Sun drenched South Pacific islands make you think of paradise. The reality of survival there belies the fantasy somewhat. Pacific Island Countries (PIC) are almost totally dependent on imported fossil fuels with all the volatility that brings. Importing fossil fuels using fossil fuels delivers a double-whammy to communities already being forced to re-locate from their island homes due to rising sea-levels caused by climate change.
A recent study published by the University of the South Pacific (USP) highlights the lack of policy on renewable energy technology use in sea transport when there is an urgent need for such technology to be commercially trialled as a means of reducing the region's dependency on fossil fuels given the importance of sea transport to socio-economic development in the Pacific Islands.
Whilst international shipping industry is engaged in a search for greater efficiency in fuel consumption and emissions, and global interest in low carbon technologies for shipping is growing, solutions at the small-scale level - appropriate to the domestic needs of PICs - have yet to be seriously explored. The main options to reduce fuel use and emissions can be grouped into four categories—alternative fuels, operational efficiencies, technology advances, and renewable energies. The unique characteristics of the Pacific mean the options available to the global operators are not necessarily the most accessible or appropriate for PICs due to the characteristics of local demand; the Pacific merchant fleet (blue water but small and old, higher proportion of petrol to diesel); a lack of access to financing for new technologies; and the prohibitive cost and practicality of establishing extensive bunkering and support infrastructure for alternative fuels. These same factors likely make renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar, more appropriate for a range of Pacific applications than at a global scale. Biofuels, from coconut oil, and biomethanes, have strong potential, especially for more isolated communities with high biomass availability.
Renewable energy-assisted shipping, often using known and proven wind, solar, and biofuel technology, is an emergent option for sea transport globally. Research, analysis, and development of commercial models, especially for Small Island Developing States (SIDS), lags far behind research of other renewable energy applications like electricity generation. However, it is clear that such technology offers strong potential to both reduce PIC reliance on imported fossil fuel and revolutionise PIC shipping. Costs of fuel and operations are either passed to consumers or borne by government subsidies causing economic instability. The USP research suggests that renewable energy shipping offers economic, environment, social, cultural benefits at local, provincial and intra-regional levels. It offers a potential future where fleets of smaller but more sustainable new ships can replace current single, aged, large vessel operations.
Which makes the view from a paradise beach with a sailing ship on the horizon seem all the more attractive.