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)


Tour giant funding project to raise resistance of coral reefs in the Maldives

Travel giant Kuoni, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and local environmental consultancy Seamarc have launched a comprehensive project to protect coral reefs and address the impact of climate change in the Maldives.

Speaking at the launch of the project this week at the Nalahiya hotel in Male’, Kuoni’s Head of Corporate Responsibility Matthias Leisinger observed that “tourism is like fire. You can cook with it, but it can also burn your house down.”

Kuoni has conducted a similar project in Egypt, targeting the Red Sea. Such projects were, Leisinger said, investment by the company in the long-term sustainability of destinations and a tool well within the company’s business model.

The 100 year-old leisure travel operator employs 10,000 people across 40 countries, and had as a result of its breadth broadened its scope from travel and tour provision to “destination management”.

“Investment in corporate social responsibility is a long-term business tool,” Leisinger said. Tackling practices such as sex tourism, for instance, was also a way of protecting the company’s brand, he explained.

Ensuring that hotels had no waste on beach, that islands had infrastructure such as sewerage plants and that staff were treated fairly increased the quality of the company’s end product, which affected its bottom line, he explained.

One aspect of the project involves establishing waste management facilities on 10 inhabited islands near Kuoni resorts. According to the project synopsis, “islanders will be taught to segregate waste at household level and bins will be provided to store the waste separately until removal from the island. A once-off large clean up may need to be organised before implementation of the system as most islands have accumulated waste over time.”

As well as improving the environment of the local island and allowing the resort to tick one of its ‘corporate social responsibility’ boxes, the facilities will “reduce the waste that washes up on the shores of the resorts themselves.”

A key focus of the project is protection and management of the resorts’ housereefs, which are currently protected by law from all fishing activities apart from bait fishing, “and as such, these areas act as marine protected areas (MPA) by default.”

However few resorts employed marine biologists to manage the housereef and limit destructive activity, and many times the boundries were ambigious “which results in unacceptable use of the reefs by outsiders leading to conflicts between the resort and local people.”

Under the project, four resorts will trial an ‘MPA management plan’ involving ecologicial surveys and the use of a warden to “drive away intruders”.

The project will also include an extensive series of training sessions and workshops for resort staff and local communities, and including on the reporting and monitoring of coral bleaching.

Senior Advisor at IUCN Dr Ameer Abdulla explained that bleaching represented the expulsion of symbiotic plants from coral due to stress factors such as pollution, sudden changes in temperature and ocean acidification, making the coral vulnerable to algae.

“Eventually the reef disintegrates, with the loss of shoreline protection and tourism benefits,” he explained.

“A bleaching event in 1998 saw close to 100 percent mortality in some areas [of the Maldives],” he said. “It was 87 percent in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, but because the area has been well managed the rate of recovery was very high.”

Tackling climate change was a broader problem requiring international effort, but local measures to reduce impacts and increase the resistance threshold of the reefs could “give the coral a fighting chance”, he explained.

Dr Abdulla noted concerns raised by dive staff at one resort that local fishermen had begun fishing for grouper on the resort’s house reef, but were unsure of their mandate and did not want to spark local conflicts.

A representative from the Ministry of Tourism, present at the launch, observed that such incidents were likely to increase “as stocks diminish elsewhere.”

The representative also noted new challenges arising with the changing market profile of tourism in the country – whereas visitors from European countries such as France and Germany responded well to requests to respect the natural environment, “the market is changing, and Chinese guests are walking on the reefs, catching and eating crabs… During a recent visit to Shanghai we tried to get the message across, but it’s a very different culture.”

A representative from the Marine Research Centre (MRC) retaliated that it was in the interests of the Tourism Ministry to legally mandate resorts “to take responsibility for the natural environment for the duration of the lease.”

Much of the country’s lucrative resort industry “remains very closed,” he observed.


Maldives democracy must prove it can guarantee liberty: European Commission report

Democracy in the Maldives is in a crucial phase and needs to prove to the people that it is able to guarantee liberty, according an independent evaluation of the European Commission’s €26.3 million (US$36.6 million) assistance package to the Maldives over the last 10 years.

“The political, administrative, and judicial system needs reforming in order to implement constitutional guarantees and requirements,” the report found.

“The passing of an important number of bills has been delayed in parliament, which is composed predominately of newcomers to politics and in which the opposition coalition has the majority – resulting in the problem of consensus having to be reached between the government and its parliamentary opposition.”

As a consequence, the country was under pressure to provide a functioning political, judicial and local governance system, the EC report noted, identifying two major areas of reform: the judicial sector (including police and prisons), “and the decentralisation reform, beginning with the local [council] elections.”

The independent evaluation was commissioned by the EC to critique its funding of programs between 1999 to 2009, which have included support for the empowerment of women, over €15 million in tsunami-related assistance, technical support for the presidential and parliamentary elections, island waste management centres and more recently, pledges off €6.5 million for climate change adaption and mitigation support, as well as €1.3 million earmarked for combating drug abuse.

