Protecting critical habitats is one thing; providing the power they need to maintain scientific and conservation-based operations in a renewable fashion is another. This is especially the case for marine sanctuaries and refuges, which can be located thousands of miles from the nearest electric grid and therefore reliant on fossil fuel imports to power diesel generators. Accessible and affordable renewable energy is addressing this problem one outpost at a time, however, and the recent conversion of the Palmyra Atoll to be 100 percent renewable offers an innovative look into how this can happen.
Known as a haven for seabirds and a stronghold for coral reefs, the sheer remoteness of the small atoll — located some 1,000 miles from Hawaii — enhances its appeal as a conservation zone, but also makes it extremely difficult to bring power to the handful of staff and scientists who work and live on the island for various periods of time. Until recently, those on the island, which was purchased by the Nature Conservancy in 2001, relied on a 21,000-gallon shipment of diesel fuel for their electricity needs. But a recently-completed $1.2 million renewable energy project that brings wind and solar to the atoll will replace this dependence.
“We have basically locked in 20 years of low-cost energy and made the station economically and environmentally sustainable,” said David Sellers, the Conservancy’s acting Palmyra director, in a statement. “Our carbon footprint has been reduced dramatically. And we have mitigated the environmental risk of having to transport and store all that fuel.”
According to Sellers, buying and shipping the diesel fuel for the Palmyra Atoll research station costs between $11 and $13 per gallon, which translated to about 93 cents per kilowatt hour — nearly nine times what it costs on average in the mainland United States. The money saved on energy bills will be put towards conservation and science efforts.
CREDIT: Laura Beauregard/USFWS
According to Grady Timmons, communications director at the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, Palmyra is surrounded by 16,000 acres of lagoons, submerged lands, and reefs that are home to 125 species of coral — three times the number around Hawaii. The entire area has that uninhabited desert island feeling.
“There’s never been a human settlement on Palmyra, so there aren’t many human stressors,” Timmons told ThinkProgress. “The only time there was a structure was when it was used as a Navy refueling station during WWII.”
Smack-dab in the middle of the Pacific, the atoll became part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument — a protected area which was was expanded into the largest marine reserve in the world in 2014 by President Obama — in 2009. Commercial fishing and resource extraction are banned within the monument’s 490,00 square-mile boundary, which is home to a wealth of biodiversity. The nine miles of Palmyra’s coastline and 50 or so rock and coral islets are co-owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy and The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While the cost-saving and environmentally protective elements of the renewable energy conversion are impressive, the innovative technology used to deploy the system is even more eye-catching. Standard wind turbines have the unfortunate quality of interfering with birds’ flight patterns, and can often lead to bird fatalities. On Palmyra, which is home to more than a million nesting seabirds, this was not an externality that could be tolerated.
Out of this concern for bird safety, the Conservancy tracked down Minnesota-based wind technology company SheerWind, which has developed a bladeless wind turbine called INVELOX. Resembling a giant gramophone that sucks in wind instead of blurting out sound, SheerWind tailored its design for the atoll to resemble more of a sideways hourglass. At 83 feet in length, the apparatus takes in wind at both ends and funnels it into much higher speeds using something called the Venturi Effect. Nets over the intake and covered blades prevent birds from getting caught.
“The wind turbine gives us a diversity of power sources, which is really important in a remote location,” said Sellers. “We cannot rely on just one system.”
In case the wind- and solar-power systems come up short, the Conservancy is keeping a three-year supply of biodiesel from recycled vegetable oil on the island to operate the generators if need be. On average, the solar power will account for about 85 percent of the needs of the 25 structures, including 17 small cabins.
CREDIT: Cindy Coker, The Nature Conservancy
According to Carla Scholz, VP of marketing & communications for SheerWind, the Nature Conservancy also favored the wind turbines for their ability to generate power from slower winds at low heights.
Scholz told ThinkProgress that not only have they not had any bird incidents to date but that they’ve seen birds nest on the top of their funnel in Minnesota. Scholz said that while the Nature Conservancy project is the company’s largest commercially installed unit to date, SheerWind has five 200-kilowatt projects in production for this year and is designing a two-megawatt model for 2016 and a five-megawatt model shortly thereafter. She said the majority of SheerWind’s customers are located in low-wind areas where traditional turbines can’t operate.
On the Palmyra Atoll, the combined power from the 185 solar panels and the SheerWind system will be around 100 kilowatts — enough to power more than a dozen American homes. Over the course of six weeks this spring some 30 volunteers joined the Nature Conservancy crew to install the solar panels and wind turbine. They also put in a solar hot water heater and a battery system for storing sunlight for nighttime use.
Susan White, project leader on the Pacific reefs for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told ThinkProgress that activities on Palmyra will include on-the-ground restoration projects such as restoring seabirds’ nesting habitat and removing invasive plants and animals.
“The successful work at Palmyra is a model to be replicated by the global conservation and scientific communities,” she said.