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Geopolitics

Reunion, One Island's Quest For Energy Self-Sufficiency

The French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean is a place of green experimentation, but economic and climate realities make sustainability a huge challenge.

Sugar cane farming is key to the island's economy.
Sugar cane farming is key to the island's economy.
Pierre Le Hir

SAINT-DENIS — The image is saturated with contrasts, and with light too, that touch the French island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean.

At the end of a rocky road on the island's northwestern coast, a metal gate and watchtowers covered with green sheets of metal guard the 500 prisoners of a penitentiary. All around the buildings, tens of thousands of solar panels cover the ground, connected to storage batteries that provide electricity to 12,000 homes — and without the estimated 8,000 tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions that might otherwise have been produced.

Sensor-equipped greenhouses, hives and an arboretum are also part of the scenery. The gardeners are convicts preparing for reentry into society by growing tomatoes, peppers and passion fruits, and by planting indigenous trees. About 15 prisoners have already benefited from this on-the-job training, and one former convict-turned-beekeeper will soon be producing his own honey.

The huge solar power plant, named Aube Naissante (Nascent Dawn), is only a small step on the path to sustainable development. But it is nonetheless a model of an "approach that suits local needs, economically, socially and environmentally," says Jean-François Moser, the company's vice chairman.

The view from above

In Reunion, as much as in other French Overseas Territories, energy transition is both a priority and a challenge. It's from the skies, in a helicopter — the only means of access to the remotest villages of the volcanic island — that you realize just how huge a challenge it is, and how the island is striving to take full advantage of its natural resources.

Hovering over the northwestern city of Le Port, we can see boats loaded with coal from South Africa, oil and gas from Sweden, Singapore or the United Arab Emirates. These fossil fuels guarantee the bulk of the energy needs of an island that, isolated as it is in the middle of the Indian Ocean, isn't connected to any electrical grid. This is also where the French electric utility company EDF invested 500 million euros ($550 million) for a more efficient and less polluting oil thermal power station.

Our flight continues and the helicopter takes us to Cirque de Mafate, a wonder of a landscape, with rocks and greenery as far as the eye can see, gorges and ravines stuck between heaven and earth and dominated by the formidable Piton des Neiges shield volcano. The descendants of slaves from the inglorious colonial times still live in the little hamlets that sit in mountain perches where their ancestors once took refuge. Cut off from the rest of the world, the only electricity they get is from small solar panels connected to batteries.

To the south, we can see the smoke rising from one of the two thermal power stations owned by Albioma, the island's biggest electricity producer. During the sugar harvesting season, from mid-June to mid-December, these power stations burn mostly bagasse, the fibrous residue from sugarcane (which represent most of the island's crops), with coal replacing it when the harvest season ends.

Once we pass the cloud-draped ridges, we see streams spurting from the thick vegetation on the other slope. There, EDF has built dams and dug galleries where hydroelectric factories draw power from the tumultuous waters of the Marsouins River. Further away, another battery stores the energy produced by wind and solar farms, while windmills are spinning on a crest, and solar-panel-covered shopping malls and parking lots are glistening in the daylight.

Great expectations

Despite all of these installations, renewable energies cover just 14% of Reunion's electricity needs, a far cry from the French requirement for overseas territories to reach 50% by 2020. The legislation calls for total self-sufficiency by 2030.

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Reunion has a population of 843,000. Photo: Miwok

That's too much too soon for the island's representatives, who aren't happy about what they feel is mainland France's wish to turn their community into a "laboratory for energy transition."

"Energy self-sufficiency has to be the end goal," says Didier Robert, the right-wing president of the regional council. "But we have to be realistic and move step by step. Instead of serving as part of an experiment, we'd like to be an example by involving the whole population in the process."

Ericka Bareigts, the Socialist lawmaker for Saint-Denis, agrees. "Our territory is suffering. It shouldn't be destined to become a test lab," she says. "What we need is a groundbreaking vision for the next 20 to 30 years that includes energy, housing and transportation. It's a project for society as a whole."

Reunion is indeed suffering. Unemployment affects 30% of the population, and double that number among young people. Almost half of residents live below the poverty line and one in every three households is energy insecure. Not to mention the plague of social housing concrete cubicles built in a rush during the1970s and that are now largely unsanitary and overpopulated, even as 20,000 families wait for accommodation.

Demographic trends suggest things could become bleaker still. The current 840,000-strong population is already double what it was 50 years ago, and it's expected to top one million by 2040.

No going back

"Our best chance is to have a diversified electric mix," says Philippe Beutin, regional branch chief of the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME).

But the rise of green energy is hampered by Reunion's geography and climate. The French island lies on the path of tropical cyclones, meaning wind turbines must either be tied up with shrouds or be equipped with masts that can be pulled down. The waves created by cyclones can reach 15 meters high (50 feet), making it difficult to install offshore wind turbines or even wave power devices.

But the island has no choice but to continue seeking energy alternatives. Its first priority is to keep consumption in check. People who make efforts to insulate their houses or invest in solar panels can count on generous subsidies.

Reunion must also vary its energy resources. Biomass is one promising area, and marine geothermal — which uses cold water pumped from the abyss, 1,000 meters below sea level — is another way of providing air conditioning. Within two years, a 150-million-euro ($165 million) project called Seawater Air Conditioning is expected to supply the airport, a hospital, the university, office buildings and shopping malls.

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Geopolitics

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