Maldives’ carbon neutral goal proving formidably hard and expensive: Telegraph

Though simple to articulate, the [Maldives’] zero-carbon goal looks difficult to achieve, and it is easy to be led astray, writes Geoffrey Lean for the UK’s Telegraph newspaper.

Wind power companies descended on the country soon after the goal was announced and Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India – which has a large wind industry – briefly persuaded Nasheed. But the wind scarcely blows in the islands for months on end, and the country’s new plan – drawn up with the help of a British engineer, Mike Mason – gives it short shrift.

The biomass plant is best suited for Malé, which is probably the world’s most densely populated city, with 100,000 people packed into just two square kilometres (if everyone came down from its forest of high-rise buildings at the same time, they say, there would be no room for them in the streets). And solar power, which is almost as cheap, looks the best bet for the 200 inhabited islands and 100 resorts scattered through the archipelago.

Meanwhile, the government is eliminating import duty on electric cars and motorbikes, leaving petrol and diesel ones subject to a 200 per cent mark-up. This month it will scrap the tax on renewable energy equipment and super-efficient appliances like fridges. And it has introduced a feed-in tariff to pay those who generate their own clean power.

All the same, it looks as if it will fail to meet its goal, for – while providing half the country’s power from renewables is relatively straightforward, and getting to around 80 per cent is possible – it is proving formidably hard and expensive to go all the way.

For the Maldives has no reliable, constant form of clean power – like hydroelectric or tidal energy – and though the sun rises every day, it sets at night and occasionally hides behind clouds.

Thus, solar energy has to be stored in batteries and it is prohibitively expensive to provide enough to cope with a string of sunless days, though costs are expected to fall. Replacing diesel for fishing boats and ferries will be tricky. And to cap it all, the government has just contracted with a Chinese company to provide a gas power station, partly to provide back-up for an ill-conceived windfarm, decided upon before the plan was drawn up.

So the bold zero-carbon goal is being quietly downgraded to 80-90 per cent carbon free, still an extraordinary achievement in just a decade, with the hope of completing the job later. As the plan puts it: “We can do it – almost!”

Full story


Data matches rhetoric as Maldives turns to solar revolution

President Mohamed Nasheed’s energy advisor Mike Mason has unveiled the technical and economic justification for transforming the Maldives into a solar-powered nation.

“I have the oily rag job,” said the former mining engineer, speaking at Soneva Fushi’s Slow Life Eco Symposium about the government’s ambition to generate 60 percent of the country’s electricity needs through solar. “It’s a bit like trying to build a complex aircraft while the captain’s trying to fly it.”

Last year the Maldives spent 16 percent of its GDP on fossil fuels, making the country staggeringly vulnerable to even the tiniest oil price fluctuations and adding an economic imperative to renewable energy adoption.

Mason evaluated available renewable alternatives to diesel and concluded that solar was the most abundant, cost-effective and realistic resource to exploit.

“We can forget ocean currents for now,” he said, explaining that as the currents were wind driven and therefore seasonal, marine current generators would only generate significant electricity for half the year.

Ocean thermal was “very exciting”, Mason observed, although he noted that Soneva Fushi bore the scars of a failed ocean thermal project: “I suggest we wait for someone else to pioneer this,” he said.

Biomass generation “fits us rather well”, as even if the most expensive form of biomass was imported from Canada it would represent 50-66 percent the current cost of diesel.

“It is cheap but can only be used at scale, such as Male’ and possibly Addu,” he said.

Wind and solar

That left wind and solar, the potential for which was “fascinating”.

The challenge with wind, however, was that it was inconsistent, and there were large periods of the year with little resource available.

“What do you do in the eight months without enough wind?” Mason asked, displaying wind data collected in the country’s north.

“What you do is put up solar. In that case, why bother to put up wind at all? With solar the sun rises every day – it is wonderfully predictable.”

The trick was going to be to transform solar from a green, niche, “subsidy hungry creature, to something so obvious that the current government of the time sees it as a sensible and intelligent thing to do. The reality is that it is easy to get to 30-40% emission reduction, but getting beyond first stage to the 80-90 percent that has been proposed by cabinet will be more difficult.”

Mason collected data concerning the cost of generating electricity using diesel at 100 of the country’s inhabited islands, “as I felt there was not enough data available”, and found staggering levels of inefficiency.

The numbers, he said, “are really scary. At best it costs 28-29 cents to produce a kilowatt hour, but at the top right of the graph it is costing 77 cents per kilowatt hour. Anything beyond 28-29 cents for a big island and 32-33 cents for a small island is just money being burned.”

