Energy Security and the Sustainability of SIDS

Elizabeth Thompson

Energy security is the access by countries and consumers to an affordable and continuous supply of energy. Some 90% of economic and social activity in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) is powered by imported fossil fuels. Lack of energy security adds to the numerous vulnerabilities characterising SIDS. The current global energy “trilemma,” of “energy equity, energy security and environmental sustainability,” to which the World Energy Council speaks, is manifested in SIDS. The islands are on “the front line” of climate change impacts by which their societies, economies and ecosystems are severely threatened. Many suffer water stress and scarcity, desertification, warming marine habitats, and other adverse impacts. The Maldives is literally sinking. SIDS are witnessing more frequent and extreme weather events such as the Category 5 storm, Hurricane Ivan, which in a few hours wiped out 90% of Grenada’s housing stock and 200% of its GDP. Energy security in SIDS is inseparable from mitigating climate change impacts and achieving development prospects

SIDS are located far from the centres of fossil fuel extraction and production and have high freighting costs. Their small sizes and population bases also act as barriers against competitive volume pricing and the creation of economies of scale; this also makes profit generation for power producers and distributors difficult. Island states are highly vulnerable to oil price fluctuations and particularly hard hit by price spikes. Many islands are legally locked into monopoly relationships with utility companies that are diesel-using generators and militate against the exploration of off-grid and shared power from renewable energy sources. As a consequence of these combined factors, the energy prices in SIDS are amongst the highest in the world.

The islands are on “the front line” of climate change impacts by which their societies, economies and ecosystems are severely threatened.

International oil prices reached the historical high of US $147 per barrel in July 2008. However, according to UNDP, in 2007 with oil prices at US $75 per barrel, SIDS were already collectively spending US $67 million per day. At that time, the average oil import bill “in the Caribbean region, was 21% of GDP; in the Pacific SIDS it was 18% of GDP.” Higher oil prices make energy more unaffordable for SIDS, further undermining their viability. Ranking amongst the world’s most tourism-dependent economies, islands in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific are significantly impacted by seasonality and volatility. This is compounded by the fact that four SIDS are amongst the world’s most heavily indebted nations: St Kitts and Nevis, Jamaica, Singapore and Barbados.

This is where SE4All can be particularly useful as an enabler, bringing together countries, development agencies, and capital.

If SIDS are to wean themselves off of fossil fuels and transition to sustainable energy, they now need to develop clear action plans and roadmaps, translate energy policy statements into an action agenda, develop relevant incentive and disincentive schemes to ensure universal island access, promote renewable energy and energy efficiency and attract private investment for building out the necessary energy infrastructure in the power sector. SIDS would also need a suitable instrument to support their energy and strategic development agendas.

The urgency to lower energy costs, reduce economic expenditure and minimise climate change impacts, has forced SIDS to develop national energy policies centred on energy efficiency, renewables, and sustainable energy. Despite this important initial step, few island states have developed roadmaps or the appropriate enabling environments with corollary policy, strategy, fiscal, capacity, and institutional and governance frameworks to take their policies beyond conceptual framework to implementation, or to transition into sustainable energy sectors. The dearth of enabling frameworks, strategic approaches, and roadmaps have resulted in the inability of SIDS to attract and mobilise the financial resources and suitably scaled technologies needed to give full actualisation to the goals of universal energy access, renewable energy and energy efficiency. While there is now far greater availability of financing to support renewable energy development than in 1994, accessing that capital has presented SIDS with major challenges. This is where SE4All can be particularly useful as an enabler, bringing together countries, development agencies, and capital.

SIDS have long recognised and sought to treat to the energy, development, and security nexus. It is noteworthy that 20 years after the United Nation’s First International Conference on Small Island Developing States in Barbados in 1994, the global community is now seeking to include energy as a sustainable development goal (SDG), and a critical component of the post-2015 development agenda. Framing energy as “the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity, and an environment that allows the world to thrive,” in 2011, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon launched his energy initiative, Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) with three core principles and objectives; by 2030 to:

  • Ensure universal access to modern energy services
  • Double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency
  • Double the share of renewable energy in the global mix

SIDS have an abundance of renewable energy resources, which if properly used can reduce fossil fuel expenditures, create jobs, and strengthen their economies.

There are four “enabling” action areas with “high impact opportunities” which are of relevance to SIDS: “energy planning and policies, business model and technology innovation, finance and risk management, and capacity building and knowledge sharing.” SE4All also includes an “action agenda” around which its objectives can be realized with policy, programs and projects in the areas of “modern cooking appliances and fuels, distributed electricity solutions, grid infrastructure and supply efficiency, large-scale renewable power, industrial and agricultural processes, transportation, and buildings and appliances.”

SIDS regard SE4All as converging with their own strategic development and security priorities. In May 2012, the highest political representatives of SIDS agreed to the Barbados Declaration, expressing the view that “the increasing cost of imported fossil fuels represents a major impediment to the achievement of sustainable development and poverty eradication in SIDS.” They consequently embraced the three core objectives of SE4All as capable of addressing energy cost, demand and supply, as well as wider social, economic and environmental concerns, particularly climate change. The most recent expression of the intention of SIDS to pursue sustainable energy and the SE4All objectives have found expression in the “S.A.M.O.A Pathway,” the Outcome Document of the recently concluded Third International SIDS Conference.

The small size of the islands means that it is possible to effect transition to sustainable energy, make development gains, and eradicate poverty. SIDS have an abundance of renewable energy resources, which if properly used can reduce fossil fuel expenditures, create jobs, and strengthen their economies. Their shortage is in appropriate technologies at scale, adequate financial resources and a suitable “backbone” on which energy policy and programming can be built. SE4All can be that backbone since its objectives span the gamut of the three pillars of development and help to circumvent the continued use of fossil fuels that cause climate change and enhance both energy and national security.


Elizabeth Thompson is a Senior Advisor to Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) and former Minister for Energy and Environment of Barbados

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