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How island nations can lead the renewable energy revolution



Small island nations face a truly existential threat in the face of climate change, but they also have the potential to lead the renewable energy revolution that could save them, writes Ryan Gilchrist, who leads business development with enterprise clients at UGE.


On Thursday, the third international UN Conference on Small Island Developing States, held on Samoa in the Central South Pacific, came to a close. The overarching theme for this year’s conference was “the sustainable development of small island developing states (SIDS) through genuine and durable partnerships“.

It connected people from all over the world to assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of renewable energy, and sought a renewed political commitment by focusing on pragmatic actions for further implementations. The conference also worked to identify new and emerging challenges and opportunities for the sustainable development of SIDS and a means of addressing them. 

At its conclusion, it was announced the conference forged nearly 300 partnerships between governments, businesses and civil society organisations, generating $1.9 billion (£1.1bn) to support SIDs’ sustainability efforts.

Around 600 million people live on islands around the world, and their population, agricultural land and infrastructure tend to be concentrated in coastal zones, where any rise in sea-level will have profound effects on their economies and living conditions. 

In addition, global climate change may damage coral reefs, altering the distribution of zones of upwelling and affecting both subsistence and commercial fisheries production.

Currently the vast majority of island nations must import fossil fuels for their energy demands. This is increasingly expensive for island nations, as prices of oil increase, and supply slowly diminishes. The financial impact of fossil fuels is compounded by the environmental risk of transporting oil on ships across stretches of ocean, making the continued use of fossil fuels an unattractive prospect. 

Conferences like this highlight the threats to island nations in the face of climate change, how they are vulnerable to its effects and how they are perfectly positioned to mitigate its potential impact.

However, not all is grim and dismal for the future of island nations, for they have geographically ideal conditions for almost all forms of renewable energy, allowing for a diversified renewable energy portfolio, which is much more reliable than single sourced energy of any kind.

Located in areas with an abundance of wind, sun, water, and biomass, while being smaller in size makes it much more feasible to implement renewable energy on a nationwide scale.

Best of all, these islands can serve as examples for the rest of the world to show how the idea of a future powered completely by renewable energy is not merely conceptual, but is indeed a very realistic option with applications very much in the present.

A few innovative ways that islands are leading on renewable energy:

Sicily, in the Mediterranean, had the world’s first solar farm. Built back in 1981, the farm is now being retrofitted with the latest concentrated solar panel technology. In 2014, Sicily now houses more than 8,000 solar facilities, and is home to over 30 wind farms. In western Sicily, Mazara Solar is a proposed 50 MW plant with an “innovative” tower technology to produce superheated steam while storing thermal energy as saturated steam. The plant is expected to generate about 534 GWh while being funded with up to €40 million. Renewables in Sicily are growing so much that even the mafia has gotten involved in the industry. The largest ever seizure of mafia holdings, in which €1.7 billion in assets were seized, included 9 wind farms and several solar power plants all tied to a mafia associate nicknamed “Lord of the Wind”. 

Luzon, the biggest island in the Philippines will complete a 33 MW wind farm this month. The wind farm faces the South China sea where wind spins over 20 turbines, supplying up to 40% of the nation’s energy needs. In addition to this, a  wind farm commissioned just a few hundred miles south on the same island in Mindoro Oriental, will have 24 turbines generating 2 MW of electricity each, for a total of 48 MW. This project should be completed by 2016. Hotels in the Philippines, such as the Anvaya Cove resort, are also using on-site renewable energy to conserve resources, boost the tourism industry, and showcase sustainability to their guests. 

In New Caledonia, UGE designed a microgrid solution for a telecom tower in a very remote location that now runs on a hybrid of wind and solar, allowing the tower to operate without the use of any fossil fuels. This greatly reduces both the time spent traveling to this remote location and the money spent on importing fossil fuels such as diesel. Île Ouen in New Caledonia telecom towers can only be accessed by helicopter, meaning that any trip for the South Pacific telecom company OPT is an ordeal and an added expense. Without roads or excess resources, finding a reliable and efficient power source for the towers became a must. During a recent storm that ravaged New Caledonia, all of the UGE/Self Energy Pacific towers maintained uptime, facilitating critical communication, which is needed more than ever during rough weather conditions. 

The Hawaiian islands in the Pacific currently rely on 90% imported oil for fuel, which is quite costly for the islands, while also polluting their pristine ecosystems. This is why Hawaii has set a target to have the islands powered 70% from renewable energy by 2030. Currently solar water heaters have been installed in some 80,000 homes and institutions throughout the state, while legislation is requiring every home to be retrofitted with these units to offset energy demand for heating water.

El Hierro Island in the Canary Islands now generates 100% of its energy from a mix of renewables to supply power needs for its approximately 12,000 residents.This helps the island nation save over 40,000 barrels of oil each year, which translates into 1.8 million euros per yearsaved by foregoing importation of fossil fuels. On top of this the island’s authorities have entered into an agreement with Nissan to replace all of El Hierro’s vehicles with electric cars in the next six years.           

Samsoe Island in the Baltic gets 100% of its energy from wind turbines located around the island, both on and offshore. Sixty per cent of the island’s heat comes from straw bales left over from local farm harvest, which gets converted into biomass heat production. Just one bale of straw is equal to about 200 liters of oil. Samsoe citizens have shares in the HAWTs, which produce 10% more energy than the island uses. The excess is sold back to mainland for profit for each of the shareholders.

While island nations may have the most to lose from the effects of climate change, they also have a unique opportunity to lead. These islands represent the future of renewable energy independence, and are showing the rest of the world that such a future is not only possible, but is already here.

Ryan Gilchrist leads business development with enterprise clients at UGE, a New York-based worldwide distributed renewable energy company. UGE has projects in more than 90 countries around the world, including islands such as the Turks and Caicos, the Philippines, and Hawaii.

Photo: Luigi Guarino via Flickr

Further reading:

Samoa UN climate conference generates $2bn in island-to-continent environmental partnerships

Pacific island leaders set to discuss climate change and sustainability

Pacific Islands Forum closes with climate change and sustainable tourism commitment

Pacific island Kiribati buys land in Fiji to escape climate change

Small island states threatened by rising sea levels call for sustainability


New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable




sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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