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Renewable Energy in Antarctica: a Green Option for a White Continent
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In October 2007 Meridian Energy, one of New Zealand’s principal electricity providers, carried out feasibility studies for the installation of wind turbines in the world’s windiest continent. The turbines would provide power to New Zealand’s Scott Base and possibly neighbouring U.S. McMurdo Station. Meridian Energy has found the proposed locations have less extreme wind speeds than some areas around Wellington, the New Zealand’s notoriously windy capital city, where wind farms have been established.

Antarctica is one of the most vulnerable parts of our planet to environmental change. And yet, paradoxically, electricity at New Zealand’s Scott Base is produced by two fossil-fuel powered generators, using 380 000 litres of aviation fuel annually. Hardly an ideal choice for sustaining the needs of scientists studying pristine natural systems and climate change impacts.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts warming of a greater magnitude in polar regions than elsewhere in the world and studies by the British Antarctic Survey show that 87 per cent of glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula have retreated in the last 50 years. The dramatic break-up of the Larson B ice shelf in 2002 may be a sign of things to come. If the West Antarctic ice sheet were to melt completely, the probability of which is difficult to predict, global sea levels would rise by around 6 metres (20 feet).

In this context, New Zealand researchers have been investigating ways to decrease fossil fuel use and reduce energy costs through renewable energy generation at Scott Base. Although CO2 emissions from Antarctica are negligible on a global scale, human impact in some areas is a cause for concern. A high proportion of Antarctica’s limited ice-free land is currently used for research stations, making these fragile ecosystems particularly vulnerable.

Furthermore, reliance on fuel imports means icebreakers are needed at times to cut through the frozen Ross Sea in order to bring fuel to the Base. Meridian Energy’s proposal would reduce the need for such fuel-intensive activities. Wind power in Antarctica makes more economic sense for New Zealand’s Scott Base due to the high costs of transporting fuel across the great Southern Ocean.

Engineering staff and students at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch have focused on Antarctic renewable energy research (pdf). Renewable energy systems for Cape Bird and Bratina Island have been developed and energy modelling on the use of solar Photo Voltaic (PV) panels has been undertaken (pdf).

University of Canterbury mechanical engineering student Jake Frye won a 2006 MacDiarmid Award for his Masters paper Sustainability on the Ice (pdf) in which he investigated the potential for wind power at Scott Base. He highlighted the need to reduce electricity demand at times of lower wind power supply in order to make the most efficient use of the resource. This would mean for example, doing the laundry at times of high wind energy production, whereas essentials like heating would always be backed up by fossil fuel generators.

Meanwhile other countries are also developing renewable energy systems for their research bases. Trans-Tasman counterpart Australia has installed a wind turbine at Mawson Base and Belgium has built a fully renewable-energy power station. A feasibility study of wind power at McMurdo Station done by the U.S.’s National Science Foundation four years ago found that 1.2 million litres of fuel could be saved each year. New Zealand’s proposal could feed into the two countries’ joint logistics pool while contributing some relief from fuel dependence.

Renewable energy is but one of the many interesting areas of research during a period of heightened scientific effort for the current International Polar Year. Other Antarctic projects include biodiversity surveys and rock and sediment core analysis of past environmental changes.

Conventional living is an impossibility in the icy natural laboratory we call Antarctica. It is a place uninhabitable by humans without modern technologies. For this reason it is important that scientists explore new ways in which human impacts can be reduced, and it's only natural that this should generate commercial interest.

Image credit: Cheers Flickr/elisfanclub!

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I have proposed a design contest for a zero emission, totally renewable energy powered building suitable for housing scientists in Antarctica.

If it could be done there, it can be done anywhere. Quite a challenge. On the topic of wind in Antarctica, the famous Minnesota built, Jacob's Wind Electric machine that survived and thrived there is a legend in wind power circles. A 30 year history of operation, metal edges were needed on the wood blades to protect from ice particle erosion.

On storing wind energy and matching output to demand; the big load in Antarctica is heating of course. Heat storage phase change salts could provide the needed bridge.

Does anyone know if the new Antarctic station uses cogeneration heat from it's generators?

Anyway World Changing, think about sponsoring a contest like this to design a zero GHG building/home for Antarctica. Maybe you could enlist other blogs, like Grist for instance, and eco friendly industries, like wind and solar companies. I bet some celebrities would join the effort too.

Posted by: amazingdrx on 3 Dec 07

The Electric Power Engineering Centre at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch has conducted much research on renewable energy and energy efficiency in Antarctica, in partnership with Antarctica New Zealand and Gateway Antarctica. This has included scholarships for students (as described in the article above), a number of R&D projects and a nationwide school challenge called 'Energise Your Future Challenge: Renewable Energy in Antarctica' - see www.epecentre for further info.

Posted by: Electric Power Engineering Centre on 4 Dec 07

Eureka! Assemble the modular housing units in New Zealand and transport them to Antarctica for the final challenge. The finalists housing actual scientists in Antarctica.

That could be a dramatic contest with a series of episodes, like some of the Discovery Channel Survival programs. This is a great way to highlight GHG issues and their solutions. The harshest test of green building held in the region facing meltdown.

Call a producer! hehey. Thanks I will check that site!

Posted by: amazingdrx on 4 Dec 07

After seeing a warning on the antarctica peninsula meltdown, I thuink it would be good to add that the green scientist cabins be floatable as well.

That really makes GHG disaster more real. Flood proof floating homes are already abuilding in the netherlands. They are constructed on concrete barges. Fiber concrete with internal closed cell foam insulation for the green antarctic building structure should be suitable.

They could be jacked up on their own winch powered legs as snow deepend around them too. Legs that allow for continual climbing as needed. The snow removal job in antarctic living has been solved with jack legs on the latest shelter design. It's a huge building however.

I have a cabin sized home design/building contest in mind. Another great way to go is to erect a clear geodesic dome over 10 or 12 of these smaller green cabins. The dome could have jack legs as well.

New Zealanders would get into this stuff.

Posted by: amazingdrx on 8 Dec 07



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