France's overseas territory Reunion Island is aiming to produce all of its energy through renewables by the end of 2028. Though activists agree on the target, they disagree on the methods.
At first glance, Reunion Island seems like a paradise — with palm trees, lush green landscapes and a fresh sea breeze. But the French overseas territory in the Indian Ocean is less idyllic than it seems. Almost two-thirds of its electricity are produced through fossil energy sources.
But not everybody agrees with Reunion's methods of achieving this goal.
The island's electricity currently stems mostly from French utility EDF's heavy oil factory in the city of Le Port in the northwest of the island, and from two power plants, owned by Albioma, which run on coal roughly six months of the year.
EDF's factory is to function with colza and soja oil in the future, and Albioma's plants exclusively on biomass.
The 'perfect cycle'
One of the latter, called Bois-Rouge, is located about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) east of the capital Saint-Denis in the north of the island. Adjacent to it is a sugar cane factory, run by international group Tereos and also named Bois-Rouge.
On a recent Friday morning, the sugar cane factory's director, Vianney Tailamee, led a group of visitors across the site as rumbling trucks discharged huge loads of sugar cane.
"Our production is already sustainable and functions as a perfect cycle," he told the group, which included Nelly Noel, Albioma's head of environmental matters and industrial risks.
"This is where we press out the sugar cane's juice," he explained, pointing to a huge network of machines behind him.
"Residues such as sand and soil are scattered on adjacent farmers' fields. The molasses, the sugar sirup, is fed to animals or go to the nearby distillery, which produces bioethanol or alcohol with it. And the bagasse, the crushed canes, go to Albioma's factory," he said, as Noel nodded in agreement.
"In return, we get our electricity from the grid, into which Albioma feeds the energy produced," he added.
Most of the biomass will be imported
"That electricity will soon be 100 % produced with biomass and not just 40%," Noel later explained to DW as he guided the team across the company's Bois-Rouge site. Each of Albioma's two factories on the island has a total capacity of roughly 110 megawatts.
Construction work is underway for two huge hemispheric reservoirs, where wood pellets that will replace the coal will be stored. The company is investing about €200 million ($226 million) per site.
"We will import most of the wood pellets from the north of the US, later on potentially from Mozambique and South Africa," she explained.
800,000 tons will be imported, and up to 100,000 tons sourced locally.
Environmentalists plead for energetic independence
But that's exactly what displeases activists like Jean-Claude Futhazar, secretary general at local environmental association Srepen.
"We should source all of our biomass locally; importing it only causes additional CO2 pollution. And we will be energy dependent on other countries," he told DW.
"Plus, buying all the wood pellets on Reunion Island would create local jobs," he opined.
Reunion Island's government is indeed aiming to become energy independent but only by the end of 2030. That's too late, says Futhazar.
The trained engineer thinks the government plans are also falling short in other areas, such as transport.
"Almost all of our transport is based on fossil fuels and the number of inhabitants and cars keeps increasing," he explained.
Reunion Island currently has no functioning train service, and public buses are barely used.
Futhazar thinks the government should build an island-wide rail network to bring down exhaust pollution, but he knows that could take decades.
Could electric cars be the solution?
"That's why we should bank on electric cars and set up a well-functioning network of charging stations," said Futhazar, himself an owner of an electric car. So far though, the government does not have plans to massively boost the island's charging station network. It says electricity is still too expensive to make these cars worthwhile.
Futhazar's electric car is just one part of his sustainable lifestyle. A few years ago he built an eco-house in the mountains. He produces his electricity through photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof. Huge doors improve ventilation so there is no need for air conditioning. The overall energy consumption is down from 9,000 kWh a year in his old house on the coast to 3,200 kWh. Futhazar now even sells some electricity back to the grid.
Solar energy is part of the plan
His garden yields most of the fruits and vegetables he eats. A dozen huge turtles in an enclosure eat his leftover food.
"I wanted to construct a sustainable house — after all, we have to leave the Earth behind to our children in an acceptable state," said Futhazar.
He thinks the government should incite more people to go down the same route, at least when it comes to the electricity production.
"At least 60% of the houses on Reunion are detached. If all of them were equipped with PV panels, that could cover half of our island's electricity needs," he stated.
The government has indeed included solar energy in its transition plan, but in the form of large projects.
Paris-based Akuo Energy is already contributing to the solar plan. The energy producer has completed 11 photovoltaic projects on the island with a total capacity of 34 MW, at least another 30 MW are in the pipeline.
One of those already built is the 9-MW project Les Cedres in the south of the island.
"Our park combines PV panels with organic farming. Plus, a battery system stores the electricity during the day to feed it into the grid in the evening at peak times," Akuo Energy's general director for the Indian Ocean, Xavier Ducret, told DW.
Nearby, a team of farmers was busy attending to the site's various types of fruits and vegetables growing beneath the panels.
"I think we'll need to rely on such combined uses of soil — our island doesn't have much space, as huge stretches are UNESCO World Heritage sites and under protection, and farming also needs space," Ducret said.