Squeezing Energy from Hot Rocks and Coconut Oil: Mauritius Is Bent on Exploring Every Possibility of Producing Energy, since It Has No Oil, No Natural Gas or Coal. It Has Already Developed Energy from the Sun, the Wind and Bagasse, and the Search Goes on, Writes Nasseem Ackburally from Port Louis

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Arjoon Suddhoo, Executive Director of the Mauritius Research Council (MRC) is excited: "Just imagine for a moment that a small island like Mauritius can derive its energy needs on a 24-hour basis, every day of the year, from the hot rocks lying underneath its soil," he says. "This is more, and better, than oil. This is non-polluting and limitless renewable energy." He has put his team to work on this project to make it happen.

Since Mauritius is a volcanic island, rocks found at a depth of two to three kilometres are hot. In theory, producing energy from this source is fairly simple. Drill a hole deep down until it reaches the rocks, pour water in it to produce steam, and the steam can be used to produce electricity.

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The result of a preliminary study by the MRC is positive. But simple as the idea sounds, it still requires considerable investment. "This is a long-term investment project--it cannot be achieved in a day, in a month or a year," Suddhoo warns.

The problem, he says, lies at investment level, because Mauritius spends much less on research and development compared, say, to Singapore and even to the average for Africa -only 0.36% of its GDP annually--while Africa spends 1% to 2% and Singapore 3% to 4%. The private sector has shied away from spending on these areas, but the time has come for it to invest in them, says Suddhoo.

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Mauritius, with a population of 1.2m, is overdependent on foreign countries for its energy and food requirements. Water supply is not yet a worry, though the island will, according to the Water Resources Unit (WRU), become water-stressed in the coming years because of its growing needs and declining supply.

But it is producing only about 20% of its energy and food requirements. This is bad, says Suddhoo, who insists that a country should always be secure in energy, food and water supplies. Out of these three, "Energy," he insists, is the most important, and the cost of providing it. With plenty of sunshine, about 1,400 hours annually, the island can obtain a cheap solar energy supply if it can find sufficient investment. Suddhoo says the price of oil is not getting cheaper: "It is increasing and will continue increase."

His point is that the true cost of energy supply cannot be measured in dollars and cents. There are several other factors, such social, geopolitical and environmental aspects, that have to be factored into the accounting. "We should also consider the long-term sustainability of the island" he adds.

Coconut power

Sustainability has become a major concern over the past few years in the wake of the devastating effects of climate change and the soaring prices of oil and food. Given the island nation's mix of industrial, agricultural and tourism-related economy, the largest pinch is felt at the energy level. This explains the Research Council's constant search for sustainable--and affordable--generation of energy.

Even the humble coconut oil has been roped in to try and improve energy supplies. Over the past few weeks, some 15,000 litres of coconut oil produced in Agalega, a small island situated a thousand kilometres away in the north of Mauritius, has been used as fuel oil to run vehicles and generators for the benefit of its 300 inhabitants.

"There are plenty of coconut trees there and the people have been producing oil, which is sold in Mauritius. On the other hand, they need between six and 10m Mauritian rupees' worth of fuel every year for transport and electricity," says Suddoo. "We are now using the oil instead as a biofuel. He believes the energy produced from coconut oil on the island will provide the inhabitants with all their energy needs. If it can be done on Agalega, he reasons, it can be done on Mauritius proper and all over Africa, wherever one finds coconut palms.

Perhaps Suddoo and his researchers have stumbled on ideas that might be very useful on a continent in dire need of a sustainable source of energy. …