Could Richard Branson's Microgrid Save Catalina Island?

Catalina Island, a low-key tourist destination 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, has a crippling problem — besides already losing millions of tourist dollars to Las Vegas, Disneyland, and hundreds of miles of mainland beaches.

After a $45 million facelift created a spike in visitors, a serious lack of drinking water forced the island to ration the precious commodity, turning vacations into burdensome chores. As the numbers of tourists rise, the problem will only get worse, until the arid island ends up on Lonely Planet's guide for "extreme" travelers looking for a challenge, not just a vacation. Not exactly family friendly.

Avalon, the small island's commercial hub, has operated for over a year under Stage 2 water rationing, with a 25% reduction banning activities that include hosing down dusty streets, parking lots, and driveways. Long-suffering islanders, seeing a potential threat to their livelihoods, pitched in and responded enthusiastically by cutting their personal water use 30%.

Recently, as the island's small aquifers continued to empty, and in spite of those earlier sacrifices, Southern California Edison (SCE), the water and power utility, planned to impose severe Stage 3 restrictions in October, requiring the all residents to slash water use by 50% or face penalties on their monthly bills.

Avoiding draconian cuts

Those cuts would mandate that even the best restaurants use paper plates, construction projects would be aborted, hotels ship laundry to the mainland, and most drastic of all, closing enough hotel rooms to trigger layoffs in a town where working two and three jobs to make ends meet is already common.

The island's existing water system is largely to blame. Even SCE would consider it a chintzy Rube Goldberg relic with small aquifers, old pumps and tanks, and miles of 10-inch pipe crisscrossing island canyons.

Although a reverse osmosis desalination plant built in 1991 provides about 80% of the 250,000 gallons of water consumed each day, it was paid for by a developer in exchange for throwing up a huge 350-unit condo development called Hamilton Cove, only making the problem worse. Adding insult to injury, the condos were guaranteed 50% of the plant's fresh water, short-changing locals.

Power for the energy intensive desalination plant comes from the island's 5MW micro-grid, consisting primarily of six diesel generators. To cap fuel costs, SCE added 23 propane-powered micro-turbines (about 1.4 MW) in 2011. In the first year of operation they reduced fuel consumption by 200,000 gallons, or about 10 percent. But islanders still paid about four times more for power than on the mainland.

Later, 1-MW of sodium-sulfur (NaS) battery storage was also added to help insure steady power for the desalination plant.

Modular, compact and easily setup

As the threat of the 50% cuts loomed, City Council meetings grew bitter and contentious.

Angry locals fought the Santa Catalina Island Company — the island's sole developer — over its plans to build more attractions. Parched residents were especially angry about a recently opened spa with three swimming pools, after having limited their showers to three minutes for over a year. The Los Angeles Times caught the tenor of the resentment by quoting an outraged city council member:

City Councilman Joe Sampson was blunt. "If we go to Stage 3, things will get ugly...People are in an uproar."

It's also not hard to get Sampson fulminating about Alison Wrigley Rusack, the great-granddaughter of chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., who bought Santa Catalina Island Co. in 1919, and her use of private water rights to irrigate her family vineyard, siphoning off 1.2 million gallons or five days' worth of the island's yearly water supply.

Miffed, councilman Sampson complained that the "luxury vineyard is not benefiting Avalon at all."

No one was happy with a proposal to construct another desalination plant either, because any previous fuel savings from the micro-turbines would be eaten up by the new plant. And obviously, the costs would be passed on to the locals.

Nevertheless, the locals blinked and finally gave in to reality.

To beat the October deadline, Southern California Edison (SCE) quickly expanded its existing desalination plant using modular technology from General Electric (press release).

GE delivered its SeaTech-84 seawater reverse osmosis (RO) system. Designed for fast delivery and simple installation, the containerized equipment arrived in Catalina in mid-August and will be operational by the end of September. Once up and running, capacity will increase to from 200,000 to 350,000 gallons of water per day, helping the island hydrate increasing numbers of thirsty tourists.

So disaster has been temporarily averted, but Catalina hasn't broken out of its expensive hydrocarbon habit, a treadmill that could gradually derail its whole economy. After all, this new water is still roughly four to five times more expensive than ground water.

Richard Branson's better idea

If Catalina's looking for a sustainable solution, sometimes it takes a billionaire to disrupt the status-quo's conventional ways of doing business — like generating electricity. In this case it's Richard Branson, entrepreneurial British business tycoon, sartorial pirate, and supermodel collector.

Last April he threw the switch that turned on his private island's 1200-panel solar array. This was a first step as he and developer NRG Solar build a renewably-powered micro-grid to replace the island's noisy, expensive, and polluting diesel generator.

Currently, three modest-sized wind turbines are taking shape on the island's high bluff while lithium battery storage and a sophisticated software controller are integrated into the system. At full capacity, renewables will generate more power than the island uses and the excess power will flow in and out of the battery for use during cloudy times or at night.

Soon his guests' air conditioning, jumbo flat screens, and margarita mixers will all be running in generator-free silence. The only sounds will be waves lapping on the beach, evening breezes rustling the palms, and the island-specific cooing of contented supermodels.

From a practical point of view, once the system comes online in November, it's expected to provide savings of over 75%.

This easily scalable micro-grid is part of the Ten Island Renewable Challenge, an initiative organized in part by the Carbon War Room, a nonprofit co-founded by Branson to achieve gigaton-scale greenhouse gas emissions reductions and will provide a demonstration to other islands of the Caribbean, which are all desperately trying to dump fossil fuels after OPEC's four-year profit orgy started sucking their fragile tourist economies dry.

It is also a solution that Catalina Island could easily adopt in the future.

Are micro-grids the future of distributed energy delivery?

Images: Avalon, SkyAlliance;  GE modular desalination, SCE