The Maldives could quickly and easily save US$0.5-1 million dollars a month “simply by fixing power stations by doing boring, sensible stuff.”

“Diesel engines are designed to work at their rated power – they like going flat out. The moment you back off by half, you end up with a less efficient engine. Many islands have power stations with engines out of proportion to the size of the island’s energy needs – in some cases they are running at 15-25 percent capacity. That is a real cost we have.”

Mason then displayed a graph detailing the cost of providing solar, and observed that the cost plummeted quickly when it came to providing 30-40 percent of the country’s energy needs but sharply increased thereafter to a point where it was less competitive.

The challenge, he explained, was storage – how to retain electricity to operate devices such as lights, fridges and air-conditioners at night.

“Energy storage is the big hole in our story here. The key for me is to reach that 80 percent goal without the [cost] graph rising beyond where it is today,” Mason explained.

Using data detailing the energy use patterns of the island of Maalhos in Baa Atoll, Mason observed a high variability in power demand. Introducing solar without storage – “from panel to fridge” – would complicate that by requiring more flexibility from the existing power plant.

Energy Advisor Mike Mason

“Stick a solar panel on [Maalhos] and you can generate 29kw at midday with zero demand [on the powerplant]. But the maximum you need from the powerplant [without solar] is 42kw. This is a fundamental problem – the more solar you get, the more we have to get the power stations right.”

The cost of providing solar electricity straight from the panel was far below the cost of using diesel on any island, including Male’. On Maalhos, by pointing the solar panel in the same direction all day, “you can meet midday demand easily. But between 6-11 am in the morning, and after 2pm in the afternoon, you still need to meet the cooling load of fridges and air-conditioners.”

Mason had two suggestions – the first was to use (more expensive) tracking solar panels that would follow the sun and extend the daytime period in which demand could be met using solar. This would also generate the maximum yield from each panel, mitigating another problem – space.

“The challenge will be getting tracking to work in a hot, humid, salty environment,” he acknowledged, particularly if the panels were mounted in shallow lagoons.

The cost of providing electricity from solar in conjunction with current commercially available battery technology was not much different from existing diesel arrangements on many islands, Mason observed. “You lose 20 percent of the electricity putting it in and taking it back out, and it is expensive to fix. It’s not good enough.”

However on Maalhos, Mason noted, 28 percent of the electricity demand was for cooling.

“I had a think about storage. We could use really cold water refrigerated during the day, and use that to drive air-conditioning and fridges at night. This applies as much to resorts as it does home islands.”

This innovation would drop the cost to the level of the country’s most efficient diesel generators, Mason explained. For those powerplants currently running at 77 cents a kilowatt, “this is an opportunity to print money – and there aren’t many of those available to the government.”


The major problem was obtaining the capital, Mason said, estimating that such an overhaul for the nation would cost US$2-3 billion, “although half of that would come from the tourist industry.”

“With renewable energy, on day 1 you buy 25 years of electricity. It might be cheap, but you still need enough cash on day 1.”

Attracting the investment in a country such as France or Germany would be “a no brainer”, Mason said, however because of the Maldives turbulent political history and fiscal deficit, it had a very weak credit rating.

“There is a shortage of knowledge and skills as well,” he said. “We need an energy technology support unit, and an energy finance corporation that can for this project provide guarantees and get countries to underwrite us. We do not want to be reliant by subsidies.”

In response to a question regarding the planned Gaafaru wind farm, Mason acknowledged the build, own and operate agreement STELCO had signed with Chinese wind turbine manufacturer XEMC to develop a 50mw wind farm at Gaafaru was a potential commercial pressure for adopting solar.

Under this agreement, a backup liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant would also be built, capable of providing up to 30 megawatts on windless days, or when there is not enough wind to meet demand.

Minivan News raised concerns in an article published in April 2010 that according to figures published in a 2003 report by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), North Malé Atoll had an annual average wind speed of 4.9 m/s (17.7 km/h), while a 2005 report by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) described the minimum average wind speed needed to run a utility-scale wind power plants as 6 m/s (21.6 km/h).

Mason described the contract as crafted with “more enthusiasm than technical involvement”, and noted that an LNG plant put out 92 percent of the emissions of a diesel plant “of the kind that STELCO already run very well.”

“A single cycle gas turbine of the kind described is very efficient but does not have the flexibility [required]. There is a technical challenge. We need to think about how we integrate things before we sublet the parts, so my instinct is that the contract will not be enacted in form presented.”

