How islands become more environmentally friendly, one micro-step at a time

Solar panels as part of the new ABB microgrid on Robben Island, South Africa

Island residents across the world are taking a stand for the environment with microgrid technology that integrates renewables and cuts fossil fuel use

It has been over five decades since the world first started the fight against climate change. While the battle may often seem an uphill one, there is an energy revolution taking place. I have strong admiration for island communities that are seeking cleaner energy options.

Islands are remote by nature with little or no access to mainland grids. They usually rely on burning fossil fuels to generate electricity. Traditionally, small islands have been among the most fossil fuel-dependent entities in the world, using oil for 90 – 100 percent of their energy needs.1

A blessing and a curse

For a start, this makes island consumers vulnerable to fluctuations in global oil prices. Secondly, the transportation of oil to remote island locations is costly and often arduous. And, of course, the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels are felt not just by island residents but by the world beyond.

On a positive note, year-round wind, waves and sun means that there is potential for clean, zero-emissions, zero-transport-cost energy for islands. Renewable energy has the potential to supply more than 99% of islanders’ global electricity needs if efficiently integrated into the existing grid.2 However, nature on your side is often not enough; you need technology too.

The challenge of using renewables in the energy mix is to balance supply and demand. The grid can become unstable as the intermittency of the sun and wind may not match consumer loads. This is where microgrid technology comes in. Using a combination of grid stabilization and energy storage, the power supply can be kept constant, even while sourcing energy from the wind and sun every day.

Island hopping

For instance, South Africa’s Robben Island in Cape Town will be able to save up to 75 percent of the 600,000 liters of diesel it consumes per year. The UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once a maximum-security prison for political prisoners, hosts 300,000 visitors annually. Today, a containerized battery-based microgrid will enable the island to power itself on solar energy for nine out of twelve months of the year.

Similarly, the island of Aruba, in the southern Caribbean Sea, is on track to become fully powered by renewable energy by the year 2020. It plans to meet the energy demands of its 103,000 inhabitants and over 1.5 million tourists a year by generating 50% of its energy from renewable sources and the other 50% from alternative fuels, such as biogas.

Across the Atlantic, similar technology has helped the Portuguese Azores island of Faial boost wind uptake by more than 25% for its 15,000 inhabitants. Five wind turbines are being integrated into Faial Island’s 17 megawatt microgrid, enabling residents to reduce their fuel imports by 3.5 million liters a year– equivalent to 2,300 car journeys around the world.

The Spanish island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands operates a similar 22 megawatt isolated system. Increasing energy demand has led to numerous new energy sources for the 22,000 islanders. This includes a flywheel-based grid stabilization technology that protects against frequency and voltage fluctuations. A flywheel is a mechanical device that uses rotation and inertia to temporarily store energy.

On Alaska’s Kodiak Island, two flywheel devices are helping to manage the intermittencies from the island’s 9 megawatt wind farm for its 15,000 residents.  This will extend the life of its battery systems by up to six years. A world-first combined battery-flywheel solution means that Anchorage – Alaska’s most populous city of 300,000 people – now has reliable power from a 17 megawatt offshore wind farm.

One small step…

For islands the world over, the future looks both brighter and cleaner. Microgrid technology enables them to hedge against rising fuel costs, while improving power reliability and reducing environmental impact. Microgrids can also help to restore power quickly to island residents following natural disasters because they require limited infrastructure. Money previously spent on importing fuel could be used to boost jobs, healthcare and education, or be invested in initiatives to cope with climate shifts – driving economic and social development.

These small-scale, transportable grids can also bring power to remote communities that might otherwise have to wait years or even decades for a grid connection. It is a giant leap towards a low carbon future, one “micro” step at a time.

Click here to read more about ABB’s island microgrids.

This content is part of a series on sustainability topics that ABB is producing for the COP 23 climate conference. ABB is proud to support global efforts to address climate change. Visit our special COP23 / sustainability website for  more information. 

Categories and Tags
About the author

Markus Bruegmann

I am the global manager for ABB’s Microgrids & Distributed Generation product group.
Comment on this article