In an interview with Greening the Islands, Emanuele Taibi, Islands Energy Transition Analyst at IRENA, gives us an update on the adoption of renewable energy on islands worldwide, from policy frameworks to technologies. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), with headquarters in Abu Dhabi and offices in Bonn and New York, is an intergovernmental organisation that supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future. Emanuele Taibi is also member of the jury of Greening the Islands Awards.
Q: You have a great viewpoint on what’s happening in terms of the development of renewables on islands at a global level. What’s the current situation?
A: Renewable energy is a policy priority in islands worldwide, as illustrated by the results of the Quickscan developed by IRENA for 20 Small Island Developing States. Key drivers include: reduction in the cost and price volatility of energy supply, reduction of local impacts from fossil fuels, as well as leading by example in climate change mitigation efforts, whereby islands are the most affected by climate change, although the least responsible for it.
Q: What are the prospects for different renewable technologies?
A: The steep reduction in solar and wind cost over the last decade led to grid parity in most jurisdictions. However, islands have been the first ones where renewables reached grid parity. Irrespective of current oil prices, solar and wind remain strongly competitive in islands, and the focus is now shifting on how to best integrate large shares of solar and wind in isolated power systems in the most efficient manner, rather than discussing whether or not this is a worthwhile proposition. The economic and environmental cases are now closed, and it is time to focus on accelerating deployment.
Q: That’s encouraging to hear! So what factors come into play for renewable deployment in island locations compared with elsewhere?
A: Key challenges for deployment of renewables in islands are linked to their geographical characteristics of small size and isolation: while these factors make their energy supply from fossil fuels expensive and increase the competitiveness of renewables, the small scale of projects makes them less attractive for investors. On the other hand, a strong case for showcasing state-of-the-art technologies allows for large manufacturers and project developers to dedicate significant efforts to islands. Just to give an example, the latest project from Solar City and Tesla in American Samoa has received great media attention, despite being relatively small in size compared to other solar PV installations on mainland. This is because it allows to test a transformation from a system fuelled by 100% diesel to 100% solar PV in a single project and demonstrate that such a system is not only economically viable, but also technically feasible with off-the-shelf technology.
Q: From a policy point of view, what examples should islands be looking at to accelerate the uptake of renewables?
A: I would distinguish islands in two categories when it comes to policy aspects. Island states, and specifically SIDS, have a key role in leading the way in terms of political leadership.IRENA has been working with many partners through the SIDS Lighthouses Initiative to support the transition of SIDS to a future powered by renewable energy. However, the institutional framework tends to suffer from limited capacity and resources for the development and implementation of policy and regulatory frameworks that are conducive to an accelerated deployment of renewable energy. On the other hand, islands that are part of large countries can inherit and benefit from solid institutional frameworks and financial resources to support rapid deployment of renewable energy projects, as has been shown in many instances, including in Hawaii (US), Canary Islands (Spain), French Polynesia, Martinique, Guadeloupe (France) and Tokelau (New Zealand).
Q: What best practices come to mind of projects implementing renewable solutions on islands?
A: Many best practices exist around the world, and some are collected in a series of IRENA publications that just reached its third edition, A path to prosperity: Renewable Energy for Islands.
Best practices all include a combination of strong political will together with an updated policy and regulatory framework that reflectsthe paradigmatic change that renewables bring. An improved framework includes specific attention to creating a stable and low-risk investment environment for renewables. This is a significant change in approach from the past, where investments for energy infrastructure were limited, while operational costs – namely imported petroleum products – dominated the cost of energy supply in islands. This had a significant impact on the economy of islands, where in most cases a two-digit share of GDP was spent on importing fossil fuels, exposing and linking national economic growth to the volatility of oil prices. Renewable energy gives the opportunity of stabilizing and reducing the cost of energy supply through investments in infrastructure. This is a significant change in the required business model, moving away from passing on the cost of imported fossil fuels to customers, towards a model where the policy framework for investment is key for a successful transition to a system based on renewable energy.