Trinidad’s politics and power

May 29, 2005 02:00 AM

by David Renwick

Surprisingly little comment has been forthcoming, even from energy circles, on Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s suggestion in his address to the tenth Special Caricom Heads of Government conference as long ago as November last year, that Trinidad and Tobago might be prepared to consider supplying electric power to Grenada and St Vincent by undersea cable, in the same way as is now done between Trinidad and Tobago itself.
This proposal was put forward in the context of the consultants report into the Eastern Caribbean Gas pipeline project, which knocked the two Caricom territories out of the equation as far as their participation in the main pipeline was concerned (they would have to be served by a separate line, which would be too costly), leaving them bereft of the lower-cost gas meant to bring down the price of power in order to improve the competitiveness of countries in the region.

In view of Trinidad and Tobago’s commendable desire to do what it can to rectify the economic imbalance with its fellow Caricom states, Manning was not prepared to leave it at that and came up with the alternative noted above. Those in the business call this “Gas to Wire” (GtW) and it is one of the many ways of exporting gas by those who have it to those who don’t, only that the exported product takes the form of the electricity which the gas has been used to create.
Those territories which may eventually be hooked into the pipeline itself will, of course, receive the gas directly in its natural form and be able to generate the power themselves. So, since there has been no public discussion on the matter, let’s start the ball rolling today by examining both the economics and the politics of the idea.

The economics are yet to be worked out precisely, since this alternative to the gas line is still only at a very tentative stage but, according to Manning, the cost of the generating facility, the submarine cable and whatever retrofitting needs to be undertaken in Grenada and St Vincent, should be around $ 90 mm.
“This is well worth our consideration,” he says, “especially in the context of the balanced development we are pursuing in the region and in light of the fact that the neglect of member states, already demonstrably vulnerable, will continue to countervail regional advancement.”

A rather convoluted way of putting it but, in plain language, it means that Trinidad and Tobago is not opposed to coughing up some money to ensure two of its closest neighbours are not deprived of the advantages of the cheaper fuel which Barbados, Martinique, Guadeloupe and, perhaps, St Lucia and Dominica, will obtain through the pipeline (assuming, of course, the power generator/transmitter/distributor at the receiving end chooses to lower its/their bills, which may not be guaranteed but that’s a story for another day).

So the economics seem to be taken care of. What about the politics? (In this matter, the economics is primarily the concern of the provider, i.e. Trinidad and Tobago and the politicsprimarily the concern of the receivers, i.e. Grenada and St Vincent).
The politics revolves around whether the governments of the two territories and their respective electorates want to be beholden to this country in terms of such a basic commodity as electricity.

Getting gas to fuel your own generators is one thing; getting a direct power supply which has been generated elsewhere is another.
Professor Richard Dawe, who holds the Methanol Co (TTMC) chair in Petroleum Engineering in the chemical engineering department of the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine, and who has written a paper with his colleague, Sydney Thomas, on ways to deliver gas from exporting to importing countries, remarked to me recently:
“If I were the Prime Ministers of Grenada and St Vincent, I would be thinking whether being dependent on Trinidad for electricity might not make me have to toe the line with Trinidad and Tobago on political matters that have nothing to do with electricity.”

A very interesting observation indeed which Professor Dawe embellishes further with the question: “Will Grenada and St Vincent be able to continue to have an independent view and be able to express it, even though it may differ from Trinidad’s and not suddenly find that the power has been cut off?”
And before one of my three or four readers rushes in to observe that the same could apply to the gas supply, I should point out that the Eastern Caribbean gas pipeline project is envisaged as a private-sector dominated entity in which a government company like NGC may have a share but which will be run along commercial lines. In a commercial arrangement if you deprive your customer of a good or service, you lose money --sometimes lots of it -- and no supplier in his, her or its right mind is going to do that.

Of course, in the case of both the pipeline and the cable, stand-by generation capacity at the receiving end could be an insurance policy against any such eventuality but the recipient states will have to decide whether they want capital tied-up in idle generators which will have to be serviced and kept in usable condition.
As Professor Dawe notes: “They might just sit there for 20 years without ever having to be used.”

He also drew my attention to the fact that the “political” aspect might well be a factor at the supplying end as well. “Suppose Grenada reverted to communism as it did under Bishop for a period of time in the seventies and eighties, would Trinidad want to switch off the power?”
The Professor advises all the countries involved in any potential GtW initiative: “Have the political dimension fairly well copper-plated and guaranteed beforehand, otherwise serious problems could arise.”

Source: The Trinidad Guardian
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