Learning from Islands: Renewable Transitions for Mines, Industrial Facilities, and the Military

What do mines, industrial facilities, and the military all have in common? They all have a need for reliable electricity in remote locations. It turns out these places and others can learn a lot from islands. Rocky Mountain Institute and Carbon War Room’s recent microgrid casebook, Renewable Microgrids: Profiles from Islands and Remote Communities Across the Globe, explores 10 examples of islands and remote communities from around the world that have transitioned from 100 percent oil-based electricity systems to high-penetration renewable microgrids. These communities now increasingly rely on various renewable sources of electricity and storage technologies, while also increasing their use of energy efficiency. As a result, they are seeing lower operating costs, decreased reliance on imported fuels, and overall cleaner electricity systems. Many of the lessons learned during the transition to renewable microgrids in these ten locations can be transferred to mines, industrial facilities, and military forward operating bases.

Renewable Energy for Mines

Similar to islands and remote communities, many mining operations are remote microgrids— disconnected from any distribution grid. All of the electricity needed for the operation must be generated on-site efficiently and reliably. While mines have traditionally relied on oil-based generation of electricity, such as diesel gensets, they present another great opportunity for a transition to a more-renewable microgrid.

One specific example is at the Diavik Diamond Mine, located in Canada’s Northern Territories. Prior to 2012, the mine relied solely on diesel fuel for electricity generation, which had to be transported to the mine via truck or plane. Now, 11 percent of the mine’s annual electricity needs are met by four wind turbines, with a total installed capacity of 9.2 MW. The addition of the wind turbines means that 75 fewer truckloads of diesel fuel must be transported across the seasonal ice road to the mine each year.

The Diavik mine faced similar installation challenges as Mawson Station, a research station in Antarctica and one of the cases included in Renewable Microgrids. Given their remote locations and cold climates, special provisions were required to transport and assemble wind turbine parts, as well as to ensure proper operation and maintenance once installed. Both locations are now less reliant on a transported fuel source, and are utilizing local wind power to complete their research and mining operations.

RMI and CWR have an ongoing initiative called Sunshine for Mines, which works with other mines around the globe to consider similar transitions to utilizing local resources and renewable microgrids.

Reliable Electricity for Industrial Facilities through Efficiency and Renewables

While many industrial facilities may have a connection to the larger electricity grid, they also have strict requirements for reliability and quality of their electricity supply in order to maintain their operations. Similarly, islands and remote communities require a high level of reliability in their electricity system in order to provide electricity to their residents and on-island businesses. Many islands rely on tourism as a major contributor to their economy, and keeping guests comfortable with appropriate lighting and air conditioning is important to success in that industry.

Like islands and remote communities, some industrial facilities are turning to energy efficiency and renewable energy in order to ensure a reliable supply of electricity for their operations. One example is the Texas Instruments (TI) facility in Richardson, Texas, which was the first wafer fabrication facility to achieve LEED status. During design, construction, and current occupancy of the building, TI strove to take advantage of energy efficiency opportunities. By requiring less overall energy to operate the system, it requires less overall electricity in the first place. It also saves significant amounts of money.

In Renewable Microgrids, we saw a similar utilization of energy efficiency in the case of Marble Bar and Nullagine. In these two remote towns located in Australia, energy efficiency was utilized first as a way to require less overall energy, better enabling a transition to more renewable sources of electricity.

Saving Fuel and Lives in Military Forward Operating Bases

Forward operating bases are permanent or temporary bases used by the military while on assignment in foreign countries. These bases are often not connected to a larger electricity grid, so they rely on one or more local generation resources to provide electricity. The bases may be temporary, so it is important that equipment can be easily transported to different locations. Reliability is especially important in military microgrids, since many lives depend on the consistent operation of the electrical equipment at the base. Minimizing the use of fuel is also critical, as transporting fuel to a forward operating base can cost up to $400 per gallon and can be dangerous, resulting in the loss of one life for every 24 fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007.

Various branches of the military are considering energy efficiency and renewable energy opportunities in order to meet the needs of forward operating bases while reducing their use of traditional fuel and the costs and risks associated with it. For example, the U.S. Marines see potential to cut back on the number of resupply convoys that are necessary for forward operating bases by transitioning to more renewable options for supply. Not only is this a benefit for each forward operating base, but it also helps to reduce oil use by the overall U.S. military, which is currently the largest consumer of both energy and oil in the world.

In a similar way for many of the locations studied in Renewable Microgrids, importing fuel to run the generators is expensive. For example, in the Falkland Islands, the use of wind energy has reduced the diesel fuel needed for electricity generation by 1.4 million liters per year. For this island community, the fuel savings is translated to the residents through lower electricity rates. In military forward operating bases, relying less on diesel fuel can save money as well as lives since less fuel convoys will be required.

The diverse set of examples illustrated in the casebook demonstrates the potential for energy transitions for similar communities around the world, as well as for similar applications like mines, industrial facilities, and military forward operating bases. In addition, the islands where the RMI-CWR team is currently working are helping to create a blueprint for high penetrations of renewables for these applications, as well as providing insight into similar transitions at a continental scale. To take deeper look at the 10 transitions from oil-based to renewable microgrids studied in our recent publication, please download Renewable Microgrids: Profiles From Islands and Remote Communities Across the Globe.