Speaking of the solar plan, now backed at least by data if not the finance, a senior government official remarked that the plan to turn to solar was “no longer froth. There’s a shot of espresso in the cappuccino now.”

The Maldives has meanwhile become the first country to crowdsource its renewable energy plan on the internet.

Forum topics in the comprehensive crowdsourcing project include solar and wind technology, energy storage, system control and demand management, novel technologies (including marine current and ocean thermal), biomass power generation, and finance.

Under each topic the Maldives appeals for expert assistance on several technical questions, around issues such as the use of solar panels in corrosive environments, the economics of tracking or fixed solar panel systems, and the viability of low velocity wind turbines.

Visit the forum (English)


Chinese firm to take over Gaafaru wind farm project following collapse of GE/Falcon Energy deal

Chinese electrical manufacturing firm XEMC will take over the development of the government’s flagship renewable energy project, the Gaafaru wind farm, following the behind-the-scenes collapse of the US$200 million dollar agreement between GE and Falcon Energy late last year.

Under the new agreement between XEMC and the State Electric Company (STELCO), XEMC will install turbines capable of generating 50 megawatts and submarine cables servicing the greater Male’ area, under a build, own and operate arrangement.

A backup liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant will also be built, capable of providing up to 30 megawatts on windless days, or when there is not enough wind to meet demand. The wind farm will provide up to 20 megawatts to STELCO’s grid, supplementing its current install capacity of 38.76 megawatts.

STELCO’s Managing Director Dr Mohamed Zaid told Minivan News that under the 25 year agreement the new facility will be owned by XEMC and the electricity bought by STELCO, with construction of the wind turbines starting within three months.

XEMC was selected through an open tender, Dr Zaid said, adding that STELCO had not signed a private partnership agreement with GE/Falcon.

“Initially we did not limit this project to a specific renewable energy source, but the XMEC group recommended using wind turbines given their experience with the technology,” Dr Zaid said, during the signing event held recently at the President’s Office.

He said was unable to provide reasons for the collapse of the GE/Falcon Energy deal “at this time”, and the circumstances around it remain unknown.

Minivan News was told that the reasons included a lack of consensus between the parties involved, and whether they had the requisite experience: “Falcon didn’t work out,” said one informed source, while “a lot of things were not carried out according to the memorandum of understanding,” said another. Local newspaper Haveeru meanwhile reported that there were concerns about pricing and profitability of the enterprise.

The original much-publicised project was to be central to the government’s ambition for the country to become carbon neutral by 2020, and promised a 75 megawatt wind farm in North Malé Atoll that was to produce enough clean energy to allow Malé, Hulhulé and a number of resorts to “switch off their existing diesel power generators”, according to the President’s Office at the time. Excess electricity on windy days was to be diverted to a desalination plant located on Hulhumale’.

The project was, according to President Mohamed Nasheed during its launch, intended to “reduce fuel imports into the country by 25 percent and cut carbon emissions by 40 percent.”

Minivan News raised concerns in an article published in April 2010 that according to figures published in a 2003 report by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), North Malé Atoll had an annual average wind speed of 4.9 m/s (17.7 km/h), while a 2005 report by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) described the minimum average wind speed needed to run a utility-scale wind power plants as 6 m/s (21.6 km/h).

That report stated that because “power available in the wind is proportional to the cube of its speed… doubling the wind speed increases the available power by a factor of eight.”

For example, a turbine operating at a site with an average of 20 km/h should produce 33 percent more electricity than a site operating at 19 km/h, because the cube of 20 is larger than the cube of 19.

This means that a difference of just 1 km/h in wind speed could significantly bring down productivity of the wind farm.

The Falcon/GE project’s local lead, Umar Manik, told Minivan News at the time that due to engineering advances the Gaafaru wind farm was expected to run on a minimum wind speed of 5.7 m/s.

However at time of signing the MoU, Falcon had still to raise the required investment with international banks, which by the time of Minivan News’ 2010 article had almost doubled to US$370 million from the original estimate of US$200 million.

“International banks are very keen to invest in the Maldives,” Manik told Minivan News at the time, “but they need eighteen months of wind surveys. They are becoming partners, they don’t want to lose their money.”

The turbines were to be planted once six months of data had been gathered, “to give us full confidence,” according to Manik.

While data was to be gathered by a 150-foot tall wind mast installed in the area, a LNG backup generator with a capacity of 50 megawatts was to be constructed with a supply contract reportedly signed with a Saudi Arabian firm. The deal was quietly terminated in late 2010.

