How small island ‘renewables laboratories’ are leading the way in transitioning from fossil fuels

Source: By Ben Payton, Reuters • Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2024


June 18 – The climate crisis poses an existential risk for the planet, but for small island states the danger is clear and present: several face being consumed by rising seas within this century. The government of the Pacific archipelago of Tuvalu has even been forced to sign a deal with Australia to allow its citizens to emigrate as their homes slip below the waves.

It’s a sad irony that small island states, among the countries that have done the least to cause climate change, are also among those that are on the frontlines to suffer its worst impacts.

But can this group of countries, known as SIDS, also help lead the way globally on rising to the crisis?

Gianni Chianetta, chair of the non-profit Greening the Islands Foundation, thinks the world has much to learn from SIDS as they navigate the energy transition. Indeed, islands have often been at the forefront of innovation in energy systems as they seek to reduce their dependence on expensive imported fossil fuels. Iceland and New Zealand, for example, were among the first countries to make use of geothermal energy on a large scale.

“We are promoting islands as laboratories for sustainability,” says Chianetta, “Islands can lead the way.”
Unlike with many targets around the energy transition, a goal set by the International Renewable Energy Agency to reach 10 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity in SIDS by 2030 looks eminently achievable. Renewables capacity in SIDS has already increased from 3.5 GW in 2014, to 7.6 GW in 2022, largely driven by an expansion in solar installations.
Arieta Gonelevu Rakai is a Fijian national who leads work by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in the SIDS Lighthouses Initiative, a framework for action to support islands in their energy transition efforts. She says that this progress reflects a sense of urgency on small islands. “They have to be innovative, they have to be adaptable, they have to be resilient.”

Yet there is still a long way to go to get to net zero. Across SIDS, renewables still only provide about 16% of power capacity. IRENA says they will need at least $10 billion to achieve their 2030 renewable energy goals.

Gonelevu Rakai notes that SIDS face difficulties in receiving funding from the international mechanisms intended to support climate mitigation and resilience in developing countries. “The accessibility of these funds continues to be an issue,” she says, complaining that “red tape” sometimes results in small island governments having to submit and re-submit funding proposals multiple times over the course of several years.

Kalim Shah, director of the Island Policy Lab at the University of Delaware, U.S., points out that the small size of islands makes it difficult to develop projects that benefit from economies of scale, a challenge SIDS share with landlocked rural areas, which struggle to install renewable energy systems to serve remote, dispersed and often low-income communities in a cost-effective way.

It also means they are often left at the back of the queue when developers seek to import components from overseas. Shah cites the supply chain bottlenecks in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which sometimes led to Caribbean islands waiting up to 18 months for solar system components as manufacturers prioritised fulfilling larger orders from elsewhere.

Given the high costs relative to the size of projects, SIDS need “more comprehensive” financing solutions , says David Gumbs, director of the Islands Energy Program at the non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute. He emphasises the need for funding mechanisms to cater for capacity preparation and project preparation, and points to blended finance vehicles and public-private partnerships as vital parts of the solution.

As SIDS look for ways to harness green energy, one of the most promising technologies is microgrids. These work in a similar way to a conventional electricity grid, but on a smaller scale. They are often designed to generate electricity from solar power, sometimes with a diesel generator as back-up, and can be supported by a battery storage system. In larger countries, they are usually connected to the wider grid, so that they can import and export power as needed – and can keep the lights on even if the main grid goes offline. In very small islands – as well as in some remote rural areas of larger countries – they can function as standalone networks.

Gumbs says that the ability of microgrids to distribute renewable energy, without needing to upgrade national grid systems, is one of their main advantages. He points to the success of the microgrid in Ragged Island in the Bahamas, which has been designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, mitigating the risk of blackouts.

Designing and installing such systems requires detailed planning, Gumbs notes, with community involvement an important element. More broadly, he says, it is essential to tailor systems to the “specific needs and conditions of each island”.

Shah of the University of Delaware points out that while a lack of space is often cited as a constraint for installing renewables on small islands, the efficiency of both solar and wind energy has improved markedly over the last decade, meaning less space is needed.

