The contribution of the solar heating industry to Barbados??? economy cannot be ignored.

So says Minister of Industry, International Business, Commerce and Small Business Development, Donville Inniss, as he addressed the media following a tour of Sunpower 1999 Ltd, at Searles, Christ Church yesterday.

The Minister was accompanied by Permanent Secretary Philmore Best, and Senior Business Development Officer, Anderson Cumberbatch.

Noting that Sunpower had been in existence for nearly 40 years, Mr. Inniss said: ???There is a broader area here at stake, which is as we work to roll out Government???s alternative energy policy and move further away from the use of fossil fuel; an industry such as solar water heating becomes very important???

???In truth and in fact, had it not been for solar energy use in providing hot water systems in Barbados, we would have been spending a lot more on the importation of fossil fuel to meet the needs of our residents and commercial sectors.???

He disclosed that recent figures indicated there was still some ways to go in terms of serious penetration of the housing market with solar heaters. ???I believe there are 95,000 homes in Barbados in which just under 30 per cent have solar use and this may be a surprise to many who think that everybody has one. But the reality is that still many homes are without. Then there is another 12 per cent that use other forms of electric heating systems which also is an opportunity for the solar water heater suppliers to tap into that market???

???It is significant; when you look at it with the naked eye, you would have to use electric heaters or [the] other option of going and boiling water ??? which seems very antiquated,??? he said, while adding that there was a significant cost to those 30,000 or more householders on the island not yet utilising a solar water heater.

It was also pointed out that there was interest from entrepreneurs in regional and extra-regional markets in solar water heating and that the Barbados Investment and Development Corporation (BIDC) was continuing to explore opportunities recognised in the huge market of Brazil, where representatives had ventured some two months ago.

While acknowledging that there were challenges, Mr. Inniss said: ???I think the issue here with solar water heaters going into the Caribbean is more a matter of increased education as opposed to any other barriers to entry like tariffs rates or duties. I think that there is an opportunity for us to join with others in other Caribbean islands to help them [to] appreciate the benefits of using solar systems to generate hot water as opposed to antiquated methods that they currently use.

???Therein, I think lies the wonderful challenges for agencies like BIDC to partner with companies in Sao Paulo and getting into untapped markets in the region. There is a huge market here in the Caribbean and we can pursue it.???

Meanwhile, Sales Director at Sunpower, Henry Jordan, in outlining the challenges to his company, explained that construction was ???down??? and there was a fall-off in disposable income due to inflation. ???We are finding it very challenging for people to be able to buy products like they were???three years ago. One of the major impediments on the solar water heater on the domestic front is financing,??? he revealed.

Mr. Jordan opined that an exemption on VAT or even a reduction of taxes by Government could lead to more householders purchasing a solar product and suppliers being able to increase their orders. He added that if the sector was able to obtain more export markets within CARICOM then the cost of manufacturing could drop and Barbados could earn a considerable amount of foreign exchange.

Although his company exports solar water heaters to Dominica, St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Mr. Jordan lamented that outside of these territories there was really no major penetration of other markets.

???They are not familiar with the benefits and they don???t have the government infrastructure with the income tax rebates and all of that, set up in the other islands. Should that be done, it has to be driven first by Government policy in those other islands that could really pave the way for our product to easily enter that market with very little export visitation,??? he surmised.

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