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FEATURE STORYSeptember 20, 2022

Islands Tap Sun and Wind Power as Sea Levels Rise

Aerial view of a 1.5 Megawatt solar PV installation project on the rooftops. Humale, Maldives

Rooftop solar panels help power the Maldives' artificial island of Hulhumale.  Courtesy Ministry of Environment. 


  • Small Island Developing States (SIDS) experiencing the brunt of climate change are embracing renewable energies and net-zero targets
  • Low-income islands are seeking private investment to build solar and wind energy infrastructure as an alternative to expensive imported fossil fuels
  • Innovative programs in the Maldives and other island states are serving as role models for renewable development and transformational change

Like many small island states already struggling with rising sea levels and violent storms, the Maldives is responding to climate change with bold plans centered around lowered carbon emissions and renewable energies.  

Projected to lose 80 percent of its land over the next few decades, the country has some 50,000 residents living two meters above sea level on the artificially reclaimed island of Hulhumalé, where houses topped with solar panels generate an estimated 1.5 MW of power into a local grid.  

For us, addressing the issues of climate on both the mitigation and adaption side is critical for our survival,” says Aminath Shauna, the Maldives' Minister of Environment, Climate Change and Technology. “As a country that’s extremely vulnerable to climate impacts, taking the leadership in reducing our own emissions is also an important message to the world.”

The United Nations recognizes that 38 small island developing states (SIDS), with an aggregate population of 65 million people, are facing distinct challenges, including loss of land to rising seas, high costs of imported goods, and increasingly violent hurricanes and cyclones. Many of these island nations like the Maldives are small, spread over vast areas of ocean, sparsely populated, and isolated.

It is both ironic and inspiring that these same small, vulnerable countries – among the first to bear the brunt of climate change while contributing less than 1% of global carbon emissions – are prepared to lead the way in the energy transition by harnessing sunshine, sea breezes, and water to create low-cost renewable energy.

Singapore is building a self-contained power grid on Semakau Island that uses Green Hydrogen to convert solar and wind energy into stored fuel that can generate electricity when needed, while the small nation of Cabo Verde off the coast of Africa is embarking on an extensive multi-faceted strategy to mobilize private and public capital for energy sector investments. In Jamaica, legislation to promote renewable energy has encouraged private consumers to install solar panel systems and integrate them with the national grid.

"Solar has cut my business expenses by 35 percent, allowing me to expand operations," says third-generation chicken farmer Shelly-Ann Dinnall, who installed solar panels on three massive coops seven years ago. "The primary motivation to go solar was cost savings, but I am pleased to know that I am doing my part to alleviate climate change considering its impact on islands such as Jamaica."

Renewable energies make sense for SIDS, many of which are archipelagos with populations spread across multiple islands. Fossil fuels must be shipped to small power plants and generators at a significant cost, representing up to 20 percent of the gross domestic product of some small nations. Shipping costs also drive up the price of electricity. In the Maldives, comprised of 1,192 islands stretching 510 miles across the Indian Ocean, reliance on imported diesel has resulted in some of the highest cost energy generation in South Asia at 30 to 40 cents per kilo-Watt hour (kWh) compared to 5-7 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) in other neighboring South Asian countries.

However, despite their push toward renewables, most SIDS are still compelled to pay a premium for fossil fuels to keep existing generators and power plants operational. With their economies negatively impacted by a downturn in tourism during the global pandemic, they find it difficult to attract investment to build infrastructure.

Generally investors have seen island nations as too small and too risky," says Demetrios Papathanasiou, Global Director for the World Bank's Energy and Extractives Global Practice. "But increasingly islands are starting to attract significant investment with well-crafted renewable infrastructure projects that mitigate risk.
Demetrios Papathanasiou
Global Director for the World Bank's Energy and Extractives Global Practice

Supported by a partnership that includes the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP), the Maldives stands to mobilize $25 million in investment to install 17.5 megawatts (MW) of solar power through a program known as ASPIRE (Accelerating Sustainable Private Investments in Renewable Energy). The success of ASPIRE has led to a more ambitious follow-up initiative ARISE (Accelerating Renewable Integration and Sustainable Energy), which is slated to mobilize a total of US$152.4 million in public and commercial financing for the country’s energy transition. The projects will benefit consumers. A recently signed solar project supported by the World Bank will generate electricity for 9.82 cents per kWh, one of the lowest within SIDS.

"Renewables now comprise more than 11 percent of the overall energy capacity of the Maldives but the country's goal is to reach Net Zero by 2030," says Simon Stolp, Practice Manager for the World Bank in South Asia. "We are now working to install an additional 36 MW of photovoltaic (PV) solar energy, including floating and rooftop, along with a 40 MWh battery storage system and $26 million for a modernized grid."

To attract private investors, the projects are backed by the World Bank's Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) with guarantees that protect investments against non-commercial risks. Development organizations and banks provide concessional funding needed to fill in gaps.

"The key factor is to reduce risk so that investors are confident moving forward," says the World Bank's Papathanasiou. "A recent Maldives' solar project attracted 63 investors, which shows there is a demand for projects that are well-crafted, with supportive national policies and available concessional financing."

The ASPIRE and ARISE projects are serving as role models for other islands. Two neighboring nations in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius and Seychelles, along with Comoros off the coast of Africa, are studying whether similar types of initiatives will help them expand their renewable energy sectors to reduce import costs and generate affordable and reliable clean energy.

Islands may also benefit from banding together to create larger markets for investors, or by sharing renewable power generation across borders. In 2022, Singapore began to import hydropower from Laos via Thailand and Malaysia – the first cross-border electricity trade involving four Asian countries and the first involving renewable energy. Private entities, such as resorts and businesses, are also increasing capacity by installing their own solar energy systems as a cost-saving measure.

Island states like the Maldives are willing to try any route necessary to reach Net Zero.

“Every aspect of our life is impacted due to the effects of climate change,” says Minister Shauna. “The message to the rest of the world, particularly the larger emitters, is that if the Maldives can do this, then the entire world should be able to do this as well.”

Islands in the Sun


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