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Electricity outages can increase in the Pacific with the surge of El Niño

Updated: Jun 20

By Pacific Island Times News Staff

One month since typhoon Mawar hit Guam, the island's power supply remains unstable.

Earlier this year, Vanuatu faced category four Cyclone Judy followed in the same week by a category three storm, Cyclone Kevin. Considering they were already without electricity since the cyclone, the storm has left the power distribution situation even worse.

The anticipation of severe weather conditions underscores the destructive aftermath of strong storms, cyclones and typhoons, including power outages.

Last week, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center reported that El Niño is back and expected to gradually strengthen into the year.

The natural climate phenomenon typically favors strong hurricane activity in the central and eastern Pacific Basins, with impacts on the climate extending far beyond the region.

"Depending on its strength, El Niño can cause a range of impacts," said Michelle L'Heureux, a climate scientist at the Climate Prediction Center.

These already registered events, along with the confirmation of El Niño’s return, highlight the problem faced by most islands, which generally struggle to have continuous power, even less when it comes to accessing clean energy.

According to data from the Asia Pacific Energy Portal, most Pacific countries, particularly the small island developing states or SIDS, remain highly dependent on imported fossil fuels. Outside of Australia and New Zealand, oil makes up about 80 percent of the Pacific’s total energy supply. Renewable energy accounts for only 17 percent of this total.

As fuel imports cost the region US$6 billion annually, or around 5 to 15 percent of GDP for each economy, this is an enormous burden.

Added to the potential damage that can be caused by El Niño’s return, the need for renewable and more reliable power generation alternatives becomes more urgent. But a project being developed in Europe may be the solution to this historic problem.

PLOTEC is a consortium of seven companies that specialize in Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), plastic composites engineering, research and infrastructure, economics and environmental aspects, computational modeling tools and others. Its main goal is to design and simulate an OTEC platform capable of withstanding the extreme weather effects of tropical oceans, with a viable cost model, validated by a scaled demonstration of a structure.

“PLOTEC addresses a vision where the future of tropical islands is to be empowered to supply all the electricity, water and food they need, and create new industries for export such as alternative green fuels and critical minerals”, said Dan Grech, founder and CEO of Global OTEC, one of the partners of the project.

"In its computational simulations, PLOTEC will use data from tropical storms to ensure the structure is strong and resistant according to the islands' needs. “The PLOTEC team set out to design a cost-effective floating platform which can hold out in the 100-year, even category 5, storm.

"Islands already know the feeling of having vulnerable infrastructure... for a breakthrough in energy generation to truly be island appropriate it must address as many of the challenges which the status quo faces as possible," Grech said.

OTEC is a renewable energy technology where surface warm seawater is used to vaporize a working fluid, which then drives a turbine to generate electricity.

Cold deep water is used to condense the working fluid, and the cycle is then repeated. OTEC harnesses the power of the tropical ocean, the main natural resource of islands, to provide a continuous, cost-effective supply of clean energy, with significant environmental advantages over fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Combining the developments of PLOTEC with OTEC power demonstration facilities around the world, this ocean energy technology will become an even better fit for tropical islands, as other renewables have a more sensitive structure to severe weather or depend on sunny and windy days to generate electricity.

As the surface seawater in the tropical area of the ocean remains warm during the whole year, OTEC can generate electricity 24/7. Adding it to a storm-resistant structure, the technology becomes the potential permanent solution to power outages in the Pacific.

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