Last Updated April 2019
Citizens and businesses of Sint Maarten, the Dutch side of Saint Martin island, live with all too regular voltage fluctuations and power outages. Many just accept the situation as a fact of life. However, many commentators argue that the poor state of the power sector is a major limiting factor in the nation’s quest for economic growth.
Sint Maarten since 2010 is an independent country, while still being part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The country covers the southern 40% (34 km²) of the divided island of Saint Martin. The remaining northern 60% of the island constitutes the semi-autonomous French overseas state of Saint Martin.
With amazing sun-drenched beaches and an interesting colonial past, the nation’s economy depends on the many tourists that visit the island each year.
In 1950, Sint Maarten’ had a population of less than 1500. In each of the following four decades, that figure doubled, reaching 24,000 by 1990. Since then, with booming tourism, numbers have continued to rise, and today it is estimated that the population stands at just over 40,000; making it the most densely populated state in the Caribbean. When measured by purchasing power parity, Sint Maarten has the 14th largest GDP per capita in the world; over three times larger than that of its French counterpart.
Electricity generation and distribution is the sole responsibility of NV GEBE, the state-owned power, and water utility company. With universal access to electricity, power is primarily (97%) derived from diesel/petroleum (fossil fuels) which power the generators at the company’s Cay Bay power plant. It is estimated that the plant has an 86 Megawatt total capacity to satisfy a 55 Megawatt peak demand (November 2015). However, the power plant is aging, and combined with an ineffectual generator maintenance programme; the actual ‘available’ power cannot always satisfy demand. As a result, power outages and brownouts are not uncommon occurrences, especially in the summer months when there is an increased demand for power to support air conditioning.
GEBE Power-Plant in Cay Bay
With the States near 100% reliance on expensive fossil fuels for generation, studies have suggested that renewable energy has a high potential to displace fossil fuel generation, particularly wind, and solar. While GEBE and the Government have publicly committed to investing in the development of renewable cleaner energy sources, to date, limited by policy and infrastructure barriers, little progress has been made in the delivery.
On average, Sint Maarten has to deal with a hurricane once every six years, however in recent years the ferocity of these has increased, and in the future climate change scientists predict, as the tropical cyclone will probably contain more water, they will only get stronger still.
When hurricane Irma hit the island in September 2017 with winds of up to 180 mph nearly a third of the buildings in Sint Maarten were destroyed and over 90 percent of structures on the island were damaged. Many of the island’s inhabitants were left devoid of basic necessities. The winds brought down many over-head power lines, and many citizens and businesses were left without power for weeks - clearly showing the need for expanding the existing programme of burying power lines.
One year on from Hurricane Irma reconstruction continues with an emphasis on developing infrastructure resilience
As normality now returns to Sint Maarten, power quality issues still remain a major limiting factor to future prosperity. Most commentators agree that until significant investment is made in new cleaner generating capacity, and the resilience of the power distribution network is further enhanced, power-cuts and brownouts will continue to be semi-regular occurrences.
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