USF, Dominican Republic Energize Relationship
An agreement signed Wednesday has USF working with the Caribbean country on renewable energy initiatives.
By Saundra Amrhein
Special to USF.edu
TAMPA, Fla. – (Aug. 25, 2010) Strengthening its growing role in alternative energy research, the University of South Florida on Wednesday entered into an agreement with the Dominican Republic to help that country develop its expertise in the renewable energy sector.
During a ceremony in the Grace Allen Room of the USF Library, the five-year agreement was signed by Maria Crummett, dean of International Affairs, and Enrique Ramirez, the executive director of the Dominican Republic's National Energy Commission.
The commission is the Dominican Republic's institution charged with implementing state policy in the sustainable energy sector.
The agreement comes amid a longstanding relationship between the Dominican Republic and the university, particularly the Dr. Kiran C. Patel Center for Global Solutions.
It establishes a framework through which the commission can send its own researchers to Florida to train and discuss policy with USF faculty, students and staff in order to further that country's growing sectors in wind, solar and other types of alternative energy.
"Today we have a major investment in the alternative energy sector, but we don't have the human resources to sustain that investment," Ramirez said through an interpreter during the ceremony. He lauded USF's leadership role in this area and its commitment to help the Dominican Republic solve its large energy problems through the promotion of the alternative energy sector.
"There is no better time than the present to sign this agreement," Ramirez added.
Crummett noted that the relationship will build on the university's mission and work on alternative energy underway through the Patel Center as well as the School of Global Sustainability.
"This truly represents a very momentous occasion for USF," Crummett said during the signing ceremony. "We consider you our partners, we consider you our friends and collaborators as we move forward."
Mark Amen, academic director for the Patel Center, traced its ties to the Dominican Republic back to 2002, when Leonel Fernandez came through to discuss alternative energy after receiving an honorary degree from USF President Judy Genshaft. He is now the president of the Dominican Republic and a strong promoter of developing this sector.
To be sure, the agreement signed Wednesday comes on the heels of an ongoing project spearheaded by the Patel Center that aims to help Florida's small business increase exports for alternative energy markets.
This summer, nine students from Florida universities involved in the project - including two from USF - visited the Dominican Republic and Panama.
Both countries lack petroleum or coal and must import their fuel, increasing the potential for new alternative energy markets, according to Rebecca Harris, the Patel Center's assistant academic director.
“If they could develop alternative energies this would be terrific for them, and if Florida businesses could help them do that, it could be great for everybody,” she said.
The project is part of a two-year study funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Business and International Education Program. The grant, totaling more than $100,000, is intended to assist Florida’s small businesses in this sector by helping them expand their export markets. It is also meant to strengthen the business and engineering curricula in the state’s higher education system related to worldwide use of alternative energy.
The study comes amid national efforts to promote green industries as a way to create new jobs during the economic downturn while helping the environment. The Patel Center is collaborating with the Florida Network for Global Studies, which includes USF and six other state universities.
During its first year, the center’s student researchers focused on three areas: assessing the curricula in the state’s university system regarding alternative energy and its export; surveying Florida’s small businesses involved in alternative energy and to what extent they are exporting; and exploring potential markets in the Dominican Republic and Panama.
Brian Madigan, a researcher on the project who graduated from USF in May with a master’s degree in business administration, explored the current conditions for Florida’s small renewable energy businesses.
He surveyed 240 companies, and 57 responded. Most employ 10 employees or less. Almost half said they export and more than a quarter do so as a significant share of their business.
A large majority, or 96 percent, reported involvement with solar energy, most of that in photovoltaic energy systems. About a third deals in wind energy.
Madigan included solar radiation maps that show what he termed a “vast energy potential” blanketing parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.
While “huge opportunities” also exist in the region for wind, biomass and other alternative energies, the solar potential could be matched with Florida’s current strength.
“Florida’s strong photovoltaic industry should be better leveraged when expanding export markets to the Caribbean and Latin America for several reasons,” Madigan wrote. That includes the state’s proximity to Latin America; a similar climate with parts of the region; and the ability to communicate.
More than half of the companies employ Spanish speakers and almost all of them said they were interested in doing business in Latin America.
But challenges persist, Madigan reported. The companies cited a lack of government support as their biggest barrier to growth.
Indeed, a recent St. Petersburg Times article noted that the state’s solar rebate program has gone unfunded since 2009. And the Legislature has not moved forward on Gov. Charlie Crist’s 20 by 2020 plan to require Florida power companies to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020.
Companies also complained about a lack of affordable financing and consumer demand. They said that impediments to more exports include bureaucracy in the export process and a lack of opportunity or knowledge as to how it works, Madigan wrote.
The researchers who traveled to the Dominican Republic and Panama brought back information for small businesses to consider.
For instance, most of the population in the Dominican Republic has access to the electric power grid. But coverage is sometimes nonexistent in rural areas and unreliable in urban centers.
The country’s solar panels, solar water heaters and pumps, wind turbines and biomass generators come mainly from Europe or Asia.
Florida’s small businesses could take advantage of their proximity to become more competitive in this market, they suggested.
The National Energy Commission offers big incentives – including exemptions on import taxes on equipment; tax credits; and government-purchased surpluses.
But to benefit from the incentives, companies have to follow the commission’s regulations, including approved zones for alternative energy and the commission’s set sales price for energy.
Most projects with the commission involve wind and bioenergy, taking advantage of the country’s sugar cane and other plants.
But conditions are ripe for solar power in the sundrenched country, where only 0.1 % of all energy production yet comes from this method.
In Panama, the picture is different. Most of the alternative energy produced comes from hydroelectric power. But others, like wind and solar, are being explored. Challenges for solar energy include cloud coverage for much of the year.
Florida’s companies must remember that both countries conduct business differently, and delays for projects are often lengthy, researchers said.
As part of the grant, the Patel Center will hold export seminars for small Florida businesses this fall in Tampa and throughout the state. For more information, call the Patel Center at (813) 974-2954.