Marlon Brando's six-star eco paradise

E&T reports from Tetiaroa, Marlon Brando's French Polynesian getaway, now trying to become energy self-sufficient and environmentally sustainable.

Tetiaroa is a French Polynesian atoll and was the sanctuary of Marlon Brando, who fell in love with the place after filming 'Mutiny on the Bounty' there. It comprises 13 small South Pacific islets surrounding a turquoise lagoon and is situated just 20 minutes by air, or two hours by catamaran, from Tahiti.

Brando constructed a small, low-key 'resort' on Tetiaroa where he and his Hollywood friends could escape the clamour and glaring lights of celebrity, but his marriage fell apart and the 'hotel' fell into disrepair after ten years. Nonetheless, Brando always loved the quiet serenity of Tetiaroa and dreamt of building a resort that not only showcased the exquisite beauty of the place, but enhanced and protected its unique natural and cultural resources.

Before his death in 2004, Brando consulted with his friend and hotelier Richard Bailey about building his dream hotel on Motu Onetahi – the only inhabited island in the Tetiaroa chain. He wanted it to be an example of modern luxury in harmony with the atoll's natural resources; powered by clean, locally generated renewable energy.

Bailey was the perfect partner to make Brando's dream come true. He is the CEO of Tahiti Beachcomber SA, the parent company of the four Intercontinental Resorts in French Polynesia. In 2006, he won the Entrepreneur of the Year Grand Prize for his one-of-a-kind eco-friendly air conditioning system at the Intercontinental Resort and Thalasso Spa at Bora Bora; and if all goes according to schedule, a similar system will be completed on Onetahi by the end of this year.

'The Brando Hotel' is slated to be the world's first six-star resort designed to be wholly energy self-sufficient and environmentally sustainable. Construction on The Brando began in 2009 with the re-orientation and lengthening of the runway to meet modern aviation requirements, and work on the buildings and infrastructure is well underway, with an anticipated completion date of late 2012.

Enter the SWAC

The Sea Water Air Conditioning (SWAC) system will be the cornerstone of The Brando Hotel's energy system. Air conditioning and water cooling consume 60-70 per cent of total energy demand for the Pacific Beachcomber group's hotels. Situated dead centre in the Tropical South Pacific, with the ambient air temperature about 30°C (87°F) and surface sea water only slightly cooler at 27°C, it is at considerable expense and cost of diesel fuel to chill the air and water to typical comfort levels.

Deep ocean waters in these latitudes are at a constant temperature of about 4-5°C all year round. By pumping water up from depth, one can deliver cold water to a heat exchanger, where the cooler temperatures of the ocean intake pipe are transferred to the hotel coolant loop via a heat exchanger and the warmer temperatures of the hotel loop are transferred back out to the ocean loop for discharge.

The existing SWAC system on Bora Bora draws from a depth of 900m. The intake pipe was laid along the surface, extending up along the slope a total distance of 2,000m and then just a 50m section across the reef to the resort. Since it went into operation in 2006, the Bora Bora SWAC has reduced the space conditioning and water cooling energy consumption by 90 per cent – the equivalent of 2.4MWh of diesel fuel-derived energy – and diesel is hugely expensive to ship and store on a remote island. The entire SWAC system is driven by a single 15kW pump on the ocean inflow pipeline and a 25kW pump on the hotel cold water loop.

The Tetiaroa SWAC system will draw from a depth of 945m, bringing up 4°C water through a 450mm-wide conduit. The pipe will run 1,660m along the ocean floor, then through a 140m-long trench cutting through the fringing reef and across the 'algal ridge' before doing another 600m in trench through the lagoon and finally emerging at The Brando. By the time the water reaches the engine room and the heat exchanger, the water temperature has increased slightly to 5-8°C, still amply cold enough to chill the hotel coolant circulation loop for pools, cold water and air conditioning.

Remote challenges

Even the most routine construction and engineering tasks are much more difficult given the remoteness of the atoll from civilization. The crane, marine trenching machine and concrete piers all had to be barged over from Tahiti, while construction crews are ferried over for 10-12 day stints.

Unlike on Bora Bora, where the resort is on the barrier island on the outboard side of the archipelago, the Tetiaroa SWAC must traverse the 'algal ridge' – the slightly above sea-level fringing reef that encircles the islands – and then cross the 600m-wide lagoon. Excavating the 2.2m-wide, 1.5m-deep trench was complicated by environmentally sensitive resources along the reef front. A crane was used to lift 350 huge globular coral masses intact to the sides of the trench for relocation back on top of the conduits after installation is completed later this summer.

In addition to the SWAC, The Brando is being built to meet platinum LEED certification standards – the highest level of energy efficiency and environmental design standards for new construction. These measures include a long list of energy-saving and environmental features, ranging from construction debris recycling programmes and low-flow water fixtures to low VOC-emitting paints and recycled fiber carpets. These combined measures will reduce the energy demand for the resort facilities even further.

Energy savings

On the energy production side, the resort is installing a series of photovoltaic arrays on structures and along its cleared runway borders. Low-impact vertical column wind generators are a promising alternative for windward exposures (as opposed to wind turbine generators that would be hazardous for the thousands of birds that nest on the islands). Rounding out the electrical production portfolio, the substantial water that flows into Tetiaroa's central lagoon – driven by steady Tradewinds from the east – exits the lagoon in a narrow pass on the north side of Onetahi on the west side of the atoll, a perfect location for small, in-stream hydroelectric generators.

Electrical production will be used not only to power the resort facilities, but also to charge a fleet of electric plug-in vehicles and run the SWAC.

Biofuel from coconut oil is planned for Motu Rimatu'u – a neighbouring island to Onetahi. Rimatu'u was once the site of a traditional copra plantation – copra is the dried meat of the coconut which can be processed to remove the oil, and the remaining high-protein fibre can be used as an animal feedstock.

Coconut oil can be blended directly with diesel fuel for use in compression engines, or further refined into biodiesel. Although not as economical as compared with regular diesel fuel in mainland markets, coconut biofuels represent a cost-effective alternative to expensive diesel on remote Pacific islands, such as Tetiaroa.

Biomass gasification of entire coconuts, together with their abundant production of palm fronds, is also a very promising technology here.

Delays and aspirations

Due to environmental and economic delays, The Brando has taken longer than expected to move forward, but as E&T goes to press, the final touches on the SWAC are being completed and the concrete slab has been poured for the airport terminal, research station and hotel, and Brando's vision is becoming a reality.

As Richard Bailey says: 'The Brando eco-resort will have many of the visionary things that Brando wanted: it will be renewable energy autonomous with a small carbon footprint, built with natural, quickly renewable and recyclable materials; it will rest lightly on and blend in with its environment.

'It will showcase the latest in energy and resource management technologies. I feel privileged to have known and worked with Brando on a common vision for his island, and honoured to play a part in bringing one of his dreams to fruition.'

Noble aspirations indeed. To the extent that The Brando on Tetiaroa is successful in meeting its energy self-sufficiency goals, it would become one of the first – if not the first – non-fossil fuel, self-sustaining islands on the planet.

And even as this energy experiment unfolds over the next few years, the SWAC – a system with tremendous promise and potential application for Tropical coastal communities throughout the world - will still be chilling its air and water on Bora Bora. *

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