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Published on November 3rd, 2016 | by Michael Barnard


Can Clean Tech Save The Maldives?

November 3rd, 2016 by  

The Maldives is one of the nations most threatened by sea level rise, but while it has committed to clean technology, it knows it won’t save them.


The Maldives from orbit

The Maldives isn’t a typical small, tropical country, it is a collection of 1,192 coral islands in 26 atolls. The islands cover 7-8 degrees latitude and 2-3 degrees longitude, about 90,000 square kilometers of which just under 300 square kilometers is actually land.

That means that the Maldives covers an area the size of Portugal, but only has an area of land just more than a third the size of New York City. Further, that land is only an average of 1.5 meters above sea level with its highest point only 2.4 meters above sea level. The under 400,000 population is spread over about 185 of the islands, or about 15%. The largest contributor to the economy is tourism, and second largest is fishing. The biggest city has about 153,000 people on a 5.8 square kilometer set of islands with a density of 26,000 per square kilometer, one of the densest in the world.

This is an insanely dispersed, low density living situation with high barriers to cost effective transmission of electricity between islands, and a very high density point source.

Further, it receives mostly developed nations tourists who expect hot and cold running water as well as air conditioning and ice in their drinks.

It’s a worst case scenario for energy of any type, renewable or non-renewable.

  • It’s going to mostly be eliminated by sea level rise due to climate change in the next 100 years.
  • The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake devastated the country, causing flood damage on all but a handful of islands, devastating infrastructure where it existed everywhere. The tallest waves were almost twice the height of the tallest point of land.
  • Before it is completely swamped, increases in the severity of typhoons combined with sea level rise will cause much more damage due to storm surges.
  • Almost half of the population is concentrated in one tiny part of the overall area with very high costs to run power to it from further away.
  • Expectations from tourists are for a combination of unspoiled tropical paradise plus all the modern conveniences which require high power consumption in the tropics.

The government of the Maldives is trying to purchase new land in areas which won’t disappear beneath the waves so that it can relocate its entire populace to them. In the meantime, it has made a commitment to get off of fossil fuels by 2020 because it is one of the most impacted in the world, and because it will give them a little more moral weight, they hope, as it tries desperately to find an alternative to slow death beneath the waves and a life for its people as permanent climate refugees.

Is it feasible? With extremely low expectations for the quality of power and lots of help, sure. Put lots of solar panels on every home and building, float barges with solar panels offshore from Malé, the principal urban island group, maybe put up some wind farms on deserted islands near Malé with protected bases for the inevitable dunking in sea water, or just in shallow water. It’s possibly a good situation for undersea air bladder power storage, but it’s more likely useful to ensure every building has an inverter and storage, as well as expectations of low power usage at night and no air conditioning. An HVDC grid connecting most of the 165 inhabited islands would be a great addition. It’s actually not a bad candidate for some tidal and wave power schemes because of the sheltered areas and high cost of electricity regardless.

But really, the vast majority of tourist resorts will ignore all of this, continuing to run diesel generators to power the lights, disco balls, air conditioners and sound systems required to keep their customers happy. Some will put up solar panels to greenwash the experience, but most will be the band on the Titanic, continuing to play as the islands sink beneath the waves.

Should the Maldives invest in keeping the country going at all with any infrastructure investments and upgrades? That’s a better question, and it’s hard to see that there is a good reason to answer it positively.

Attempting to shift the Maldives from its current overwhelming situation of expensive diesel generation to something more benign is much less sensible than just shifting the population, which would be cheaper and actually a good investment.



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About the Author

is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc and co-founder of two current startups. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. He is editor of The Future is Electric and designing for health. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, and his work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. He's available for consulting engagements, speaking engagements and Board positions.

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