26 October 2017 13:32:57 IST

Islands take the green energy lead

Forty-four islands have formed an alliance to power themselves with battery storage-backed solar energy

It may appear strange that a group of 44 island nations — most of whose names we wouldn’t have even heard of — are leading the world in an initiative. These islands have formed an Alliance of Small Island States.

But it is truly not so strange once you realise that these islands are where the shoe pinches the hardest — climate change affects them the most, threatening their very survival, and so they are taking steps. The good thing is that what they’re doing is showing the world a way, if not providing the initial scale.

We are talking about islands powering themselves with solar energy, with battery storage back-up.

Jump in solar capacity

Solar has taken off quite well and here are the numbers that illustrate it: global solar power capacity has risen from 9,260 MW in 2007 to 2,95,933 MW in 2016 — a whopping 32 times in ten years. But solar is fine when the sun shines, which is about 8 hours a day; what do you do for the rest of the time?

You need to be able to store the energy produced by the solar panels for later use. Storage technologies exist, as detailed in these columns earlier, but the problem is that they are expensive. The energy that comes out of a storage system is unaffordable today, even though costs have come down drastically.

About five years ago, people used to say, “Solar power makes economic sense where it can replace power produced by diesel generator sets”. Since then, the cost of solar power has come down so much that it has become as cheap as, if not cheaper than, conventional energy, produced by coal and hydro. Today people are saying stored solar power makes economic sense where it can replace electricity produced by diesel generator sets.

That is where the island nations come in.

Most of the islands mentioned have traditionally been powered by diesel, for what else is there to provide energy? Now, they are going solar. When they do, they will create a good demand for storage systems, and economies of scale will hammer costs down.

On October 13, ministers from 30 small island countries gathered in the Indian Ocean island of Maldives for the inaugural meeting of Initiative of Renewable Island Energy (IRIE). They have resolved to go 100 per cent green, with solar energy being the resource used most widely.

Maria, Maria

Perhaps they were spurred into action by the deadly Hurricane Maria that mauled the Caribbean. Puerto Rico, too, has been particularly hit and has been without electricity for nearly a month. The Puerto Ricans are trying hard to get back to normalcy.

The hurricane has once again underlined the need for locally-produced power. Industrialist Elon Musk has offered to send in containers of solar equipment to quickly re-power the island. One of his officials has said that solar panels can withstand such storms: “If the roof stays, the panel stays.” The point to note is, on small islands, solar equipment is completely battery-storage backed.


Islands are, therefore, leading the rest of the world into the area of energy storage. And it is not just these small island states, but also islands that belong to large countries such as India and South Africa.

South Africa’s Robben island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 long years, is now fully powered by solar. The island was recently showcased to journalists as an example of what a solar-battery-microgrid combination could achieve.

Baby steps

Back home, a notable development took place last week. The contractor for India’s first large-scale, battery-backed solar power plant was selected. Mahindra Susten will soon sign the formal agreement with the government-owned power company, NLC, whereupon Mahindra would begin to build a 20 MW solar plus 28 MWhr storage plant in the Andaman islands in the Bay of Bengal.

The power from the plant, because of the costs of storage, will be around ₹12-a-kWhr, which is a lot cheaper than the ₹16-odd that diesel costs. This project is more like a test case, and its success will breed more such plants. The Andamans alone are said to have the potential for 100 MW of such storage-backed solar plants; and there are other islands that may take to solar too.

So, the next time you holiday on one of these islands, you bathe in the surf and bask in the sands, also remember to be thankful it provided the lead in the one thing that gives renewable energy a leg-up — storage.