Alternative energy: from our lagoon? - Te Aponga Uira
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Alternative energy: from our lagoon?

Alternative energy: from our lagoon?

web lagoonGlobal efforts in renewable energy development have soared in recent years – in both technological advances and financial investments.   The United Nations Environment Programme says a record US$257 billion was invested in renewable energy world-wide in 2011 – up 17% on the previous year although at a much slower rate of increase than previously.   Solar energy – where growth has been most dramatic – is leading the drive toward alternative sources for electricity and transport demands.  In 2011, solar investments globally out-paced wind by nearly twice as much, growing by 52% over 2010.

Although these technical breakthroughs and amounts of money have been groundbreaking and huge, the share of renewables in the world’s energy mix is still expected to take some considerable time.  One study issued for the recent G20 and Rio+20 meetings says the current share of global RE for electricity needs is 2.6%.  At present rates, this is projected to reach 4% by 2015 and 6% by 2020.  Policy uncertainty partially accounts for a slower rate but economics is playing a highly significant role as many countries, particularly in Europe, continue to face massive financial challenges.

While much of the headlines are being grabbed by the progress of solar energy uptake, other alternative sources such as biofuels tend to be treated as secondary, or even overlooked.  However, considerable advances have already been made in the use of biofuels and significant investments have been made in adopting the technology into energy mixes, as well as ongoing research.  Major petroleum corporation Exxon Mobil for example, is reportedly investing millions of dollars into biofuels research, focusing on algae.

Algae as a source of biofuel has been known for decades but its high yield testing for oil production makes it hugely attractive – especially since it may be more effective and economical to produce by those countries, which do not have the land space required for other organic sources like corn and sugarcane (for ethanol).  Algae can be cultivated in ponds on land and in lagoon or sea areas.  The Cook Islands may very well provide ideal locations for algaculture – the cultivation of an alternative source of energy.

Algae-sourced fuel may not yet be commercially available but Te Aponga Uira has been learning about the application of this biofuel for electricity in the Caribbean.  The present study into renewable energy storage capability on Rarotonga has shed light on the island of Bonaire – part of the Dutch trio of islands commonly referred to as the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao).

Bonaire has the distinction of having recently achieved 100% renewable energy status, thanks to a mix of wind and algae biofuel.  The island is dependent on tourism, particularly diving and wind-surfing sports.  The former Dutch territory is fortunate to have received massive financial investments from Europe and its conversion to renewable generation has been in successful operation since 2010.

As TAU moves forward with the completion of RE studies, the considerations of adding biofuel to the generation mix for Rarotonga may gain momentum over the coming months.  The lagoon may thus hold some of the answers to our future energy needs.  Issued in the Cook Islands Herald on 27 June 2012.