The report was presented at Holiday Inn yesterday to a cross section of stakeholders including government officials, civil society, international donor organisations and the press.

Overall achievement of executives was described as “mixed”. The strategic planning of many programmes was “too ambitious given the level of available funding”, the report noted, with gaps between planning and implementation.

“The environmental support program was too ambitiously planned and had to be scaled down to solid waste management only,” the report stated. “Constructed island waste management systems are, with few exceptions, not operational, and waste management centres are unequipped.”

The failings of this project were due in part to “technical” problems, including design weaknesses and missing equipment, “and insufficient involvement of communities in general, notably the Island Women Development committees.”

“Women on the islands are quite well organised and are often the main actors in terms of environmental issues and social and economic life. Many households are managed by women, as men are often working in the tourist resorts, in the fisheries industry, or abroad,” the report observed.

“However the present local governance structures generally do not sufficiently allow women to play an effective role in the local decision-making process.”

Equipment for the island waste management systems, purchased with the project’s remaining funding, remains stored in Male’, the report noted.

Economic vulnerability

The EC had identified the Maldives’ reliance on a single export commodity as a fundamental weakness in its commodity, but plans to diversify these exports “were too ambitious an objective for EC support.”

The problem was going to exacerbate when the Maldives graduates from Less Developed Country (LDC) status in January 2011, the report noted, when it will lose preferential market access and technical and financial support from multilateral and regional sources. This will have particular impact on the country’s trade with Sri Lanka and Thailand.

“Maldives exports can be built up and diversified only if action is taken to resolve serious supply-side issues in the economy, including access to investment finance, improvement of production procedures and standards, training of the workforce, development of modern marketing principles, and improvement of transport infrastructure.”

Programmes identified as successful by the EC report included that allocated to the presidential and parliamentary elections, which produced “a positive perception of the EC as a recognised political partner in the democratisation process.”

Looking ahead, the report suggested ensuring that projects had clearer objectives and were realistically planned, and preferably managed from within the country rather than outside.

It also recommended greater strategic focus on no more than two areas of priority, “such as environment/climate change and the good governance/decentralisation sector”.

Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Union Delegation to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Bernard Savage, observed that programmes run in cooperation with other donors such as the World Bank and UN Agencies had been the most successful.

“Programmes carried out under this collaboration have been reviewed as both effective and efficient in general,” he said.


National Museum will broaden exploration of Maldivian history

The New National Museum will give Maldivians the opportunity “to examine and reinterpret our culture and whole way of life”, claims Ahmed Naseer, the state minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture.

“It’s a great museum complex that includes Male’s best garden park. We now have a lot of space for people to express themselves in various ways, and where people can take refuge from this hectic life in Male. A place where they can relax, experience a bit of entertainment, and improve their historical and cultural knowledge.”

Built by the Chinese government as part of a UNESCO project planned for almost 20 years, the new museum will officially open on Independence Day, Monday 26 July.

For the opening, the new building facing Chandanee Magu will show exhibits mainly from the old museum at the nearby Sultan’s Palace, while the other new building across the park will feature an exhibition of 120 faiykolhu or Maldivian legal deeds and other official documents dating from the 1600s to the 1930s, according to Aminath Shareef, who has been cataloguing the faiykolhu.

They have never been exhibited before, and were selected from 800 documents discovered by chance in Male in December 2008. “We’ve chosen a variety of documents for Maldivians to see at the opening,” says Shareef. “They are written in Dives Akuru, Tana, English and Urdu scripts.”

“The first Maldivian museum was established in the early 1950s,” says Ahmed Naseer. “Our collection has moved four times. At last it has found a permanent home. We will also try to acquire other private collections that people have in their homes. These people are waiting for a secure place to exhibit their precious possessions. We will be inviting them to display their collections, or lease items to the museum. We may even buy their collections once we have the legal framework in place. So it’s a very exciting future.

“We can finally address many issues that have lain dormant in our society. Historians use old books and other things to interpret history, but in our case there are very few books and the questions about where Maldivians came from and who we were before and after we converted to Islam – these questions have remained unexplored. Through the museum we can start examining and interpreting periods of our history, and this will give us a chance to find some answers.”

“Many Maldivians are aware of the fascinating work done on coral stone at the old Friday mosque. We are in the process of applying to UNESCO to have the mosque placed on the World Heritage list. In the Maldives, coral stone sculpture is a common factor throughout the atolls and some experts claim Maldivian coral stone work is the best in the world. Of course that is debatable, but through the museum we can examine these issues, and assess our heritage.

“There is a lot of interest among our young people and students. They are all looking forward to the opening. It’s something good that’s happening. We plan to integrate the museum with the education system. At the moment the heritage department is involved in setting up administration for training staff, but we will also be inviting lecturers to utilise the museum space.”

