Thursday, June 3, 2010

Project Aims to Make Azores Islands a Climate Change Model

The Azores, a Portuguese archipelago of nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean, are known for their stunning coastlines, abundant flowers, bucolic dairy farms, and one of the few natural aquariums where visitors can see more than 20 species of whales. Now an international partnership among educational and private sector institutions seeks to make these islands a model for reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change.

The Green Islands Project is the brainchild of engineers at INESC Porto, a nonprofit research and development group affiliated with Portugal's University of Porto, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. The partnership includes these two institutions and receives support from Portuguese energy companies and several corporations.

Two Azorean islands, São Miguel and Flores, were chosen as the first participants in one of the world's largest experiments in viable energy systems powered entirely by renewable sources. They were chosen, says Stephen Connors, the director of MIT's Analysis Group for Regional Energy Alternatives and project manager for the Green Azores Project, because both currently use renewable energy sources in addition to petroleum. São Miguel generates about half of its electricity from two geothermal plants, and Flores has significant hydroelectric resources. But like much of the world, says Connors, "The principal design is they use oil for almost everything - cars, houses, electricity. In the Azores, the solutions to reducing greenhouse gases are identical to reducing the islands' dependence on imported oil."

The partnership supplies the technical expertise required to evaluate potential renewable energy sources and fit these together to meet the islands' needs. "It's a complicated design challenge," Connors says. "It requires understanding the islands' social and economic needs from an energy security viewpoint, followed by an environmental viewpoint."

The experts study when and where it's sunny or windy, seasonal shifts in winds and rains, which islands have the most geothermal power and how much electricity each can generate, and how the islands' agriculture wastes can be converted to methane to generate electricity. "São Miguel looks like Vermont," says Connors. "There are a lot of cows."

A plan for converting both public and private transportation to electric vehicles is on the Project's drawing board. "Electric vehicles make sense on islands because you don't have that far to drive," says Connors.

A delegation from the Azores traveled recently to Detroit to meet with representatives from Ford and GM about new electric models, including the forthcoming 2011 Chevrolet Volt.

In that same trip, the delegation visited the National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, Colorado, to learn more about "Smart Grid" electrical systems. These are designed to incorporate energy from many different renewable sources. Smart grids often employ "smart meters" that allow customers to monitor their electrical consumption so they can use power in off-peak hours when it's abundant and cheaper.

The Azores regional government is working with the project to convert municipal solid waste to energy, both to address waste removal problems and to reduce reliance on oil. And there is a new urgency about the Project, says Connors, as the cost of oil, and electricity, has soared.

"The Green Islands Project is a really good case study for figuring out how all of these renewable resources can fit together for both the use and supply of energy," Connors says. "And if it works in the Azores, and is cost effective in the Azores, then it will soon be cost effective elsewhere."

Amanda Spake is a Washington, D.C.-based writer whose articles on health, science, education, and the environment have appeared in U.S. News and World Report, The Nation, and the Washington Post, among other publications.

(by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State)