building a perfect storage facility then setting up the extraction of energy from its storage (batteries). However, using an inter-tie was a simpler version in which electricity is made when the sun is shining, and when it isn’t, it doesn’t. Seeing as Tropic didn’t have night flights and the building simply required Air Conditioning as its biggest energy draw, this was the way to go. “We ran numbers and discovered it would be a 7-year pay-off, which I remember at the time thinking that was nothing,” said Greif. “My partner Steve Schulte and I sat down and discussed with our CFO, and realized we could do it. That was 3.5 years ago, and so we are halfway through paying it off, and we haven’t had any problems!”
So far, at optimum conditions, the panels provide about 25% of the company’s energy requirements. At some point, Greif says it will make sense to invest in batteries, especially as Tropic Air is slowly creeping into night flights. Caye Caulker’s new building was also similarly designed, and has the potential to be completely self-sufficient using solar.
One company might not necessarily change the world, but it makes a difference. If more people would take up the initiative, collectively they can make a marked difference. “I’ve got 13 grandkids. If nothing else, for them,” says Greif.
Solar Power for Rural Belize
One of Belize’s most remote villages in Toledo, Machakilha, was recently the recipient of solar panels and batteries. The materials were delivered via the first vehicle to ever drive to the village, and they will be installed by 3 women solar engineers. Florentina Choco, Miriam Choc, and Cristina Choc are three Maya women who studied at Barefoot College in India, and are now working with the government and Plenty Belize on a project called “Indigenous Female Solar Engineers Scaling up Solar Energy to Machakilha and Graham Creek.”
Belize is, in so many ways still so very remote and unexplored. Villages like Machakilha are remote and often only accessible by foot or horseback. Students travel miles through all kinds of weather to be able to access education, but now they will be able to study and complete assignments after sundown. As for the women, upon completion of the project, they will continue to provide solar powered electricity under their newly registered company, Belize Power Connected Limited.
Whether in the top tourism destination of the country or the farthest reaches of Belize’s jungles, solar power is making a difference.