The Ten Island Renewable Challenge

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Chairman of the Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, is spearheading an energy revolution in the Caribbean in the form of the Ten Island Renewable Challenge, a project driven by the recently merged Carbon War Room and Rocky Mountain Institute.

This initiative has a range of Caribbean jurisdictions actioning their commitment to transition to 100% renewables, and sees Branson leading by example from his Necker Island home.

The entrepreneur talked to Global Island News of the challenges involved in galvanising collaborative action between – and securing concrete commitments from – a range of island governments, and at how these obstacles are being overcome.

The Virgin Group Head begins by explaining that “The Ten Island Challenge is about finding renewable solutions to the Caribbean islands’ heavy dependence on fossil fuels and sky-high electricity prices. He continues that, “this move doesn’t just lessen CO2 in the atmosphere, but gives the islands the opportunity to improve their economies and islanders’ daily lives.

Richard Branson believes that the Caribbean can become leaders of this transition, and his zeal is evident when he talks of “capturing the imagination of the world with respect to what is possible through fresh thinking, commitment to action, and achievement of our goals.”

Without the will, enthusiasm and belief of the people, a transition cannot happen.

He freely admits there have been challenges along the way in galvanising collaborative action on islands, whereby, despite some very visionary renewable energy policies coming from governments, there hasn’t always been full involvement and buy-in from the local population and communities in shaping the energy pathway for the island. Branson stresses that this is critical to the energy future of every island. “Without the will, enthusiasm and belief of the people, a transition cannot happen”, he says.

The entrepreneur continues by explaining that on the utility side, the Carbon War Room, which looks to accelerate the adoption of business solutions that reduce carbon emissions and advance the low-carbon economy, along with the Rocky Mountain Institute, also needed to build a better understanding of the distribution grid’s capacity and how to create a medium or long-term energy plan that made great business sense for the utilities. He further points out that there is a great deal of work to do in respect of the current national regulatory frameworks, which do not always enable renewable penetration. Additionally, on the supply side Branson says, “there has been a lack of security for project developers and contractors in the past that threatened the financial return on their investment.”

To overcome these hurdles, the Carbon War Room and Rocky Mountain Institute are, says Branson, “working across Caribbean countries to provide advice to engage with stakeholders and define a shared vision for each island country.”

On the supply side, there has been a lack of security for project developers and contractors in the past that threatened the financial return on their investment.

Richard Branson is excited about progress being made and talks of a recent major step forward in the challenge where a new solar energy system on Necker Island consisting of 1232 photovoltaic solar panels in the array was turned on.

He explains that the system had been running at 100kW to retain electrical grid stability until the batteries were installed, until Earth Day, which aims to mobilise global support for environmental protection, when the production was increased to 125 kW, as initial results on grid stability were very good. On the back of this, diesel savings are predicted to increase to 20%.

“Once the battery system is installed”, Branson adds, “we will run the photovoltaic solar panels at full capacity, and so these savings will increase substantially.”

In November, wind turbines and batteries are due to come online, which should provide diesel savings of over 75%.

Branson goes on to say that as the system develops, it will introduce energy efficiency measures and new innovative technologies to get the diesel reduction hopefully to 100%. “The solar panels are hidden amongst the sea grapes so cannot be seen from anywhere on the island”, he says.

The Virgin Group boss is also keen to impress upon us the extent to which the project is a result of the “great work of our system owner partners, NRG, and the engineering team on Necker, led by Adam Simmonds.”

We are perfectly placed on Necker to act as a test bed to demonstrate and scale innovative, clean energy solutions.

As to the extent to which the successful implementation of such a collaborative and transformative initiative could be scaled up and applied to the world’s biggest producers of GHG emissions, Branson answers that there is a real opportunity here to replicate this in larger markets, creating a business model that focuses on renewables. He also talks of “an opportunity for us to create a blueprint for integrating various renewable technologies.”

Necker Island’s renewables-driven microgrid aims to provide a scalable application that demonstrably reduces operating expenses, imported fuel costs, emissions and pollution, through its integration of innovative solar, wind and energy storage technologies. Yet, many small island nations, for whom the Necker initiative is designed to be scaled and applied to, are subject to existing contractual obligations to energy suppliers, while their capacity to access finance is often limited.

Richard Branson explains that these issues can be overcome by investing in local companies and stabilising regulations governing renewable generation. He says it is essential “to incentivise local small and medium sized enterprises to invest in renewables. Simply put, these countries will always carry a level of debt to a lender or developer. However, a transition to renewables will keep more capital reserves on-island and significantly reduce inequalities in current account balances. More importantly, investments now will set the tone for a sustainable economy for the future, 20-30 year investments and will more than pay for themselves in much less time.”

Yet, Branson accepts the potential for some negative consequences resulting from the devolution of ownership and management of energy systems to ultra-local level, given that culturally, Caribbean countries maintain centralised governing structures. Therefore, if energy systems are decentralised then it could lead to an unbalanced tariff reduction, with the risk that only the wealthy would be able to afford the systems, since there are no subsidies afforded. As he says, “in the renewable transition we need to ensure that any option is affordable, reliable and sustainable.”

Richard Branson believes that the Ten Island Renewable Challenge can be a strong example for the world to follow, and concludes by saying that, “we are perfectly placed on Necker to act as a test bed to demonstrate and scale innovative, clean energy solutions. These small steps so far show we are moving in the right direction. I look forward to sharing more renewable breakthroughs in the coming months and years, and encouraging the renewables revolution to spread far and wide across the world.”

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