Remember back when everyone was trying to build artificial islands? Those resorty redoubts were the perfect metaphor for the global real-estate boom (big, indulgent, and chock-full of sharks). Nowadays, though, they’re adopting a humbler, if still somewhat lofty, purpose: that of renewable-energy store.
Green Power Island, a proposal co-developed by the Danish architects Gottlieb Paludan, envisions fake land masses off coastal regions around the world, from Tampa to Bahrain, that would tuck away wind and solar energy. The islands would leverage the planet’s most abundant resource, seawater, to store then release excess electrical power depending on load demands. The process is called pumped-storage hydroelectricity, and it’s already fairly prevalent today. Here, it’d be getting its own digs.
The idea solves several technical problems at once. Storing renewable energy is a bitch. Most of the time, wind turbines and solar panels are producing energy at the precise moment no one needs it, and the last thing you want is for all that gold-hearted work to go to waste. Things will only get worse as power companies ramp up their renewable portfolios.
Storage is especially vexing in low-lying areas. The basic conceit of hydro pumping is that you pipe water up a hill when you have plenty of energy, then you release it when you need energy. That’s fine in the mountains, where gravity’s working in your favor. At sea level? Not so much. Gottlieb Paludan proposes building a deep lagoon on each island. During peak demand, the lagoon fills up, driving energy-generating turbines. When demand eases, the lagoon empties (via solar- and wind-powered pumps). The architects estimate that you can regenerate as much as 80 percent of your energy.
But what really intrigues us is that the islands seem like excellent design solutions. Power plants are hideous. They also take up a lot of room. Moving energy storage to coastal waters is an ingenious way to dodge all the fuss of building infrastructure on precious land. At the same time, you’re keeping power close to the consumers so you don’t have to throw up miles of energy-sucking transmission lines. Not that the islands are just pumps and salty lagoons. Gottlieb Paludan have plans to soup them up with trails, beaches, housing, businesses, and, yeah, even golf courses.
Obviously, there are some major concerns here: How will the islands affect the seabed? What happens to the surrounding marine life? Who pays for such a massive infrastructural undertaking? At the same time, we shouldn’t dismiss the idea as a total fantasy. It’s a concerted attempt to surmount some of the biggest technical and design challenges of the new energy economy. And hey, if the energy part doesn’t work out, the islands could always make for nice resorts.