Maldives crowd-sources its radical energy plan

Originally published on The Guardian

The Maldives on Thursday is to become the first country in the world to crowdsource its renewable energy strategy on the internet – a move designed as part of an ambitious plan to be the world’s first carbon-neutral nation.

Experts around the world will be invited to provide technical advice on low-carbon energy generation, storage and financing, via a new website that launched on Thursday.

The Maldives – an archipelago of small coral islands in the Indian Ocean – is on the front-line of climate change because its low-lying terrain leaves it extremely exposed to rising sea levels. Large parts of the country could be left uninhabitable by the end of the century if sea levels continue to rise at expected.

In 2009 the Maldives’ president, Mohamed Nasheed, announced a plan to make the country carbon-neutral by 2020 – the world’s most ambitious national climate change target. Nasheed said he hoped that by adopting the plan, the Maldives would inspire “other nations to follow suit”.

Today marks the first major milestone in the country’s carbon reduction process with the public release of the Maldives Renewable Energy Investment Framework, an analysis of technical and financing options for cutting out fossil fuels from the country’s electricity infrastructure.

The document says that an 80–90% reduction in electricity emissions should be achievable by 2020 without driving up local energy bills. A 100% cut may also be possible but – unless carbon offsets are used – achieving this target “will be difficult and needs new technology to be commercialised to make it happen”.

The Maldives is pinning its hopes principally on solar power, with a target for delivering 60% of the country’s electricity from solar panels by 2020. A new biomass power station is proposed to complement the solar systems on the larger islands, and some wind power may also be used, but this technology is unlikely to play a key role due to regular windless periods.

One challenge for the Maldives is a lack of technical expertise. The report acknowledges that the skill base of the country’s energy utilities “is inadequate for the task” of rapid carbon cuts. To overcome this obstacle, the Ministry of Economic Development will invite experts all over the globe to scrutinise and improve its plan via the new crowd-sourcing website, due to launch on Thursday.

An official in the president’s office told the Guardian that the site will have forums on specific issues such as the best kinds of solar panels for corrosive environments, and the establishment of the Maldives Energy Finance Company, a proposed organisation for reducing the costs of infrastructure and capital. The site will also invite discussion on more fundamental questions such as: “How aggressively should the Maldives pursue carbon neutrality, at the expense of short-term economic wellbeing?”

Although climate change leadership is the key driver behind the Maldives’ plan, the government is keen to emphasise the broader benefits of switching to renewables in terms of cost and energy security.

Mahmood Razee, minister for economic development, said: “We are investing in renewable energy because it is cheaper and cleaner than burning fossil fuels. At the moment, our economy is run on imported oil and every time the oil price rises, we all suffer.”

The current consultation doesn’t cover non-electricity emissions sources such as cars, boats and cooking, which will be dealt with in future reports. Also excluded is air travel, which is crucial to Maldives’ tourism-based economy but – in the absence of realistic decarbonisation options – is not covered by the carbon neutrality plan.

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