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Island Breezes, Sun Perfect for Renewables

October 26, 2010

Photo of seven wind turbines on a grassy coastline with the blue Pacific in the background. Enlarge image

Wind turbines such as those pictured here on the northern tip of the Big Island in Hawaii near the town of Hawi will be a more common sight. NREL is helping Hawaii meet an ambitious goal of getting 60 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.
Courtesy of Hawaiian Electric Light Company (HELCO)

Islands have beautiful sunsets, slumbering volcanoes, soothing trade winds, outrageous energy prices.

In other words, they have all the ingredients for a daring dip into renewable energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory is helping islands around the world craft polices and infrastructure for a future fueled by the sun, wind, waves, seaweed, and lava. It's an initiative of the international Energy Development in Island Nations project.

Why islands? First, consider the prices paid for energy on islands from the Caribbean to the South Pacific. The energy structure on typical islands was designed in the age of cheap oil, says Adam Warren, who heads NREL's Energy Development in Island Nations program in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Many, if not most, islands depend on imported oil for all of their energy needs. And with prices at $75 a barrel — plus shipping costs — island populations are faced with some of the highest costs for electricity in the world. And, they're vulnerable to wild swings in the price of oil.

In 2008, Hawaii's average electricity rate exceeded 30 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh); and the price of electricity in the U.S. Virgin Islands was greater than 50 cents per kilowatt-hour — that's more than five times the U.S. average. With wind energy plunging to as low as 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, and solar energy dropping to as low as 18 cents/kWh, there's plenty of space for renewable to help the bottom line.

Many of the renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies that have a difficult time competing with the direct cost of coal can easily beat the high cost of electricity on islands.

Islands also are particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Bleaching of coral reefs, rising ocean levels, and strengthening storms all put islands at disproportionate risk — and combine to make clean energy particularly attractive on the isles, keys and atolls.

Clean Energy There for the Taking

Photo of a grayish wind turbine seemingly growing out of a flower garden and soaring above low-rise classroom buildings, with cumulus clouds in the background. Enlarge image

A wind turbine turns high above Saipan Southern High School, in the capital city of the Commonwealth of Northern Marinara Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The Skystream 3.7 turbine is the first and only small wind system installed in the public sector of the islands.
Credit: Misty Conrad

Happily, islands have the raw material for renewable energy in abundance. Consistent trade winds are an excellent source of energy, as are the sun's rays and the hot lava deep inside volcanic islands.

NREL recently finished a solar index for the U.S. Virgin Islands, based on satellite data. "Our data has confirmed that they have a good resource of solar," Warren said. "That will be even better confirmed once we install our wind and solar measurement stations."

Geothermal power is a huge, largely untapped, source of potential power. In 2008, Iceland produced one-quarter of its power from the heat of the Earth.

Iceland has joined with the United States and New Zealand in helping island nations measure renewable energy's potential and lay the groundwork for policy changes.

Islands Are the Canaries in the Coal Mine

Critically, islands can be the guinea pigs for the nations stuck on continents. "All the things we have to figure out as a nation, they need to figure out right now," Warren said. Some argue that we, in the continental U.S., have time to react to climate change. "But it's an acute need for islands. They can be leaders by example."

For example, islands can provide a unique testing ground for the smart-grid solutions of the future.  A vexing problem is how to get wind, solar or geothermal power onto the grid in a way that is efficient — and how to store that power for the hours when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow.

Because many forms of renewable energy are intermittent, the electrical grid of the future must be able to handle a variable supply for electricity while servicing the always-varying demand.  An open question for tomorrow's smart grid is, "how do we deploy renewable energy at high penetrations while maintaining low cost and reliability for customers?"

Before large countries make huge investments in thousands of turbines, the task of integrating wind onto the grid can be figured out on the islands — be it battery storage, fly wheels or more effective electrical grids.

Islands' limited size and isolated grids provide a means for developing and proving systems in the real world at a reasonable cost. A few wind turbines, and suddenly the island gets 30 percent of its power from wind energy.

"Each island is different, but our goal is to be able to take from all our experiences and have a playbook that is useful for any island in the world," Warren said. "We can say, 'Here are the challenges. Here are the opportunities. Here is a process to develop a plan.'"

While Iceland has focused on volcanic islands in the Caribbean, and New Zealand on several Pacific island nations, NREL researchers have been working with the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Guam, and several islands in Micronesia.

U.S. Virgin Islands Partnership Shows Promise

Photo shows fiery hues of red and yellow rising from a circular vent, with hardened lava in the background, giving way to the sea. Enlarge image

Geothermal energy from volcanic vents, such as this one on the Big Island of Hawaii, is an abundant potential source of energy on many islands.
Credit: John Lund - Geo-Heat Center

The partnership with the U.S. Virgin Islands is fortuitous because the governor and lawmakers there recently passed a law mandating standards for utilities and efficiency targets. It calls for an integrated approach, combining renewable energy with energy efficiency. The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands also has signed a memo of understanding with the U.S. departments of Energy and Interior.  In his signing statement, Gov. John P. de Jongh Jr. committed to reducing fossil fuel use by 60 percent by 2025. That calls for steep rises in the use of wind, solar, and biomass, as well as sharp increases in energy efficiency.

