Sun, Surf, and an Island Breeze: What more could you need?

March 4, 2013 • Islands, Print, Theme • Views: 960

BY SOPHIE JANASKIE

It is noon on the island of Bonaire. The bright Caribbean sun hangs high above the beach, where tourists lounge on the soft sands of this tiny hot spot in the Netherland Antilles. But off in the distance, far out of earshot, hums a constant, dull, whirring noise. The source: a dozen wind turbines lined up along the coast.

Bonaire wants to become the first nation to produce 100 percent sustainable energy for itself—and these wind turbines are only half of the story.  Bonaire’s plan to achieve this energy goal, devised by a Dutch- German consortium of energy companies known as EcoPower, involves a novel, hybrid power plant that combines wind and biodiesel as sources of energy. This new power plant will be the first of its kind and may very well change the way island nations around the globe choose to produce their energy.

In operation since they were built in 2010, Bonaire’s wind farm and initial diesel plant have proven successful, with 40 percent of the island’s power being generated from high-penetration wind. Joris Beninnga, co-founder of RealNewEnergy and one of the men who helped propose Bonaire’s new energy plan, says the system has worked flawlessly for the past two years.

Despite this great success, little progress has been made with regards to the biodiesel part of the project. This means that 60 percent of the island’s power is still reliant upon imported, and therefore very expensive oil. “The remaining fuel we want to produce with algae oils, and that is feasible with the technologies available right now,” said Gilbert Gouvernour, the designer and major proponent of the wind-diesel system. This replacement of traditional diesel with algae oil would be the last step towards making Bonaire 100 percent sustainable. Successful implementation of these sustainable strategies would have widespread positive effects for the residents of Bonaire, including new jobs, more reliable electricity, and reduced dependence on foreign oil with highly variable pricing. If Bonaire can complete its goal of attaining complete energy effciency, it could become a model for sustainability not only for island nations, but also potentially for the world at large.

Some of the island residents are not satisfied with the new energy solution, as they feel as though it doesn’t accomplish enough. “They could do a lot more. We have sun, have wind, have moving water. We are a good island to be self-supported,” said Bas van den Hee, owner of the Bonaire ecotourism company Bon Tuk. Gouvernour, however, still stands by his project. “In retrospect, this is the best solution for Bonaire.”

The dissatisfaction of many islanders most likely stems from the tension between Eco- Power and WEB, Bonaire’s national supplier of water and electricity. In 2010, struggling in the worldwide financial crisis, the primary shareholder of EcoPower went bankrupt. “[At first] everybody was on the same page on getting where we needed to get, and that has changed since the mother company we first worked for went belly up,” said Gouvernour. “There was a lot of stress and the cooperation between the production company and the distribution company was very bad, actually.”

Amidst the confusion, ownership of the wind-diesel power plant switched hands to a Dutch bank. Shortly thereafter a series of miscommunications regarding contracts caused Bonaire an island-wide blackout. The political issues surrounding the power plant, in conjunction with the rise in oil prices, have resulted in high electricity rates for islanders. “The monthly bill on the adjacent island of Curacao is about one-third that of Bonaire,” stated The Reporter, a local news magazine on Bonaire. Thus, despite the system being the most modern and effcient of its kind, the islanders are not experiencing the decrease in electricity rates that they were promised.

As the sun begins to dip lower in the bright Bonearan sky, one begins to wonder about the future of the island. Will the continued use of fossil fuels pollute its beauty? Will global warming cause the sea level to rise? Will its delicate marine ecosystems be destroyed? Despite the diffculties the island is experiencing, Bonaire still has the necessary natural resources, the technology, and the economic incentives to make this energy plan work. The obstacle is no longer developing the technology, but rather mobilizing people—from government offcials to energy companies to average citizens—to get on board with it. Whether Bonaire can successfully overcome budget complications and political strife in order to follow through with their promises will affect not only the lives of islanders, but also the way other nations around the globe view the viability of sustainable energy. Indeed, a failure to fulfill these promises could have serious consequences for both the future of Bonaire and future of sustainable energy.

Sophie Janaskie ‘15 is an Applied Physics major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at sophie.janaskie@yale.edu.

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