Meanwhile, islands are exploring technologies to harness energy at sea. This includes tidal and wave energy, many forms of which remain relatively nascent. Orkney, an archipelago off the coast of Scotland, hosts the European Marine Energy Centre, where several companies are undertaking pilot projects to test new tidal and wave projects. A tidal turbine – which works in a similar way to a wind turbine but harnesses the power of the tides – has been developed by local-headquartered company Orbital Marine Power at the site and is already delivering electricity to Orkney’s grid.

Hawaii is another island looking to pioneer new forms of wave energy, which uses converters to capture the energy in oscillating waves. The U.S. Navy established a Wave Energy Test Site in 2015, which hosts companies seeking to develop prototypes. Ocean energy thermal conversion, which uses the temperature difference between hot and cold water to drive turbines, is also being tested in Hawaii and several other islands.

Shah says that floating solar panels is another way that SIDS can capitalise on their marine resources. His view, however, is that “given the inherent challenges of microgrids and intermittency of renewables, as well as storage limitations, there is not realistically a pathway forward with 100% renewables”. Back-up systems are needed, he says, potentially in the form of solar-diesel hybrid systems.

Yet there are signs that fully renewable systems could become viable before long. El Hierro, one of the Spanish Canary Islands managed to power itself entirely with wind and hydroelectric energy for 28 days last summer. The Danish island of Aero aims to phase-out fossil fuels completely by 2030, while German car giant Volkswagen is working with the Greek island of Astypalea to pioneer a fully electric mobility system, involved electric cars, bikes and scooters.

Bali in Indonesia, a major hub for international tourism, is seeking to reach net zero by 2045 – and is looking to the outlying island of Nusa Penida to pilot renewables strategies. Nusa Penida is seeking to rely fully on renewables by 2030, through harnessing solar, biofuels and marine energy.

The Greening the Islands Foundation is working with local authorities to develop roadmaps for three more islands – Curacao (a Dutch Caribbean island), Rodrigues (in Mauritius) and Tonga in Polynesia – to become fully powered by renewables.

Chianetta acknowledges that achieving this goal will be costly, but he believes that deploying renewables in these places will ultimately be a “good investment for the future”.

While most small islands will have to rely on intermittent solar or wind power, others are blessed with significant geothermal or hydroelectric potential that could provide a baseload electricity supply, and could conceivably follow the paths of Iceland and New Zealand.

For these islands, the challenge is justifying the high upfront development costs. The government of Dominica in the Caribbean signed a deal with U.S.-based Ormat Technologies for a 10 megawatt (MW) geothermal power plant last December, which should begin production by next year.

Vince Henderson, the country’s minister for foreign affairs, international business, trade and energy, believes that this first plant will be “the key to demonstrate that this can be done”, paving the way for greater geothermal production.

According to Henderson, Dominica has already found geothermal resources that could meet its own electricity needs 10 times over. The full extent of the island’s geothermal capacity could be vastly higher, he says.

Of course, there is no point in harnessing this power unless it can be used. One option is to attract energy-intensive industries to Dominica to serve as offtakers for the geothermal energy. Another is to export electricity to neighbouring islands.

Due to the relatively small distances between the Caribbean islands, it would be technically feasible, though challenging, to build subsea electricity transmission cables to allow electricity to be imported and exported.

This idea has been on the drawing board for some time, but “has really re-emerged in the last year”, says Henderson. “I’m very excited about that possibility.”

The Caribbean is one of several regions aiming to build better linkages between national power systems of different islands to help maximise the use of renewable resources and balance power supply and demand.

A cable between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico is already being developed. A venture known as the Southern Caribbean Cable Company is aiming to construct a wider network to allow geothermal and hydro resources to provide power across the region.

But such solutions are not available where islands are separated by vast distances, such as in the Pacific.

There is clearly no one-size-fits-all solution to the decarbonisation challenge on small islands. Much like plants and animals have evolved to find their niche on islands, power systems will need to adapt to each island’s unique conditions in the age of renewables.

But as SIDS find solutions to their green energy conundrum, ‘island laboratories’ may just be able to generate some valuable lessons for the rest of the world to heed.

This article is part of The Ethical Corporation’s Decarbonising Industries series, which is being published over the course of this month. To read the rest of the articles in the series, click here.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Ethical Corporation Magazine, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Ben Payton is a freelance journalist focused on responsible investment, natural resources and the energy transition. Ben also writes for titles including Responsible Investor, African Business Magazine and fDi Intelligence