U.S. Virgin Islands National Park Gets Much Needed Solar Power

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When someone talks about national parks, the mental image that forms in your head is probably something like Yosemite, Yellowstone, or maybe the Great Smoky Mountains. The Caribbean generally doesn’t come to mind first. But, one of the United States’ most beautiful parks is out there east of Puerto Rico, and it takes up most of Saint John, one of the Virgin Islands.

In fact, that’s what it’s called: Virgin Islands National Park.

Like many other places in the Caribbean, sometimes things are great and sometimes things are not so great. Sadly, some of those not-so-great times in the history of the Virgin Islands was plantation slavery when the islands were owned by Denmark. Then known as the Danish West Indies, the main exports were sugar, cotton, and indigo dye. Eventually, this became unprofitable and the islands fell into neglect until World War I.

Fearing that the neglected and unwanted islands might fall into German hands and serve as a U-boat base, the United States offered to buy them from Denmark, finishing the sale in early 1917. After World War II and the embargo on Cuba, the islands became a major tourist destination, with people from the mainland United States able to get an authentic Caribbean experience without needing a passport to go back home.

While things did improve over time, one major problem help from the United States government couldn’t solve was hurricanes. Catastrophic damage came with Hurricane Hugo in 1989, followed by hurricanes every few years with varying amounts of damage, from minor to severe. But, in September 2017, Hurricane Irma did the most damage in recent history, followed by a second Category 5 hurricane (Maria) just two weeks later.

Today, the Virgin Islands National Park both serves as a beach vacation destination (with plenty of scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities) but also a place to learn about the history of the island, both under U.S. and Danish rule. Plus, there’s great information about the island’s history before European contact, hiking trails, and scenic opportunities.

Along with the rest of the island, the national park took a pretty good hit in all of the hurricanes, including the most recent category 5 double whammy. The park had to be closed for weeks, with all parts of the park ready for visitors again about two months later. Despite repairs being done quickly, the visits to the park took a big hit the following year, which in turn wasn’t great for the economy of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Along with the hurricanes, one other abundant weather phenomenon in the Virgin Islands is sunshine. So, it makes natural sense (and was recommended by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) to use that sunshine to improve energy reliability and lower the park’s environmental impact. After all, the island’s only utility company generates electricity exclusively through fossil fuels and there’s a five-mile underwater set of wires that feeds the park! This means regular power outages.

So, the National Park Foundation (NPF) helped to get funding together to install a serious solar system at the Cruz Bay Visitor Center. With 60 panels, peak power is 19 kilowatts. Annually, the system should generate about 31,400 kilowatt-hours, or about 70% of the building’s energy use. On top of the solar power, the building now has better windows, roofs, and doors to both make it more energy efficient and take less damage the next time a tropical storm or hurricane comes through. A better HVAC system, LED lighting, and window treatments all add up to serious savings.

More importantly, the visitor center also serves as the offices for the park’s rangers, who have been scattered in other buildings since the 2017 hurricane double-header. With repairs set for completion this month, the rangers will all be back in the same building and able to more effectively work together. 

This is part of a larger National Park Foundation effort to expand solar energy at national parks all over the United States. Among others, Acadia National Park in Maine and Big Bend National Park in Texas are all getting some solar love. Combined with other efforts, the overall goal of the National Park Service and National Park Foundation is to work toward net zero for all of the parks.

You can learn about other NPF efforts here, but I’ll share some of their other achievements and goals below.

Another dirty but exciting effort is the “Don’t Feed The Landfills” initiative. Instead of needing to send everything to a local landfill (which might end up being on the park itself in more rural areas like Big Bend), the idea is to get more recycling going, do more composting, and otherwise try to keep things going to cleaner places. Some of this requires expensive sorting bins, sorting facilities, and more.

Another important effort is to conserve other resources like water. Not only is it good to make sure bottles have a shot at getting recycles, but it’s also good to encourage people to use water refill stations to avoid such waste altogether. I’ve personally used such stations at Petrified Forest National Park and at the Grand Canyon, and they helped us make much better use of our metal water bottles.

Like better waste management, this requires expensive infrastructure and upgrades, along with planning to integrate water management into all park operations. None of this equipment and planning expertise comes cheap, but NPF helps get the money together to get the job done.

Another very cool project the Foundation participated in was to bring electric buses to Zion National Park. A grant helped the park replace ICE buses with battery-electric buses that are perfect for low-speed people moving that the park needs to do, especially during the busy season. 

But, it’s important to note that the National Parks Foundation isn’t like Scrooge McDuck in Duck Tales, with a huge safe full of gold coins to swim in. The only way these projects happen is through donations, big and small. The average person can do a small one-time or monthly donation, but companies like Coca-Cola and Subaru pitch in millions. Either way, if sustainability at parks is important to you, they’re the people to give some ammo to.

Featured image by National Park Service (Public Domain) via National Park Foundation.


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