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Energy
Bonaire’s Breezy Future
The Caribbean island hopes to become the first to be powered entirely by sustainable sources: wind and biofuel generated from algae.

Bonaire’s salt flats, where algae and bacteria color pools of evaporating seawater.

The wind carries swirls of foam across shallow flamingo-pink pools that dapple the Caribbean island of Bonaire. Across a one-lane road, the surf crashes against piles of bleached coral, filling the air with a briny haze. In the distance, other pools shine brown and violent green, while imposing pyramids of salt crystals glint in the sunlight.

These are Bonaire’s salt flats, where seawater evaporates in the sun and wind, leaving behind rippling expanses of colorful algae and bacteria adapted to extreme saline conditions. Salt has been harvested here for hundreds of years, first by African slaves of the Dutch government, then by private industry. Now the historic salt flats are serving as inspiration for a renewable energy future in Bonaire, based on the island’s abundant wind, sun, and algae. 

Dubbed one of the “ABC Islands” of the Netherlands Antilles, Bonaire isn’t as well known as nearby Aruba and Curacao. Tourists tend to overlook it because it has few sandy beaches, no high-rise resorts, and no appreciable nightlife. Still, the economy is based almost entirely on tourism—mostly associated with scuba divers who come to explore the coral reefs of a marine reserve along the island’s coast.

Salt is Bonaire’s only export, and many necessities, including food and fuel, must be imported. “What do we have here on Bonaire? No land to grow a lot of crops,” says Richard Hart, a former governor of the island and the director of Bonaire Holding Maatschappij, the company that maintains the shares of the government’s utility companies. “What we do have is the sun and the wind.” Hart and the Bonairean government hope to harness those natural resources to make Bonaire the first Caribbean island powered completely by renewable energy. “It is important that we be first, important that it is 100 percent,” says Hart.

Hans van Heel, project manager for Ecopower Bonaire, stands in the foundation of one of the dozen wind turbines under construction on Bonaire.

A fire that destroyed the main diesel plant in 2005 pushed the island closer to realizing a “green Bonaire.” “Fifty to fifty-five percent of our electrical capacity went up in flames,” says Hart.  Bonaire was faced with the need to rebuild—and the opportunity to do so sustainably.

A consortium of three European energy companies, called Ecopower Bonaire, is now building a wind farm on the island scheduled for completion by January 2010, when Ecopower will begin selling electricity to WEB, Bonaire’s water and energy utility. 

The wind turbines—a dozen in all, each 180 feet tall with a blade diameter of nearly 150 feet—are in varying stages of construction on the island’s northeastern coast, where the occasional feral donkey wanders across a craggy limestone landscape dotted with cactus and scrubby bushes. When completed, the installation will produce at least 44 percent—and possibly as much as half—of the island’s power each year, according to Hans van Heel, the project manager.

Wind can’t be the only renewable energy source, and an obvious option on the sun-drenched island is solar power. But when Bonaire began accepting proposals in 2006 for a new energy solution, the silicon used in making photovoltaic solar panels was in extremely short supply, and panel prices were too high, according to Hart. “Solar was not feasible,” he says—at least, not in the conventional sense. The island turned instead to the idea of generators that would run on biodiesel made from algae that thrives in the sun. It’s a plan that’s not only unusual but controversial—and still completely theoretical.

A smaller, pilot wind turbine was constructed on Bonaire in 2007.

Producing oil from algae is, conceptually, a simple process, according to Jan Gielen, the retired director of the Cargill salt facility who is spearheading the effort to bring algae farms to Bonaire. “The conditions on Bonaire are quite good for algae,” he says. Indeed, in the salt flats, abundant algae growth is an unintentional byproduct of the relentless sunlight on the shallow pools of evaporating seawater. To farm algae for oil production, Gielen and his team would control the salinity, acidity, and other factors in similar pools to ensure ideal growth conditions for the desired species. Harvesting would entail skimming the water for algae, after which it would be pressed for oil in a process comparable to making olive oil. “Some algae species are up to 50 percent oil,” Gielen says, and preliminary analysis of several of the native algae species in the salt flats has been promising. “In theory, it would be possible to produce all the fuel needed by the power plant in less than 200 hectares of land.” 

Until the process is finalized, however, the generators will run on petroleum-based diesel, which will be burned at a plant currently being built, also by Ecopower Bonaire, at the Bonaire Petroleum Company (BOPEC) oil terminal, where tankers from Venezuela pump crude oil into storage tanks before it is taken to be refined on Aruba and Curacao. But the government is confident that the switch to biofuel will occur—confident enough, at least, that it has sent out press releases promising that the new diesel generators will be burning algae-derived biodiesel within five years after the diesel plant’s slated completion in 2010. Some residents and environmental groups are skeptical, though, that biofuel will ever be used, given both the unproven nature of producing oil from algae—indeed, there are no existing commercial algae farms anywhere—and the location of the diesel generators far from potential algae farms but close to the BOPEC oil terminal.

“What can we do if the government doesn’t keep its promises, if they keep using the dirty fuel?” said Elsmarie Beukenboom, director of the National Parks Foundation of Bonaire (STINAPA Bonaire), and the chair of the Aliansa Naturalesa di Bonaire, a coalition of the island’s environmental groups. “We can scream and make noise in the press about it, but we can do nothing about it.”

The diesel plant is being constructed in the buffer zone of a wetlands, one of several important flamingo feeding and breeding grounds on Bonaire.

The placement of the diesel plant raises other serious concerns as well, says Beukenboom. “The diesel site was chosen arbitrarily by the government,” she says, in the buffer zone of a flamingo breeding ground that has been designated as a wetlands of international importance. It also borders Bonaire’s marine reserve. But despite the site’s ecological sensitivity, “they didn’t even do an environmental impact assessment,” she adds. “One small disaster and you have hit two of the most delicate ecosystems on the island.”

Gielen, the head of the algae farm effort, is also unsure about the five-year timeline. He’s currently evaluating sites for a pilot farm. “If I speak from wishful thinking, the pilot plant would be next year in operation; then we would have one year of testing,” he said. “I won’t speak further than that.” Still, Gielen has little doubt that growing an algae industry on Bonaire is the right path. “Bonaire has very limited natural resources, but right now we tend to overlook what we have,” Gielen said. “With algae we can generate some income from sources other than tourism. We can be self-sufficient.” 

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Read related stories: “Parrots of the Caribbean” and “Bonaire's Wildlife Bonanza