Inside the museum

“Now the building has been finished, and the President and his cabinet decided we should open it on Independence Day,” explains Mamduh Waheed, deputy minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture, “we have to show our appreciation to the Chinese government and assure them that we will utilise the facilities they have so kindly provided.

“Within the ministry and the new heritage department we don’t have the capacity to handle the opening. Former members of the National Centre of Linguistics and History (which has now been disbanded) are helping, but even then we needed much more assistance, so the cabinet decided to put together a taskforce.”

Many Male organisations and government departments are taking part in the effort to have the museum ready for the official opening, according to taskforce co-ordinator Aminath Athifa, “Dhiraagu are working on the PA system, the Male’ Municipality and STELCO are helping, and the police are providing security as well as the MNDF who are also handling the physical transfers and exhibit arrangements. Every movement of our collection is photographed and documented.”

Regarding the museum’s long-term plans, Ahmed Naseer says, “We’ll be exploring non-academic methods of creating interest. In the future, there’ll be exhibitions to attract people who would not normally think a museum is a place for them. A lot of our old craft skills are dying away and they need to be revived. For example, the mat weaving that still occurs in Gaadhoo on Huvadhu atoll, and the lacquerware from Thulhaadhoo in Baa atoll. We will have exhibitions that include the craftspeople, and they can show others how mats and lacquerware are made. In Male we have a very fast pace of life and young people are often quite unaware of these skills. The people from the islands can show us how these beautiful things are created and it will inspire a resurgence in our craft skills and ability to earn more tourism income.”

The training of staff is the biggest challenge facing the museum’s administrators, Naseer explains. “We expect to receive assistance from other countries who are experienced in museum management, and hope to send our young people to neighbouring countries to get training in preservation methods.

“Invitations will be sent to foreign students to come and work as interns with local people; for example through the Heritage Centre in Singapore. We are planning to have exchange programs enabling our people to work overseas in other museums. This will help alleviate our staff shortages. A lot of people are looking forward to this; the level of expectation is high.

Some of the new exhibits

“From the beginning of the consultative process almost two decades ago, an important issue was the provision of a human resource program to train people to run the museum and maintain the collection. But the human resource requirements were not attended to; all the focus was on getting these huge buildings erected. It’s a pity that UNESCO didn’t insist on the training part of the project.

“Maldivians are very interested to learn about their heritage,” Naseer believes. “Most of it is not known. They will be able to question things for the first time. They were used to just obeying and accepting what they were told; not using their own minds. This is an opportunity for Maldivians to improve their knowledge of their past. They don’t have to be afraid to ask questions.

“A museum can be an exciting place that inspires people and we will develop the sort of trained staff the Maldivian people need to help them understand their heritage.”

Sultan’s Park and the Eden Project
An integral part of the new museum is the development of Sultan’s Park, situated between the two museum buildings, into a unique Maldivian botanical garden.

“Maldives is Eden’s latest project area,” says the organisation’s English curator, Ian Martin. “At the moment we are trying to renovate this very attractive garden and turn it into something with a big emphasis on the plants of the Maldives – how people think about them, how they use them. These plants can be used for fruit and vegetables, but there can also be plants for their spiritual satisfaction, appreciated for their beauty.

“Over the next year or so, we’ll really get involved with the transformation of a rather traditional ornamental garden into something very special for Maldivians. It will become a place where Maldivians can understand themselves and what their future could be – giving them ideas about how they can progress towards a more sustainable economy that isn’t just relying on fish and tourism.”

The museum will help promote research into Maldivian culture

Ian Martin worked as a horticulturalist in tropical countries for 23 years before joining the Eden Project fourteen years ago. “My links abroad became useful to promote Eden’s philosophy of improving the understanding and care of plants for crops and conservation around the world,” he says.

“Helping in the initial landscaping work are labourers and other staff from the city’s nursery and the Male Municipality, and of course the MNDF personnel who have been really great and very easy men to work with.”

“The second phase of our work will be turning Sultan’s Park into a specialised garden – the only place in the world where you will find this particular collection of plants with these stories,” Martin explains. “We want to produce something distinct for the Maldives – something beyond being a nice garden with pleasant shade. Maldivians will find plants that have played a key role in their cultural identity. It will become a place for children to understand what it means to be a Maldivian. It can’t be boring, it has to be entertaining, and something they won’t be able to find anywhere else.”


Master navigator Mau Piailug dies aged 78

Micronesian master navigator Mau Piailug has died on the western Pacific island of Satawal at the age of 78.

In 1976, without a compass, and using only stars, sun and wind, he navigated a traditional sailing canoe more than 3,000 miles across the Pacific from Hawaii to Tahiti.

This month-long voyage proved that indigenous people had been capable of exploring and colonising the Pacific islands.

The vessel named Hukule’a used in the voyage is currently being restored as part of a five year project that includes training young navigators and visiting ports while circumnavigating the earth.

Read more