Minivan News was unable to establish the credentials of Falcon Energy, which no longer appears to have a web presence. The Singapore-listed Falcon Energy Group, a major offshore oil and gas player that was widely presumed by the international energy media to be the party involved in the Gaafaru project, denied any knowledge of its existence when contacted by Minivan News last week. GE meanwhile failed to respond to enquiries.

Falcon Energy was introduced in the President Office’s original release as having commissioned “onshore and offshore wind farms totalling 1,500 MW over the past 10 years, in the UK, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Canada.”

Interviewing Manik last April, Minivan was led to understand that Falcon Energy Group was based in the UK and represented a consortium of four companies – two from the UK, including Falcon Energy, one from Holland and another from Saudi Arabia.

The government’s Isles project website states that when the MoU signed with Falcon Energy was terminated a decision was made to proceed with a new group identified as ‘STAR Renewables Consortium’, a joint venture represented by the Saudi Trading and Resources Company. However an MoU was never signed as STELCO elected to proceed with an open tender – a process that led to the current deal with XEMC.

Minivan News understands that at least two years of wind data needs to be collected before the Gaafaru venture can proceed – data that should be available by the end of the year.

“The only wind speed data currently available is not good enough for a commercial venture,” an informed source told Minivan News. “That will determine what sort of turbines are needed – some are better at low wind speeds.”

LNG was selected as a backup option due to the ability to rapidly power it on and off as demand necessitated, however “at some point we will want to switch off the gas.”

Minivan News understands that the intention is to ultimately power Male’ and its surrounding islands with a mixture of wind, gas and marine current generation, with potential for the latter presently being determined by a £48,000 (US$76,000) study led by Scotland’s Robert Gordon University and due to report this year.

Foreign investment in such projects is subsequently to be coordinated by the government’s new office of Renewable Energy Investment, operating under the Ministry of Economic Development.


Gaafaru Wind Farm: the future of Male’s power?

The Gaafaru wind farm project to power the Male’ region will be operational by August 2013, the government has promised, although the cost has already soared to US$370 million from a predicted US$250 million.

The agreement between the State Electricity Company Limited (STELCO) and Falcon Energy to build and run a 75mW wind farm in Gaafaru, North Malé Atoll, should produce enough clean energy for Malé, Hulhulé and a number of resorts to “switch off their existing diesel power generators” according to the President’s Office.

The wind farm will be required to produce an uninterrupted minimum of 45mW. On windy days, “excess electricity…will be used to run a water desalination plant.” On calm days, there will be a gas turbine which can produce up to 50mW of back-up power.

GE Energy is the most likely candidate to supply the wind turbines, and will also be supplying a desalination plant and the 50 mW back-up generator powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The project’s local lead, Omar Manik, told Minivan News the Gaafaru wind farm is expected to completely replace the electricity currently produced and provided by STELCO, and should save the government about US$50 million a year.

Wind speed concerns

According to an American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) 2005 report, the minimum average wind speed needed to run a utility-scale wind power plants is 6 metres per second (21.6 km/h).

The AWEA report states that because “power available in the wind is proportional to the cube of its speed… doubling the wind speed increases the available power by a factor of eight.”

For example, a turbine operating at a site with an average of 20 km/h should produce 33 percent more electricity than a site operating at 19 km/h, because the cube of 20 is larger than the cube of 19.

This means that a difference of just 1 km/h in wind speed could significantly bring down productivity in the wind farm.

According to figures published in a 2003 report by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), North Malé Atoll has an annual average wind speed of 4.9 m/s (17.7 km/h), with the maximum average wind speed recorded of 8 m/s (28.8 km/h).

The Gaafaru wind farm is meanwhile expected to run on a minimum wind speed of 5.7 m/s.

Manik explained that wind farm engineers relied on [a minimum wind speed of] 15 m/s for a utility farm ten years ago, but due to efficiency gains “today it’s 3.5 m/s.”

Most of the data used for the Gaafaru project was collected by Manik, with help from the Department of Meteorology, at both 40 and 80 meters above ground.

Manik noted that the important thing when gathering wind speed data is “how high it is and how much wind there is. The higher you go, the better it is.”

The masts for the wind turbines at Gaafaru will be 80 metres high, with the propellers reaching a diameter of 50 metres. Manik explained “at 80 metres there will be very good wind.”

The wind farm

Manik said a preliminary feasibility study on wind speeds has been conducted and the project is moving forward as planned.

The project is being funded and run by UK-based Falcon Energy Group, but is represents a consortium of four companies; two from the UK, including Falcon Energy, one from Saudi Arabia and one from Holland. Currently, they are surveying wind power and negotiating prices for freight, turbines and gas supply.

