ROTHERA BASE, Antarctica (Reuters) - Renewable energies are gaining a foothold in Antarctica, curbing fossil fuel use despite problems in designing installations to survive bone-chilling cold and winter darkness.
Wind and even solar power are catching on — solar panels on the Antarctic Peninsula can collect as much energy in a year as many places in Europe.
Although there is little sunlight in the winter, the summer sun shines through crystal clear air and reflects off snow.
“Antarctica is the windiest place on earth, the coldest place on the earth, the driest place on earth. It’s quite a test for materials,” said Andy Binney, an engineer at the British Rothera base installing solar thermal panels on a roof.
Plastics can quickly turn brittle in Antarctica’s climate.
“It’s still slightly experimental,” he said. The German Ritter Solar GmbH panels, costing about 8,000 pounds ($11,600), will heat water and air at an accommodation building at Rothera, on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Among other renewables, Belgium’s Elisabeth research station in East Antarctica aims to be first to rely solely on wind and solar energy and the world’s most southerly wind farm is under construction to supply U.S. and New Zealand stations.
Japan uses solar power at its Syowa base and two 300 megawatt wind turbines have been at Australia’s Mawson station since 2003.
“Australia is the first country to obtain a significant electricity supply for its Antarctic stations fueled by the most powerful winds on the planet,” the Australian Antarctic Division says.
Switching to renewable energies helps cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels — and curbs enormous transport costs in getting fuel to one of the most remote places on the planet.
The 47-nation Antarctic Treaty declares Antarctica a reserve for science and peace. And parties are obliged to “limit adverse impacts on the Antarctic environment.”
“It makes sense. You can collect more solar energy on the Antarctic Peninsula over a year than in London,” said William Ray, of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) which runs Rothera.
An existing set of solar thermal panels on a canteen and recreation building at Rothera is the biggest in Antarctica, he said. Costing about 40,000 pounds ($58,000), BAS said they save more than 1,000 liters of fuel a year and generate 15 kilowatts of energy.
New Zealand state-run company Meridian is building a wind farm to supply power to the New Zealand Scott Base and the nearby U.S. McMurdo station.
“The project will cut consumption by approximately 463,000 liters of fuel every year between the two bases, initially reducing fuel consumption by 11 percent,” Meridian said.
But Binney said that installing wind power was a problem at many bases, which lack heavy lifting gear.
“None of the equipment we’ve got here would be able to lift a large wind turbine into place. Then you get into crane hire, you’d have to bring in a contractor. Then the costs start to go up and that’s where millions of pounds (dollars) come in.”
By contrast, he said, solar power was an easy fix. And scientists working on remote glaciers have been using portable solar panels for a generation.
Editing by Matthew Jones