The U.S. Virgin Islands is an American territory where most of the population has electricity, but where the 35-cent-per-kilowatt-hour cost is crippling on an island with an average household income of $22,000 a year.

Most of the islands households have cisterns to catch rain water, but it's not always enough for their needs. "They burn diesel move their vehicles, to produce their electricity, and to desalinate their water.  Right now, the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands are almost 100 percent dependent on imported fuel," Warren said.

Besides the recently completed solar forecast, NREL is doing a wind forecast to illustrate how reliable and accessible the wind may be. "The local trade winds ought to provide excellent wind resource, but we have to obtain accurate data before someone can go to a bank and ask them to finance wind turbines," Warren said.

"We're doing groundwork on the policy side, finding what policies need to be in place," Warren said.

The landfills on the U.S. Virgin Islands are having trouble complying with Environmental Protection Agency regulations.  NREL is helping the islands evaluate systems that turn trash into electricity. The aim is to take out metals and other things that can't burn, compress the remainder into pellets, burn the pellets in a boiler that has pollution controls in it, and produce electricity.

Warren was last in the U.S. Virgin Islands just in time to see his rent-a-car get slammed by a tree uprooted by Hurricane Earl. "We lost electricity. We hunkered down for the day and pulled the shutters down," he said.   "You really understand the value of electricity and water when you have neither."

Islands Around the World

Every island has different needs and different potential.

Barbados, for example, has a head start because most families there already use solar water heaters.

NREL and Iceland are double-teaming Dominique in the Caribbean. NREL is measuring the prospects for wind energy, while Iceland is helping that island with its geothermal potential.

Hawaii's Clean Energy Initiative calls for a 70 percent decline in fossil fuels by 2035 through a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency.  The big push in Hawaii is to build wind farms totaling 400 megawatts on the sparsely populated islands of Molokai and Lanai, then ship the energy via undersea cable to Oahu, where most of the people live, said Dave Corbus, NREL laboratory program manager for electricity systems.

This spring, the governors of Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands toured NREL, and later signed executive orders establishing energy steering committees that would bring in all stakeholders to discuss energy issues.

"We've been supporting these steering committees, working with them toward putting an energy plan together," said Misty Conrad, Technical Assistance Program manager at NREL.

Conrad went to Guam in mid-October to steer an assessment of solar, wind, and geothermal potential, and opportunities for energy efficiency.

"It's all about building relationships and bringing stakeholders together," Conrad said. Guam has excellent solar potential, quite good geothermal potential and fairly good wind potential, she said.

Unfortunately, "both Guam and the Northern Marianas are in 'typhoon alley'," she noted. "We have to consider equipment that can stand these types of winds and typhoons. We have to realize that every once in a while everything could get knocked down."

Still, opportunity can spring from national disaster. A year ago, a tsunami tore through American Samoa, knocking out power generators. The American territory is getting assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and "they're looking at doing more with renewable energy than ever before," Conrad said.

"If they're going to have to rebuild, they want to do it more efficiently," Conrad said. Currently, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas all rely 100 percent on diesel fuel.

Changing to compact fluorescent light bulbs, using more efficient air conditioning and replacing old appliances are the three quickest ways to get more energy efficient on the islands, Conrad said. "There is no green design or efficient design in the buildings, which tend to be mostly cement blocks," she said.

Phil Voss, senior project leader in NREL's Technology Applications Center, is working with scientists from New Zealand and Iceland to help islands with geothermal potential.

The islands on the east edge of the Caribbean plate — St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Nevis, Granada, Trinidad and others — all have excellent geothermal potential.

But geothermal demands high up-front costs, and if an island only has about 50,000 residents, it can be a steep per-capita investment.

NREL is looking at connecting some of those islands with a geothermal resource to other islands via undersea cable. That way all the residents of those islands can share the costs and benefits.

Another study is looking at erecting a big wind farm in Puerto Rico, then transporting the electricity it makes to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and all the way down the eastern Caribbean chain. The waters are shallow enough to make it worth the investment.

Warren is working with the Organization of American States to create low-carbon communities in the Caribbean.

"Energy efficiency has to be an important part of the overall plan," Warren said.

On St. Lucia, even though electricity is a steep 35 cents a kilowatt hour, "there is still a lot of low-hanging fruit on the efficiency side," he said. Islanders use diesel not just to air-condition their homes but to desalinate their water.

An important task is finding spots on the island that are suitable for wind turbines or solar arrays — suitable in the topography, but also not so close to population centers that locals or tourists object to the intrusions on paradise.

"Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder," Warren said. If a wind farm is hard on the eyes for a typical tourist, it might be just the thing to attract the eco-tourist. St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands' main islands, has good winds, enough to generate perhaps half of the electricity needed. A tweak to the marketing brochures, and St. Croix might attract green-minded vacationers from North and South America.

Learn more about how NREL is helping put clean energy technologies on the ground to provide real-world solutions to today's energy challenges.

— Bill Scanlon