A recent article in the Saipan Tribune by Liberty Dones titled Power supply stability: The Okinawa experience provides an excellent summary of the efforts by one fairly large island group to diversify its power supply fuel mix.
Once almost totally dependent on burning oil in diesel generators, Okinawa now produces more than 70% of its power in coal fired steam plants. That transition took place in the past ten years and was strongly motivated by the volatile price behavior in the oil markets that resulted in a 5-7 fold increase since 1996.
Despite its subtropical location and the fact that the entire prefecture is “off-shore”, the engineers and businessmen charged with making choices that would best serve the customers needs for reliable, lower cost power did not add much renewable energy generation production. Wind and solar power supply less than 1% of the island chain’s needs. There are several solar power projects described in the article, but few details are provided about their operational experience.
I suspect that salty air has an impact on their economy – either by adding considerably to the maintenance costs or by reducing the productivity of the panels as they become caked with the same kind of light insulating layers of salt that cover an automobile parked at the beach for a few days.
There is a little more information about why wind turbines have not been widely deployed – the island is located in an active typhoon region so the extra cost of the installations to protect them against high winds is significant.
Equally significant is the risk that very strong typhoons will still damage or destroy the turbines – according to Mr. Dones’s article, a tower and turbine collapsed on Miyako Island in a storm. The article also mentioned that estimates for repair were approximately $4.5 million for that single machine. There is also an interesting comment by an engineer who reports that the existing wind turbines operate with an average capacity that is only 15% of their rated capacity. That is not surprising to me, but it might be to some other people that actually believe the sales literature of the wind power industry.
The comments at the end of the article are interesting and encouraging to someone like me, who sees a need to develop a line of smaller nuclear power plants. Okinawa has a population of 800,000 people and consumes nearly 7 million megawatt-hours of electricity each year which generates $1.4 billion in revenue for the local power company, but the prefecture is considered to be too small of a market for nuclear power. That makes sense if the entering assumption is that all nuclear power plants produce roughly 1000 MW of electricity – a single plant of that size could produce 7 million megawatt hours by itself by operating with an 80% capacity factor. Of course, depending on a single large power plant is not a recommended architecture for a reliable power grid.
As I mentioned in my April 2006 post about Ireland’s power needs Forfas says nuclear may be required in Ireland there is no need to exclude islands and other remote areas from the benefits of nuclear energy. There are a number of small nuclear power plants currently operating with a significant number of refined designs in the works. You can find a great source of information about many of them in the Uranium Information Center’s briefing paper titled Small Nuclear Power Reactors
Time for a shameless plug – check out Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
If you are particularly interested in the possibilities of small nuclear power plants for remote areas, you might want to read Nuclear Power for Remote Areas, a paper that I presented to the 12th Annual Technical Conference of The International Society of African Scientists (ISAS) held in Philadelphia, PA, August 16, 1996.
The possibility of offering the atomic choice to people that have so far been limited to far less reliable or more polluting sources of electricity is what motivates me to get up in the early morning hours to think, read, review business plans, email my associates and write blog posts to try to get a few other people excited and motivated. Comments are always welcome!