Reshaping the island metaphor, from the shoals of isolation to harbors of innovation

Kodiak Island, Alaska

United Nations highlights plight of island nations on World Environment Day 2014

For much of human history, islands have provided fitting metaphors for isolation where people seek refuge from society or are involuntarily separated from it – and where life is stripped to its barest essentials in the struggle for survival.

Just now, however, the planet’s islands are in a bit of a struggle for survival themselves.

Changes in sea level, temperature and the increasing acidity of fragile coastal waters brought on by global climate change threaten to disrupt the stability and functioning of their complicated ecosystems. From Papua to Palau, from Belize to Barbados, island residents and their governments are facing existential challenges.

To highlight their plight, the United Nations Environmental Programme is focusing on “Small Island Developing States and Climate Change” for Thursday’s World Environmental Day 2014.

The only way we’re going to win this war is by creative entrepreneurship,” Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire told the New York Times this past February. Branson knows a bit about islands: He owns one in the Caribbean, where seven nations including St. Lucia, Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands have committed to exiting fossil fuels for renewable power.


ABB, whose technological solutions are helping usher in an era of increased renewable energy development around the planet, is also working intimately with island residents, too – from Kodiak, in the frigid waters off Alaska’s southern coast, to Spain’s El Hierro, where Columbus bid farewell to the Old World in 1492 – to tackle these challenges at their own doorsteps.

 El Hierro, 200 miles off Africa’s coast, is getting ABB’s help to become the world’s first renewable-energy-powered island to become electrically self-sufficient, thanks to wind and hydroelectric power made possible by a bespoke mix of the power and automation company’s motors, drives, transformers and controls.

 On Kodiak in Alaska, ABB is supplying its PowerStore flywheel energy storage technology to help the island’s 15,000 residents – and its several thousand Kodiak brown bears, to boot – achieve a goal of generating more than 99 percent of its electricity from wind and hydroelectric power for their microgrid.

Speaking of microgrids, ABB has commissioned a control system that enables the island of Faial, a Portuguese archipelago located in the Atlantic midway between Europe and North America, to add more wind energy to its power mix without destabilizing the network.

As the world’s second-largest maker of solar inverters, ABB is delivering equipment to the Republic of Mauritius, so the island nation some 2,000 kilometers out in the Indian Ocean can achieve 35 percent of its growing energy demand through local renewable generation by 2025.

And in the Baltic Sea, on the Swedish island of Gotland, ABB’s Ventyx software has been deployed to help create one of the world’s smartest electricity networks capable of integrating large quantities of wind, among other renewables, into its microgrid. This is part of the European Union’s larger goal of reducing carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020.  

Come to think of it, innovative ABB projects like these that boost reliability and viability of renewable energy may just transform the time-honored metaphor of the island for future generations.

 No longer merely remote outposts for the wayward to seek refuge or battle nature, islands are becoming by necessity hubs of innovation where sustainable communities, solar plants, wind turbines and battery systems and microgrids will be models for solving not just their own challenges, but those of mainland society, as well.

 What was it Anne Morrow Lindberg said? “We are all islands – in a common sea.”

Image credit: Joint Hometown News Service under CC License via Flickr


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About the author

John-Philip Miller

I’m the senior editor in ABB’s group corporate communications team, in Zurich. For most of my career I’ve been a reporter, at Bloomberg News in Zurich and then for the last 10 years at The Associated Press in Idaho.
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