Friday, 28 December 2012

When the wind's blowing the wrong way

This Thursday was a green ribbon day for Hawaii's budding wind energy sector. It was announced that the 21 MW Auwahi Wind project, installed on the Hawaiian island of Maui, was up and running, and busily harvesting the breeze. Eight turbines are now churning out green electricity for 10,000 Maui homes - and are able to be store (and so regulate) up to 4.4 MWh of fickle wind energy, thanks to its on-site battery facility.

A  great green news story, one that surely won applause from Hawaii's residents, weighed down as they are by hefty oil-fired electricity bills (which are amongst the most costly in the US)?

But not so fast.

While many on Maui may have applauded the prospects for cleaner energy,  reduced bills and the extra jobs that the wind farm development has bought to this rural Hawaii island, it's a different noise coming from just across the water, on the island of Lanai.

There, instead, it has been a chorus of disapproval that's greeted attempts to farm the wind. Local opposition to a plan for 400 MW of 'Big Wind' on the island has stalled attempts to stitch a cross-island power network from Hawaii's diverse renewable resources.  Wind turbines, it seems, have the power to divide and inflame passions, as well as to produce emission-free electricity. And that's even when the economics appear so firmly in wind's favor, as they are in Hawaii - thanks to the need for expensive imported oil shooting utility rates sky-high.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Hydrogen to power ahead on EcoIsland project

Hydrogen may have been something of a nearly-man in the renewables race so far (with wind and solar now streets ahead), but for the inhabitants of 'EcoIsland' - that's the UK's Isle of Wight to you and me - it has finally arrived as the transport fuel of 'now'. Hydrogen from the island's burgeoning low-carbon sources of generation could be powering cars and catamarans by 2015, thanks to a £4.6m grant announced by the government-backed Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

The use of hydrogen, produced from the electrolysing of water, has long been a promising green fuel technology; one which for equally as long has struggled to deliver. The high costs of its production and storage have prevented the fuel from becoming a contender for a mainstream transport solution. But the UK's TSB has high hopes for hydrogen and fuel cell technology, and the potential for practical demonstrations to bring costs down. It is placing a significant £75 million of investment into a slew of projects that will bring hydrogen to the street.

Saving the world 'one island at a time'

And what better place to get the hydrogen economy kick-started than the self-proclaimed 'EcoIsland', a slice of green-sward a few miles off the southern coast of the UK. The Isle of Wight is in the midst of a concerted effort to become fully self-sufficient in renewable energy by 2020, as the first member of a burgeoning EcoIslands movement - their motto: 'saving our world one island at a time.'

What's fascinating about this project is that it is seeking to bring hydrogen in as an integrated part of the island's overall energy ecosystem. So the low-carbon electricity to power the electrolyser will be part of a Demand Side Management 'service' to the island's Smart Grid - soaking up the excess energy supply that comes with variable wind and solar power production. The hydrogen is, in effect acting as an energy store.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

From cesspit conundrum to cooking fuel - Bahama school's biogas solution

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Waste disposal is a big problem when you're living in a confined space - and human waste doubly so. Without integrated sewage transport and treatment systems, some of the world's smallest islands struggle to deal with the noxious contents of septic tanks - especially when the waste burden from visiting tourists is taken into account.

But that mountain of human manure can be a veritable gold mine of renewable energy. Biogas can be harvested from such waste, and this can be used to power and heat homes - and even do the cooking. And it's the kitchens of Bahama's Eleuthra Island School that are one of the most recent beneficiaries of this full-circle thinking. The campus has just received its first biogas stove, donated by Cape Eleuthera Institute, an ecological research organisation.

The Institute is dedicated to developing ecologically-sensitive self-sufficiency solutions. Human waste disposal has been an environmental concern on the long slither of  island paradise that is Eleuthera. Cesspit contents are often stored in underground dumps, where there is a risk of leaching into the island's precarious freshwater reserves. But biogas production - which happens in sealed anaerobic biodigester units - transforms this disposal headache into both a useful energy sources, and a nutrient-rich fertilizer.

With organic fertilizer one resource that is often scarce on small islands, the biogas generation unit on the Island School can add another green feather to it's cap. By displacing expensive imported inorganic fertilizers, nitrate pollution can be reduced, and the islands nutrient-poor soils enriched - all from a low-cost indigenous source. It also helps make Eleuthera more self-sufficient.
As Island School's head Chris Maxey told The Bahamas Weekly: “Now we will literally be taking human waste and processing it into a safe and inexpensive form of energy that we can use to cook our food. And, we will be doing it all on-site, on our campus. What is more energy-independent than that?”

Monday, 10 December 2012

Virgin Islands break Ground on Power-from-Grass Project

Residents of St. Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands, will soon see their electricity coming from a novel source - towering fields of grass. 1,000 acres on the wetter west side of the Caribbean island have already been sown with Giant King Grass, a proprietary variety of tall-growing elephant grass that will be harvested to feed an anaerobic digester. The digester will produce bio-gas that will, in turn, power a 6MW turbine.

