Branson’s Private Paradise To Be ‘Demo Island’ For Renewables

OK, it’s the plaything of a super-rich dude – but the announcement that Richard Branson’s Necker Island will go 75 percent renewables with a microgrid fed by solar and wind, buttressed with energy storage and guided by smart technology, is still pretty cool.

NRG Energy, which will do the project, and Virgin Limited Edition are calling the Necker Island Project a “Demo Island” that “seeks to help island nations flip off fossil fuels.” Breaking Caribbean island dependency on expensive and dirty fuels – diesel is the big one – has been a focus of Branson’s Carbon War Room through an effort called Ten Island Challenge.

Necker Island renewables

Necker Island (image via Virgin Limited Edition)

“While small compared to island nations, Necker is an ideal ‘guinea pig’ for the Carbon War Room’s Ten Island Challenge and will be able to show the potential of ‘state-of-the-art’ technologies in renewable energy,” Branson said in a statement. NRG’s CEO David Crane echoed that vision, noting that “retail electricity prices in the Caribbean are among the highest in the world, hindering economic development, job creation and quality of life.”

Necker Island comprises 74 acres in the British Virgin Islands. Branson bought the then-uninhabited island in 1978, and built a retreat there. It can be rented out at a reported cost of $60,000 a night. In 2011, Necker was in the news when a fire destroyed the main house on the island, and Kate Winslet had to pull Branson’s nonagenarian mother from the blaze.

The NRG/Virgin announcement didn’t go into details regarding the specs on the renewable energy systems that will be installed on the island, but an RFP issued nearly a year ago gave some insight [PDF]. It talked of a 750-kilowatt, ground-mounted solar power system and an 8-kW rooftop system on the Great House, as well as “a small battery installation, solar carports, and energy service contracts.”

All that was envisioned for a first phase, followed by a second phase looking for second phase consisting of “a wind turbine, significant load controls and batters, in room energy efficiency systems and an overall energy supply and management contract.”

A microgrid is pretty much what it sounds like – an electricity system that pulls together various sources, just like a main grid. And just as it takes careful management to ensure main grids function reliably, a microgrid uses energy management technology to make the most efficient use of the energy sources available (which often include diesel, just in case). Microgrids can be deployed apart from any grid, as at Necker Island, or can serve as a way for an institution or area to separate or “island” itself from the grid in case of emergency – as at this California jail.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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