National Geographic News
Sungevity installers with local trainees install solar panels Tuesday, October 5, 2010, on top of the White House of the Maldives, the Mulee Aage, in Male, the capital of the Maldives.  (Photograph courtesy Sungevity)

Workers install solar panels on the rooftop of the Mulee Aage, the presidential residence of the Maldives, in the capital city of Male. President Mohamed Nasheed hopes the move to renewable energy will highlight the climate change risk faced by this nation of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean. (below)

Photograph courtesy Sungevity

Submitter: JAMES L. STANFIELD   DHIDDU ISLAND, THE MALDIVES.  (Photograph by James Stanfield, National Geographic)

Photograph by James Stanfield, National Geographic

By Marianne Lavelle

For National Geographic News

Published October 6, 2010

The Obama administration plans for the White House to go solar by next spring, but the U.S. first residence will be beaten to the renewable energy punch by the presidential home of an island nation in the Indian Ocean at the front line of climate change risk.

Workers on Thursday finished installation of 48 solar photovoltaic modules on the rooftop of the Mulee Aage, the official residence of the president of the Maldives—a system engineered by satellite technology from halfway around the world in California.

It is the latest gambit by Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed to draw attention to the problem of global warming, a ladder-high follow-up to an underwater cabinet meeting he staged one year ago.

The Maldives, a tropical archipelago of 1,190 coral islands spread out over 500 miles (860 kilometers), averages only about 5 feet (1.5 meters) above sea level, making it vulnerable to sea level rise and typhoons.

(Related: National Geographic Travel Maldives Guide)

Nasheed says 16 of the islands already face serious erosion problems, and on 60 islands important freshwater sources have been contaminated by saltwater intrusion. The nation also worries that the depletion troubling its fishing industry, its second-largest economic sector next to tourism, is due to changes in the global climate.

“For the Maldives, climate change . . . is not a problem in the future,” Nasheed said in a conference call Tuesday from his nation’s capital, Male. “It is a problem that we are facing every day.”

The Maldives: Not a Big Polluter

The 11.5-kilowatt system that’s being installed is designed to generate 15,000 kilowatt-hours per year for the next 25 years, saving 200 tons of carbon dioxide. It’s meant to highlight Nasheed’s pledge to make the country 100 percent carbon-neutral by 2020, the most aggressive goal among the carbon-reduction plans submitted to the United Nations in the wake of the Copenhagen Accord.

For the Maldives to go zero carbon, however, hardly registers as a blip in worldwide greenhouse gas reduction.

The nation, with a total land area not even double the size of Washington, D.C., has little area for the kind of manufacturing or agriculture that would generate large emissions.

The Maldives ranks 168 out of 186 countries in carbon output, according to the World Resources Institute’s Climate Analysis Indicators Tool.

But for the nation’s 400,000 people, there’s a short-term renewable energy benefit—saving money. Like many island states, the Maldives relies mainly on oil to power its electricity—an expensive option that also leaves the nation vulnerable to wild swings in the global price of oil.

(Related: "Solar Brings Light to Quake-Darkened Haiti")

The Oakland, California, solar firm that designed the Mulee Aage system, Sungevity, estimates that it will save the Maldives government $300,000 in electricity costs over the life of the system. The panels were donated by the Korean module manufacturer LG Electronics.

“President Nasheed is demonstrating it is a wise, affordable investment for his country, just as President Obama has decided to show the people of America that solar is a wise, affordable investment for them,” said Danny Kennedy, co-founder and president of Sungevity.

Kennedy, a native of Australia was a longtime Greenpeace activist before starting the firm and was involved in the campaign that helped spur the California Solar Initiative. Along with the climate activism group 350.org, he has been one of the driving forces urging Obama and other world leaders to install solar energy systems on their residences.

In addition to the Maldives system and the planned installation at the White House, one other first residence gets power from the sun. In July, India’s presidential estate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, became a green-certified facility after a solar energy system was installed.

‘A Natural Turn of Events’

But for the Put Solar On It campaign there was no greater coup than Tuesday’s announcement that the Obama administration would bring solar power back to the White House after almost 25 years. President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels in the 1970s, but they were taken down during the 1980s by his successor, President Ronald Reagan.

When 350.org founder and writer/activist Bill McKibben led a group of activists to a meeting at the White House to push the solar idea last month, they came away disappointed.

The turnaround this week may have surprised some activists, but Nasheed said he wasn’t among them. “I have always felt President Obama is a believer,” he said. “That’s why in my mind, this was a natural turn of events.”

The Maldives solar system was designed using a remote-engineering system developed by Sungevity. Using photographs from space and other aerial images, the company creates a computerized three-dimensional model of a building that can provide enough detailed data on roof pitch and azimuth—essentially the angle at which the sun hits—to design the system in the company’s California offices. Pointing to a mango tree in a demonstration of the system using the Maldives photographs, Kennedy said, “That’s our chief shade threat right now.”

The two-year-old company has been doing such long-distance designs for homeowners in California, Colorado, and Arizona—allowing customers to get a system design and price quote by e-mail—and hopes to roll out a nationwide program next year. “We’re trying to make it feel like other internet commerce,” says Kennedy, whose company leases the systems so that customers don’t have to pay the entire capital cost of solar up front. He says about 60 percent of the company’s current customers save money on their electric bills right away, and the company pledges that all will save money over the 10-year span of their leases.

“We’re trying to demonstrate that we’ve got a solution, and that has been my view of what the social movements have to do now,” says Kennedy.

The Maldives presidential residence is the longest-distance installation that Sungevity has engineered, and Kennedy hopes to join Nasheed on the roof of the Mulee Aage to install the final panels and switch the system on Thursday. In the face of global inaction on a climate treaty, Nasheed—a former political activist who was imprisoned several times by the former governmental regime before he won election in 2008—said he is just taking the kind of step that’s needed.

“What we have to do, we have to do by direct action,” he said. “Now as a president, it’s very difficult for me to be talking like this. But whatever I have been able to do, I have done it against odds. This has to involve an amount of direct action on the streets.”

(Related: "For Hurricane Katrina Victims, a Solar Restart"

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