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.
The local government now aims to switch to 100% renewable energy production by the end of 2028 — some media had falsely reported a target date of 2023. Mainland France, meanwhile, is aiming for a renewable share of 32% by 2030.
But not everybody agrees with Reunion's method of achieving that 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, running on coal roughly six months of the year.
EDF's factory is to function with colza and soja oil in the future, Albioma's plants exclusively with 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, was leading a group of visitors across the site as rumbling trucks were discharging huge loads of sugar cane.
Albioma's Nelly Noel
Nelly Noel is Albioma head of environmental matters and industrial risks
"Our production is already sustainable and functions as a perfect cycle," he said to the group that included Nelly Noel, Albioma 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 while Noel nodded in agreement.
"In return, we get our electricity from the grid, in which Albioma feeds its produced energy," he added.
Most of the biomass will be imported
"That electricity will soon be produced to 100% with biomass and not just 40%," Noel explained to DW a bit later while guiding 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.
Biomass is considered climate-neutral as it absorbs the same amount of CO2 during its growth that it emits while being burnt.
Next to Noel, construction works were ongoing for two huge hemispheric reservoirs, where wood pellets that'll 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, up to 100,000 tons sourced locally.
Acuo Energy's Xavier Ducret
Acuo Energy's Xavier Ducret says Reunion Island will need to rely on combined uses of soil as land is a scarce resource
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 energetically 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 energetically 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 line, public buses are little 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," Futhazar, himself owner of an electric car, said. 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. Everything in his house, built 200 meters up in the mountains a few years back, is geared up for it.
He produces his electricity through photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof. Huge doors create ventilation and supersede air conditioning all of which lowers his energy consumption — from 9,000 kWh in his old house at the coast beforehand to now 3,200 kWh per year. Futhazar now even sells some electricity back to the grid. Huge turtles in an enclosure
A dozen huge turtles in an enclosure are eating Jean-Claude Furthazar's leftover food 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 isolated houses. 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 while walking along the lines of solar panels on a recent Thursday morning.
A team of farmers was busy attending 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.