Islands can serve as laboratories for larger countries. All power tasks nations must figure out, islands need to figure out now, and they can provide a testing ground for smart-grid ideas.
Islands have beautiful sunsets, slumbering volcanoes, soothing trade winds, and outrageous energy costs. That makes them ideal for 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.
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 islands depend on imported oil for all of their energy needs. And with prices at $75/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 $0.30/kWh and the price of electricity in the U.S. Virgin Islands was greater than $0.50/kWh, more than five times the U.S. average. Wind energy is as low as $0.05/kWh, and solar energy has dropped to as low as $0.18/kWh. Many renewable energy and energy efficiency ideas have a difficult time competing with the direct cost of coal but easily beat the high cost of electricity on 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,” says Warren. “That will be confirmed once we install our wind and solar measurement stations.” Iceland has joined with the U.S. and New Zealand in helping island nations measure renewable energy’s potential and laying the groundwork for policy changes.
Islands can also serve as laboratories. “All the things we have to figure out as a nation, they need to figure out right now,” says Warren. For example, islands can provide a testing ground for the smart-grid solutions. A 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 must be handle a variable supply of electricity while servicing the always-varying demand. An 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. In addition, islands’ size and isolated grids provide a means for developing and proving systems in the real world at a reasonable cost. Add a few wind turbines and suddenly the island gets 30% of its power from wind energy.
Take the U.S. Virgin Islands for example. The partnership with these islands is fortuitous because the governor and lawmakers there recently passed a law mandating standards for utilities and efficiency targets. It calls for an approach that combines 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% by 2025. That calls for steep rises in the use of wind, solar, and biomass, as well as sharp increases in energy efficiency.
Most of the islands households have cisterns to catch rain water, but it’s not always enough for their needs. “They burn diesel to move their vehicles, produce electricity, and desalinate their water. Right now, the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands are almost 100% dependent on imported fuel,” Warren said.
Besides NREL’s recently completed solar forecast, the lab is forecasting the wind to illustrate how reliable and accessible 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,” says Warren. “We’re doing groundwork on the policy side, finding what policies need to be in place,” he says.
What’s more, landfills on the U.S. Virgin Islands are having trouble complying with EPA regulations, so NREL is helping island officials 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 with pollution controls, and produce electricity.
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