Some of the world’s most alluring tourist traps are turning into testing grounds for cleaner energy.
Island-dwellers have a good reason to be renewable power pioneers: The waters that lap their beaches isolate them from the pipelines and grids that deliver cheaper electricity on the mainland. As a result, islands around the globe typically rely on expensive, polluting diesel oil for electricity.
Dependence on tanker deliveries of oil for lighting and air-conditioning means that islands are uniquely vulnerable to spikes in the global price of oil. So from the Caribbean Sea to the South Pacific, islands are seeking new ways of capturing energy from the same native resources that draw so many people to their shores each year—sun, sea, breeze, and stunning (often volcanic) terrain.
A case in point: the U.S. Virgin Islands, where electricity prices jumped to 54 cents per kilowatt-hour, quadruple the national average, when oil prices spiked to $140 a barrel in 2008. "These are not rich communities," says Adam Warren, group manager for the deployment group of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). "It really put people in a bind. I think [island leaders] know if oil goes back up to $140 a barrel and they haven't done anything, they'll be held responsible."
But reducing an island’s dependence on oil isn't easy, Warren says, even when it can boast reliable trade winds, sunny days, geothermal potential, or access to wave power. Despite the potential for big cost savings for consumers (and potential profits for renewable technology companies), island markets just aren't big enough for many players. "Sometimes it's difficult to attract financing and get the big developers to come down and do 10 megawatts of wind. They think in the hundreds." A smaller population also means fewer specialists to draw on, so expertise needs to be imported along with the technology.
Yet across the globe, islands are making huge strides toward reducing carbon emissions. The Virgin Islands (pictured: Saint Croix) have pledged a 60 percent reduction in fossil fuel use in the next 15 years, while the island of Bonaire, a special municipality of the Netherlands in the former Netherlands Antilles, has sworn to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2015. Here’s a look at some islands around the world that are taking steps—some large, some small—to wean themselves off of oil.
Photograph courtesy Stephanie Hodge, NREL
Flywheels in a Volcanic Land
Tapping into hot underground rock and capturing waterfall energy has been a boon to the Azores, a volcanic chain of islands in the North Atlantic that is part of Portugal.
The largest and most populous of the islands, São Miguel, known aptly as “The Green Island,” generates half its electricity from two geothermal plants, while the island of Flores (shown here) has significant hydroelectric resources, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs.
But even though the Azores together meet about a quarter of all their energy needs from wind, solar, geothermal and hydro, for the rest, the islands remain heavily dependent on oil.
One reality is that even in a tropical paradise, the sun doesn't shine all the time.
So the islands are investing in making renewable power go farther with storage. Powercorp, based in Darwin, Australia, installed flywheel systems earlier this decade on two of the islands. The systems store energy when it's not being used and feed it back into the electrical grid during periods of low production.
Photograph courtesy Chris Langworthy, Powercorp
Bora Bora's Seawater Cool
Bora-Bora in the South Pacific is known for resorts that make ample use of the surrounding turquoise waters, where snorkelers and scuba divers can stop for therapy at a seawater spa before retiring to over-water bungalows at night.
The system, installed in 2006, draws frigid ocean water from a depth of 3,000 feet (915 meters), where it flows into a thermal exchanger—a kind of radiator made of titanium plates, which are excellent thermal conductors resistant to corrosion. The seawater circulates on one side of the plates, chilling the fresh water that circulates on the other side of the plates. Cool air from the thermal exchanger is then fanned into the hotel, without the need for bulky, noisy compressors.
The seawater is warmed in this process, so it is re-released at a depth of about 200 feet (60 meters) in an effort to avoid damaging fish and coral. It is part of an effort by entrepreneur Richard Bailey, owner of this and three other French Polynesian hotels, to put an environmental stamp on his properties.
Seawater cooling is not a new idea: the city of Toronto cools its main administrative center with water drawn from Lake Ontario, and for 16 years, the city of Stockholm has cooled downtown buildings with a system that relies on cold water from the Baltic Sea. (Related: “The AC of Tomorrow?”)
But the systems have very specific siting requirements, explains Joris Benninga, of RealNewEnergy, in Rockville, Maryland, which is working on a system on the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean.
The Bora-Bora system cost nearly $8 million to construct but saves the equivalent of 660,000 gallons (2.5 million liters) of imported fuel oil and should pay for itself in 11 years, according to a recent report by a hotel consulting firm. Of course, the payback will be faster if the global price of oil increases. The resort's owners are so happy with the results that they are building another system on Tetiaroa, another Tahitian isle. It's for their new resort, The Brando, named after the late actor, Marlon, who “discovered” the island while filming “Mutiny on the Bounty” and purchased a long-term lease to the land from the French Polynesian government. Bailey has been working with Brando’s estate to create an eco-hotel on the atoll.
Eleuthera, sometimes known as the “Three-Mile Beach” as the longest and skinniest of the Bahamian islands, is a popular stop for cruise ships.
The island now is making use of that traffic for energy.
The idea was hatched back in 2003, when The Island School, a private study-abroad program for high school students, started a cooking oil-to-biodiesel plant that now supplies fuel for the school's vans, staff cars, and generators. The program was so successful that its creators were asked to consult on a commercial-scale project that will make up to 1 million gallons of biodiesel each year.
That plant, operated by trash hauler Bahamas Waste, opened its doors in February and has already produced several thousand gallons of biodiesel from local restaurants and cruise ships' waste oil. "The cruise ships are able to deliver thousands of gallons of waste cooking oil a year. There are 4,000 Americans eating french fries 24 hours a day on a cruise ship," joked Chris Maxey, cofounder of The Island School and chairman of the spin-off company that developed Bahamas Waste's plant.
When Bonaire’s only power plant burned down in 2004, the Caribbean island’s government decided to rebuild from scratch the green way.
The aim was to take advantage of the winds that buffet its coasts, just 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Venezuela.
Ecofys, a Dutch company, built a wind-diesel hybrid system that came online in 2007. It seemed like a good partnership for Bonaire, which was part of the Netherlands Antilles before its dissolution last fall, and is now a special municipality of the Netherlands. The company promised power consumers on Bonaire a 10 to 20 percent reduction in their electricity bills with the new system.
"We have reached about 50 percent windshare," meaning that wind provides half of Bonaire’s electricity needs, said Joris Benning, who worked for Ecofys on the Bonaire project until a jarring development. Ecofys' parent company went bankrupt in the 2009 credit crunch.
Ecofys’ plan was to ramp up renewable energy dramatically by filling Bonaire's diesel generators with locally produced biodiesel. But because of the bankruptcy, that part of the project is "more or less on hold," Benning said. He said the island's salt marshes would be a perfect locations for the farming of algae—a fast-growing feedstock being eyed by researchers around the world for its potential to produce biodiesel.
Barbados’ population of just under 300,000 saves 35 million Barbadian dollars (U.S. $17.5 million) yearly, according to a 2003 study, and the government saves another 8 million Barbadian dollars (U.S. $4 million) in oil costs. Each solar heater also saves 943 pounds (428 kilograms) of carbon per year. Tax incentives and the high price of oil make the heaters an attractive option for many Barbadians.
"I see small islands as being ahead of the curve," NREL’s Warren said. "All these things we need to figure out tomorrow, like how to do high-penetration renewables, they need to figure out today." If islands all became carbon neutral tomorrow, "that's not going to put a dent in global warming, but I think they do see they can be leaders. If they can transform their energy infrastructure, they can be an example to the rest of the world."