The wind farm will use STELCO’s power grid, but will replace its powerplant in Male’.

“The powerhouse in Malé is limited, they have land problems, fuel price problems. We need renewable energy,” Manik explained.

The wind farm should produce from 60-70mW of energy, “which is still higher than what is required by the government,” Manik said. “STELCO will still be the provider. We are selling to them and they are providing.”

The wind farm is expected to run at 85 percent productivity, and any excess energy will be automatically sent to run the desalination plant.

Wind turbines

The project’s team is currently analysing how many turbines will be needed to produce the required 45mW of electricity. Manik noted that two 25mW turbines will be more costly than one 50mW turbine.

He said they are looking at turbines that use no oil at all, because “the most important thing for us is not the energy. It’s the coral reef,” and the turbines must therefore be 100 percent environmentally friendly.

They are also studying the pH and moisture levels in the water, Manik said, to prevent corrosion in the turbines. Anti-corrosive zinc tablets will be placed in the mast and the turbines to keep them from rusting.

The turbines will be shipped from Lisbon, Portugal, but it is proving difficult and expensive to ship them to Malé.

Back-up generator and desalination plant

The back-up generator and water desalination plant will be located in Hulhumalé and will be provided by GE. The back-up generator, a gas-powered turbine, will have a production capability of 50mW and should be installed in about eight months.

Energy produced by the back-up is expected to replace STELCO’s electricity by late next year. “The back-up generator will be the first thing to be installed,” Manik said, adding that the most important thing was relieving STELCO from having to purchase more generators next year.

He said they are currently negotiating the gas contract for the back-up with one company in Sri Lanka and one in India. First, they need to know how many gas tanks will be needed and what sizes they will need to be. Building the gas tanks, Manik said, will take about a year.

Because excess wind energy “cannot be bottled or stored,” it must be used. If it is not used, Manik explained, it will lower productivity, so any extra energy will go into powering the desalination plant.

The back-up will most likely run on liquefied natural gas (LNG) since it is the “the best option to get where we want to be: carbon neutral,” Manik said, but noted that petroleum gas (regular cooking gas) has a larger heating capacity and does not pollute the air much more than LNG.

Manik said the water produced in the desalination plant would most likely be sold to Hulhumalé, although the government has previously said it would use it for bottled water.

STELCO and power grids

The clean energy produced by the wind farm will be distributed through STELCO’s existing power grids in Malé, and distributed through new submarine cables. Manik noted the 60 km of submarine cables are very expensive to buy and lay out, and will have to be replaced in about 50 years.

He said the biggest issue with the grids is ensuring the current grids in Malé can handle the amount of energy that will be produced by the wind farm.

“If there are 75mW of power coming into this grid, this grid should handle that,” Manik said. He added that they still need to figure out whether the electricity will be coming in through STELCO’s main power generator or into the four individual grids set out in Malé.

Economics and timelines

Falcon Energy group is investing most of the US$370 million needed to fund this project. Manik noted a lot of that money will be loaned by international banks to Falcon Energy.

“International banks are very keen to invest in the Maldives,” he said, “but they need eighteen months of wind surveys. They are becoming partners, they don’t want to lose their money.”

Manik says although both Falcon Energy and the banks know there is “good wind,” they will only invest once they can see wind data collected over eighteen months, which would ensure the data is varied and accurate.

He said while the remaining wind surveys and the installation of the back-up generator are being conducted, once they have six months of data “to give us full confidence, then we will start planting the foundations for the wind turbines.”

“By the time the eighteen months are up, the turbines should be completed,” he added.

Manik said that while “the government doesn’t come up with any money, when you go into a big project like this, even the receiver has to do something, some work.”

The work he is referring to is the possibility that the government might have to “rearrange” how the clean energy will be brought into the city.

“They may have to lay some cables. Maybe. Minimum investment from the government.”

He said it would help if the project could “tap into” some of the funds recently donated to the country, both in the Donor Conference and the Climate Change Trust Fund, but said that is something they are not really thinking about.

“We have to use what is available now. And we also need to show that we are capable people.”

Manik said the cost of the project has risen from the original figure of US$250 million to US$370 million “because there is no infrastructure here, and it has to be built by us.”

The MoU states that Falcon Energy must provide an uninterrupted power supply to STELCO for twenty years “starting from a given date.”

“It has to always be transparent,” Manik said, “you are working with the government, it has to be clear.”

The wind turbines should be working by June 2013 and the back-up generator should be operational by October 2011.

Correction: the wind mast to carry out further tests is being sent from Portugal, not the turbines.