Atoll nations at cutting edge of climate and clean energy

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A Pacific island nation that is at the centre of crucial climate change negotiations this year wants to build the world’s first commercial ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) project – a move that would allow it to look after its own energy needs and even export fuels for shipping and the like.

The Marshall Islands, a sprawling nation of 34 atolls and islands spread over some 2 million square kilometres in the western Pacific, has been battered in the past year by an unprecedented drought and rising seas that have flooded its airport and water catchment facilities.

Next month it plays host to the 44th South Pacific Forum, which this year will be focused on the real impacts of climate change. And it plans a few big announcements to try to encourage larger nations to lift their own ambition and actions

The first is a project that vice president Tony de Brum says has effectively “solarised” the nation. All of its 34 islands now have solar power for homes, schools and dispensaries – no mean feat given the spread and distance of the atolls. On its main islands, solar will account for 20 per cent of its electricity needs and has been installed at hospitals and colleges.

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 10.30.15 AMBut de Brum has an even more ambitious plan. For much of the past decade he has been pursuing a dream to install the world’s first OTEC commercial plant, and he has been locked in negotiations with Japanese funders and technology developer Lockheed Martin.

In October, a $2.9 million location feasibility study funded by the World Bank will begin. De Brum believes a 20-30MW plant could be in operation before the end of the decade.

The Marshall Islands currently relies on hugely expensive diesel for its energy needs. It costs more than 60c/kWh, and government subsidies reduce the cost to consumers to around 42c/kWh.

But diesel sucks up 25 per cent of the nation’s GDP, and the high cost means that the few industries it has – such as the local fish processing plant that employs 800 people – cannot afford to expand.

De Brum believes that OTEC can deliver electricity at around 25c/kWh. He expects funding to come from international bodies, and be underpinned by a power purchase agreement from the US military, which has a large base on the islands and also depends on expensive diesel.

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 10.37.11 AMThe plant is likely to be built at Kwajalein Atoll. de Brum says the warm waters of the Marshall Islands (see map, the Marshalls are in the heart of the best areas) means that an OTEC plant could be 30 per cent more efficient than a similar facility built in Hawaii, where a pilot project has been in operation.

That’s because the temperature difference is much larger in the Marshalls – up to 24C over 1,000 metres of depth. Every nation has cold water at 1,000m – but few have such warm water at the surface.

As Lockheed Martin explains, OTEC runs off the difference in ocean temperatures, which can be leveraged to produce power. Warm surface sea water passes through a heat exchanger, vaporizing a low boiling point working fluid to drive a turbine generator, producing electricity.

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 10.36.25 AMFurthermore, OTEC power can be used to produce hydrogen and ammonia, which can be shipped to areas not close to OTEC resources. And it can be used to desalinate water by flash evaporating the warm sea water and condensing the subsequent water vapor using cold sea water.

Lockheed Martin in April signed an agreement to build a 10MW OTEC plant off China. But that plant would be some 50kms from the main island and would involve huge costs. In the Marshalls, a plant could be built 3km offshore, although this will be confirmed by the feasibility study.

“We’d like to demonstrate OTEC to point we can show that it is a technology worth investing in,” de Brum tells RenewEconomy in an interview in Sydney. “We could be 100 per cent renewable, make ourselves petroleum free and even become exporters of energy and expertise.” (The Marshalls also have a large shipping registration business.)

The Marshalls is one of four atoll nations in the world, which are at most risk from climate change because they have no high points more than a few metres above sea levels. The others are Kiribati and Tuvalu in the Pacific, and the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Next month, the Marshall Islands – once described in the 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission as the “most contaminated place in the world” because of US nuclear testing – will play host to the South Pacific Forum which de Brum hopes will help to underline two points; that small nations like his are taking action, and that action is urgent.

“We are not just helpless natives waiting for coconuts to fall,” he says. “We are taking action– we want to be petroleum-free. The two building blocks for any small island in the Pacific is power and water. The most important resources in the Pacific is tourism and fisheries. Neither can survive without clean running water and cheaper energy.

The other point is to underline the immediacy of the crisis. “Everyone is thinking that climate issues are something that you predict 40, 60, 80 years down the line,” de Brum says. “But for us, climate change is here and now.  If we don’t do something about, then for some of us it will be too late.

“If we fail to reach – and god forbid – the 2C limit – you are talking about these islands going under much earlier than the turn of century. We need to talk about what sought of preparations we need economically, financially, and socially. We can’t build a  tower of Babel and build towns on stilts. What happens to our sovereignty, what happens to our nation? We don’t want to become wards of some other countries.”

In one of many speeches delivered during his recent trip to Australia, de Brum said Australia has the capacity and “moral responsibility” to do more. “I am here because 2014 needs to be a year of ambition, and Australia’s 2020 target will be under review. History shows that leadership comes easily to Australia. We now need to see the political vision to match.”  

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    This is a very interesting technology. I was involved in a study of something similar about 15 years ago looking at utilizing the temperature difference between the surface (cooler) water and the basal highly saline (hotter) water in salt lakes in WA to produce fresh water from solar power. It was believed to be economic at that time. The government was against trying it because of the strong environmental lobby which seeks to protect salt lakes from any use.
    One wonders what the economics of it would be nowadays with much cheaper solar power?
    Surely we should be considering utilizing some of these huge natural salt lakes in non destructive ways?
    I think Australia should be supporting projects like the Marshall Islands one so that it can learn from their experience and be able to apply the lessons here.