Biomass-based electricity is one of a number of clean energy options being explored by the US territory, as it seeks to slash its Business-As-Usual fossil fuel use by 60%, by 2025. As well as making full use of plentiful solar and wind resources of the three islands, waste-to-energy plants are being evaluated for their potential to form a flexible power source to be called upon when renewables flag.

Giant King Grass is marketed by VIASPACE, who claim it avoids many of the pitfalls of other biofuel sources. The grass grows best on marginal land, that is unlikely to be used for food crops. It is also non-invasive, is not genetically-modified, and requires no pesticide and little fertiliser. The harvested grass itself will be stored in silage bags, enabling a stockpile of fuel to be built up. This would prove a backup supply in case of disruption of the crop by hurricanes.

The company behind the operation on the site - Tibbar Energy - says the 20-year project will provide jobs for 25 workers over the whole lifespan of its operation. The biggest drawback is that such biomass is relatively land intensive, compared to other renewables, for smaller islands. But for larger islands, with tracts of land unsuitable for traditional agriculture, power-from-grass could be useful additional strut in their building of a new clean energy framework.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Doha - the gate, the long path and the decision to come

Expectations may have been miniscule, bars may have been set ludricously low, and the talks may have came perilously close to draining into the sand, but Doha ended with one small - but groundbreaking - concession. For the first time developing nations - small island states prominent among them - wrested from the richer developed world recognition of the damage wrought by their emissions. 'Loss and damages' made it into the final text of the 18th UN Climate Convention hammered out in Qatar on Saturday.

 The measures, long-sought by those faced with the reality of climate change - especially the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) - would potentially provide for monies to be funnelled to developing countries afflicted by both long-term climate change, and short-term climate disasters like typhoons. The $100 billion annual climate change finance, pledged to be ramped up to by 2020 by the developed world, would provide the first port of call for such climate 'damages'. 

But it is a bitter pill that such action has become necessary - and taken so long to realize. "If we had had more ambition [from developed countries], we would not have to ask for so much for adaptation. If there had been more money for adaptation, we would not be looking for money for loss and damage. What's next? Loss of our islands?" said Ronald Jumeau, chief negotiator for the Seychelles. 

The call for recognition by the industrialized world of their responsibility for climate change, because the majority of extra GHG's in the atmosphere relates to their historic emissions,was pushed hard by AOSIS.They wanted an insurance scheme, funded by the rich countries,to pay out for climate-enhanced disasters, like Typhoon Bopha. And they wanted longer-term assistance to compensate for economic losses caused by changing weather patterns, or rising sea-levels, to be triggered automatically. 

They didn't get anything so specific. And they didn't win any new money either. The US and EU almost didn't sign up. But they did finally gain some hope that small islands are not to be left to fend for themselves. Conscience has been visibly pricked. Now the really hard work starts, as AOSIS Chair, and Nauru's Foreign Minister, Kieren Keke, said: 

"This is not where we wanted to be at the end of the meeting, I assure you. It certainly isn’t where we need to be in order to prevent islands from going under and other unimaginable impacts. The outcome provides little more than a gateway to a long path. There is a fork in that path. We need to take the correct turn when we reach that fork or this process will collapse and our nations will disappear.”

Monday, 3 December 2012

Canary Island, El Hierro, plans for 100% EV goal

Island grids may increasingly be coursing with greener, cleaner electricity but power generation isn't the only source of planet-warming emissions. Globally, nearly a fifth of CO2 emissions come from cars, vans and trucks plying the roads. So if the target is zero emissions, then a solution needs to be found for road transport.

And the Spanish island of El Hierro has just such a plan - taking all of its 6,000 cars over to the electric side of the road. That could happen through a combination of retrofitting existing cars with electric drive-trains, and ensuring new car purchases favour EV's (eletric vehicles).

El Hierro is an island sitting at the south-western tip of the Canary Islands archipelago, home to 17,000 residents. It has already taken substantial steps to wean itself off of imported oil, by installing a combined 22 MW wind and hydroelectric power system. Excess energy from the wind turbines pumps water to  fill an upper reservoir. When the wind drops, the water is released to a lower reservoir, helping maintain a constant flow of electricity.

The new plan for a switch to electrical transport makes perfect sense for a small island like El Hierro. The initial feasibility study, conducted by the local government, Renault Nissan and Endesa, showed car journeys average only 25km (15 miles) on El Hierro, with a speed of around 40kph (25 mph). That's well within the potential range of today's EV technology.

However an all-electric vehicle solution would place a big extra draw on the grid - as much as 8 Gigawatt-hours (GWh) being added to the annual demand of 43 GWh. That's do-able, the study says, but will require some clever integration of EV charging into the existing grid. Timing of the EV recharging to avoid peak demand will be critical.

All told 35 charging stations will be needed - the first 3 have been put in place this June. If the plan goes ahead, El Hierro may be one of the first islands to meet all of its energy needs from renewables. A worthy accolade for an island treasured as UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, since 2002.