As fuel-import costs continue to edge closer to the export earnings of the third-world island nations of the Caribbean Basin, alternative energy systems are increasingly gaining a new respect.
A forerunner in the renewable-resource movement is a not-for-profit foundation based in Miami and in the Turks and Caicos Islands, situated 100 miles north of Haiti.
The six-year-old foundation, known as PRIDE (Protection of Reefs and Islands from Degradation and Exploitation), has not only installed wind- and solar-energy systems in the Turks and Caicos, but only recently formed an alternative-energy cooperative which is designed to help others do the same throughout the region.
That venture is the Caribbean Renewable Energy Cooperative (CRE), which functions like the US-based Rural Electrification Association in that it works to match alternative-energy skills, technology, and hardware with local needs.
If successful, it could have significant impact on the island economies of the Caribbean.
PRIDE founder Chuck Hesse, a US Naval Academy graduate and nuclear power plant engineer-turned-biologist, describes CRE as an ''action-oriented middle-man agency'' between the manufacturers of alternative-energy systems and the potential system users.
CRE, however, is prepared to take that role one step further by even providing the personnel and the training needed to keep the local systems on line after they are installed.
An alternative-energy data base is being developed at PRIDE's Miami office to store relevant system information and to make available the results of trial-and-error solutions already tested by PRIDE and others.
In addition to the obvious benefits buyers and sellers would realize, the CRE concept also would allow the evolving renewable-energy industry in the United States to bridge the gap between prototype and commercial production, using the optimal sun and wind resources of the Caribbean.
Local island economies vary widely according to mineral resources as well as agricultural and fisheries potential, none of which is a match for the escalating fuel costs that are required to provide the basic energy needs of the islands.
For example, in the sugar-producing Dominican Republic, revenues from about one-half of all the sugar production purchased all imported oil in 1970. In 1980 , however, proceeds from that same level of production could buy only half the needed oil, according to Mr. Hesse.
Other, more remote islands are still struggling to develop even a working energy infrastructure on which an emerging industry could be based.
The current US Caribbean Basin Initiative, designed to uplift basin nations with $350 million in (largely military) aid and private-enterprise incentives, won't have a chance to work unless an energy source is available locally, according to Mr. Hesse.
''My argument is that you cannot get business interested unless you have energy,'' he says. ''Almost any big industry is going to get flagged by the cost of electricity.''
The clear tropical skies, year-round sunshine, and steady 14-mile-an-hour trade winds that waft over most islands in the evening are energy sources which are available to all the countries in the region.
Ironically, wind power was widespread before the introduction of diesel fuel to the region in the 20th century.
''In Antigua alone, there were 108 windmills used to crush sugar cane and in 1900 it all started to turn around'' with steam and fossil fuel, Hesse continues. In more recent times, experiments with alternative energy have often failed because they lacked local operating skills or readily available replacement parts, two factors that the CRE hopes to overcome.
Although there have been recent successes with isolated systems, most notably a solar-hot-water-heating system at a 400-bed Jamaican hospital, which saves up to 12,000 gallons of fuel oil a year, CRE is the first unified Caribbean movement to alternative energy.
It's a movement that's been evolving with the work performed by PRIDE in the Turks and Caicos over the last five years.
In an era when it may take five years to even complete a feasibility study in more bureaucratic societies, the accomplishments of the mostly unpaid PRIDE workers have been impressive.
* They were able to persuade the government of the Turks and Caicos to become the first Caribbean entity to waive its (26 percent) import tariff on alternative-energy systems and parts in 1980.
* Under the auspices of their foundation and Trade Wind Industries Ltd., the locally incorporated company, they have erected a dozen wind-powered devices to provide energy to pump water for irrigation systems, power airport communications, and run home refrigeration units throughout the Turks and Caicos.
There are larger single systems elsewhere, but the 200-watt and one-kilowatt systems installed by PRIDE are the most extensive in the area.
* Working with Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA), they installed a one-kilowatt Bergey wind generator atop a 45-foot octahedron tower on Antigua in the eastern Caribbean. The wind system directly powers an irrigation system that has returned 70 acres of arid government-owned land to agricultural productivity.
* They've worked to revive the diminishing queen conch population, the country's major export commodity, with conch mariculture. If the conch hatchery, located near the foundation's 40-foot geodesic dome and wet lab on Pine Cay, is successful, workers may be able to seed local waters with millions of juvenile conch.
* Hesse, through the cooperation of PRIDE board member Bill Cowles, developer of the Meridian Club on Pine Cay, has promoted the construction of a 11/2-acre solar salt pond to provide energy.
* Other projects include encouraging local farmers to mulch and compost from readily available wastes to avoid having to import fertilizer or heavily use irrigation; and designing low-draft, tri-hulled sail craft for transportation and fishing uses to replace motored craft.
The CRE concept was launched earlier this year after the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, which also helps support PRIDE, responded to Mr. Hesse's proposal with $100,000 in start-up monies. Operational funds to carry CRE over the next three years are being sought from the Organization of American States and others. The ultimate goal is to establish the co-op as a self-supporting consortium of hardware manufacturers, buyers, and resource personnel.
Targeted for special attention during the outset are the British Virgin Islands, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Haiti, Antigua, and the Turks and Caicos.