France’s Reunion island aims for zero CO2

Ringed by volcanic rock, sandy beaches and the blue swell of the Indian Ocean, France’s Reunion island is hardly a major polluter.

France’s fifth largest wind power producer Aerowatt launched a 3.85 megawatt-wind farm on the small cyclone-prone French Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, enough to provide power to 12,000 inhabitants out of a total of 700,000. "This is the first wind farm installed on Reunion," Jerome Billerey, head of the company, told. But installing wind turbines on remote islands can often be complex due to poor logistics, limited port infrastructure and the hurdle of regular cyclones.

But hit by rising fuel costs and worried about the impact of global warming, particularly on its delicate flora and fauna, the small island nation has set itself the ambitious goal of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

By 2025, the French territory wants to use renewable energy sources to produce 100 percent of its electricity, and to power all of its transport by 2050.

"We have water, sunshine, we even have an active volcano. We have more energy than we need for our development," Paul Verges, president of Reunion’s regional council, said after Group of Eight (G8) leaders agreed a 50 percent cut in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2050.

"We will be fighting 100 percent against CO2 at the same date that you (the G8 rich nations) will be at 50 percent," Verges told journalists in July on the sidelines of a biodiversity conference. Some 36 percent of Reunion’s electricity already comes from renewables, mostly hydroenergy and sugar cane fiber, bagasse.

But it wants to boost that figure by expanding its existing sources, cutting inefficiencies and exploring new technologies. "What’s possible in Reunion should also be possible in France, and should also be possible for the planet," France’s Overseas Territories Minister Yves Jego told Reuters.

Reunion is expanding its photovoltaic, hydro and wind energy projects to produce up to 750 megawatts (MW), 120 MW and 60 MW respectively, said Jules Dieudonne, head of the Regional Plan for Renewable Energies and the Rational Use of Energy (PRERURE).

"Our ambition is to have 750 hectares of (photovoltaic) panels eventually installed," he said. Some 115 million euros ($180 million) of public money is being spent to reach the targets, while preferential costings mean private energy firms get more money to produce electricity from renewable sources than from fossil fuels, he added.

"Today, we (wind energy) are at about 15 megawatts, 16 megawatts. So there are other projects, which are feasible," Serge Borchiellini, the Reunion representative for renewable energy firm Aerowatt, told, as an onshore breeze made wind turbines behind him whirr.

Biomass from sugar cane fiber and waste will also be part of Reunion’s power future, while scientists are testing the potential of hydrogen, geothermal energy from La Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and even ocean energy.

Dieudonne said the temperature difference between sea water at the surface and at a 1,000-metre depth is about 22 degrees Celsius (71F). "This difference in temperature can allow us to make electric energy," he said, also citing possible kinetic energy from the ocean swell.

But as in other countries, the island’s rapidly growing energy demands threaten to delay the targets. Living mostly along the coastline, Reunion’s population is set to grow more than 20 percent to more than one million people by 2030 from about 800,000 at present.

Reunion’s average energy consumption per person is growing at 5 percent per year, according to official figures.

"The big problem in Reunion is the summer heat — everybody wants air conditioning," said Pierre-Yves Ezavin of Reunion’s Regional Energy Agency (ARER), adding air conditioning accounts for about 80 percent of office electricity bills.

While Reunion’s traditional homes made good use of wood and plenty of windows, low-cost housing of recent years was built with concrete using cheaper methods that trap the heat inside. "We have to take care of construction," Ezavin said.

His agency is running a public information campaign to encourage the use of green technologies such as better construction methods and materials, solar water heaters — already a common sight — and bicycles. But attitudes are slow to change.

"We’ve heard about it (renewable energy). I don’t know what to think," Jean-Francois Sery, a taxi driver, said.

"It hasn’t yet entered people’s thinking," he said, adjusting his air conditioning while he waited in a traffic jam that snaked along the coastal road. Accounting for 70 to 75 percent of Reunion’s energy use, transport is the key issue for reducing its greenhouse gases.

And seeking to counter the extra 30,000 cars — about 10 percent of existing traffic — that appear on Reunion’s congested roads every year, the island is set to complete the first 34-km (21-mile) phase of an electrically powered tram-train by 2013 at a cost of 1.4 billion euros, PREURE’s Dieudonne said.

Ironically perhaps, Reunion is also building an enormous road in the west, la Route des Tamarins, in a bid to ease congestion. And with tourism a major source of jobs and income, airplanes are not part of Reunion’s energy targets.

"Our ambition is not to invent a new (carbon neutral) airplane. Our ambition is to do everything we can do in Reunion to become independent of fossil fuels," Dieudonne said.