It’s ‘The Sunny Side of Life,’ promises the slogan that invites tourists to the Maldives. For a country blessed with more than 300 days of bright sunshine but dependent on costly diesel imports, one would think harnessing solar energy would be a natural fit.

But reality is far from expectation. Only eight percent of the 280 megawatts of peak energy collectively generated in the Maldives – including local and resort islands – is produced by solar panels.

The suitability of solar power was questioned in the past due to space constraints and the salty environment. Some luxury resorts also believed long rows of panels would detract from its plushy architecture and natural beauty. With growing awareness of the dangers of global warming, however, a more solar-friendly trend has emerged across the tourism industry in recent years.

Blazing a path

The world’s first 100 percent solar-powered resort was unveiled in 2015. Finolhu villas by Club Med features 6,500 square meters of solar panels capable of producing 1,100 kilowatts, well above the peak load of 600 kilowatts required by the island at full occupancy. The system is entirely automated. Computers are programmed to switch between direct solar power, battery power and diesel generators. Excess power generated during the day is stored in an extensive battery system capable of powering the resort throughout the night. Three diesel generators are on standby for rainy days.

Other resorts have followed suit. In March 2019, the Four Seasons resort at Landaa Giraavaru connected its first RoofSolar inverter and turned on one of the largest resort-based solar installations. It is estimated to produce between 900,000 and 1.1 million kWh annually and save between 250,000 and 300,000 litres of diesel, which corresponds to 650-800 tons of carbon dioxide.

Last August, the world’s largest floating solar system at sea was installed at LUX* South Ari Atoll. Dubbed SolarSea, these unique eco-friendly platforms also provide shelter for juvenile fish and invertebrates, acting like fish-aggregating devices. They float above the sandy seabed and avoids coral reefs. Free-swimming coral larvae can even use the platforms to grow into adult colonies, which can then be replanted on the sea floor. Plans to further increase capacity are underway.

Among resorts opting for rooftop panels that could supply enough power to operate with just one diesel generator are Centara Ras Fushi, Pullman Maldives Maamutaa, Mecure Maldives Kooddo resort, Dust Thani Maldives, Heritance Aarah, Mövenpick resort, Reethi Faru Resort Island – all of whom have installed rooftop systems to complement diesel powerhouses and reduce reliance of fossil fuels.

Drawbacks and untapped potential

Consumption of solar energy is on the rise globally as more countries recognise the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions. The Maldives is especially vulnerable to climate change as the lowest-lying nation in the world and travellers are increasingly becoming conscious of their carbon footprint, offering advantages to resorts that advertise clean energy.

The benefits and incentives are obvious but switching to renewable sources is often not simple. The main challenge is the requirement of a storage device to provide electricity during the night. Cloudy weather makes the technology unreliable at daytime. Solar technologies also remain comparatively expensive and require large areas to generate enough electricity to power even a small tropical island.

But increased competition has resulted in sharp declines in installation costs. Solar energy use has surged at about 20 percent a year over the last two decades, thanks to rapidly falling prices and gains in efficiency. Japan, Germany, and the United States are major markets for solar cells. With tax incentives and efficient coordination with energy companies, solar electricity can often pay for itself in five to ten years.

The International Energy Agency expects solar power to become a viable alternative to fossil fuels – ahead of coal, hydro and nuclear – within a decade, predicting that solar will be the world’s largest source of electricity by 2050.

The environment minister of Maldives concurs.

“Solar is the best option we have right now. We have to do it and not just for environmental reasons,” Dr Hussain Rasheed Hassan told Hotel Insider in an exclusive interview. A recent auction for a five megawatt solar project near the Hulhumalé bridge fetched a price of 11 cents per kilowatt per hour, compared to 21 or 23 cents from the most efficient generator. “So that’s 100 percent cheaper compared to diesel,” he observed.

The problem of intermittency could be solved by batteries and scaling up, he suggested. A solar farm the size of a football pitch would cost nearly US$1 million and produce one megawatt of electricity. Capacity would have to be doubled to generate electricity needed at night.

The government is seeking to invest in renewable energy both by offering grants and soft loans to utility companies, and inviting foreign investors through competitive bidding processes to sign co-purchasing agreements. The Maldives could also emulate Indian Ocean neighbour Seychelles in exploring floating platforms, the minister said.

“The third option is asking people to install solar panels on their houses, and we are planning to pay them for excess energy produced. That will be fed to the grid,” he said.

“We want the resorts to do it, too. They are also investing proactively. But there are those who don’t do it as well. But now it will make sense for them do so. For two reasons: one is economic. And when they go solar they can use it as a marketing tool as well.”