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Northern Mariana Islands   Northern Mariana Islands Profile

Territory Profile and Energy Estimates

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Last Updated: January 20, 2022

Overview

CNMI meets nearly all of its energy needs with imported petroleum products.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a chain of 14 islands and a handful of islets in the western Pacific Ocean, is located almost 4,000 miles west of Hawaii and about 1,600 miles east of the Philippines.1,2,3 It is the newest U.S. territory and was established by covenant agreement in 1978.4 CNMI includes all the islands in the Mariana Islands Archipelago except Guam, the southernmost island of the chain.5 The islands of the Commonwealth stretch northward in an arc from Guam toward Japan. The northern islands are the tops of volcanic mountains, some of which are active, and the southern islands and islets are uplifted coral reefs on top of volcanic rock. The island chain rises from the ocean floor at the western boundary of the Mariana Trench, which reaches depths of more than 36,000 feet below the sea's surface and is the deepest known place on Earth.6,7 The Commonwealth has no fossil fuel energy resources but does have some renewable resources. However, CNMI meets nearly all of its energy needs with imported petroleum products.8,9,10

The Northern Mariana Islands are about 179 square miles in area, which is collectively about two-and-a-half times the size of Washington, DC. About two-thirds of the territory's land is forested and nearly 7% is used for agriculture, primarily cattle ranches and small farms.11 CNMI has a tropical marine climate with little seasonal temperature variation. There is a dry season from December to June, and a rainy season from July to November. Typhoons generally occur between May and December and can be devastating.12,13 In October 2018, Super Typhoon Yutu, a category 5 typhoon with sustained winds of 180 miles per hour, extensively damaged the CNMI islands of Saipan and Tinian.14 Repairs to the islands' infrastructure continue, and in 2021, CNMI received federal funds to repair roads damaged by Typhoon Yutu.15

Virtually all of CNMI's population and economic activity is based on three of its islands—Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. All three are located at the southern end of the island chain.16 About 9 in 10 of the territory's residents live on the 46 square miles of Saipan, the largest island in CNMI.17,18 The territory's total population declined from more than 69,000 in 2000 to approximately 47,000 in 2020.19 The closure of several garment factories contributed to the population drop. Foreign contract workers left when the garment factories, once the territory's largest industry, closed.20,21 As a result CNMI has a small industrial sector, and about 9 of every 10 workers are employed in the service economy, including government.22 As manufacturing decreased, the accommodations and gaming industries increased. Tourism, led by vacationers from Asia, and visitor spending, particularly at casinos, contributed a significant share to the territory's gross domestic product (GDP). The number of visitors to CNMI increased by 11% in 2016 and by 24% in 2017.23 In 2016, the Commonwealth had one of the fastest growing economies in the world when its GDP increased by more than 28%.24 In 2017, CNMI's real GDP increased 25%, and its per capita GDP peaked at nearly half that of the United States.25 However, in 2018, a year with significant typhoon damage, the real GDP declined by more than 19%. In 2019, it fell another 11%, despite post-typhoon reconstruction activity, in part because the number of visitor arrivals decreased by 6%, and revenues from casino gambling dropped by more than 80%.26 In 2020, the decrease in tourism, a result of the suspension of international flights because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, adversely affected the CNMI economy.27

Petroleum

The Northern Mariana Islands have no proved crude oil reserves, production, or petroleum refineries.28,29 In 2019, refined petroleum products were CNMI's top import and accounted for about 24% of the Commonwealth's total import costs that year.30 Ships bring refined petroleum products through harbors on Saipan and Tinian.31 CNMI imports a variety of refined petroleum products, including diesel fuel for electricity generation as well as diesel fuel and motor gasoline for marine and land transportation.32 U.S. law allows use of less expensive, high-sulfur motor gasoline in the Pacific territories.33 CNMI's three international airports—one on Saipan, one on Tinian, and one on Rota—use jet fuel and aviation gasoline. The territory also imports butane and propane for restaurant and household cooking.34,35

Electricity

The commercial sector, led by tourism, is the largest electricity-consuming sector in the Northern Mariana Islands.

Commonwealth Utilities Corporation (CUC), a government corporation, provides electric power and drinking water on the populated islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. CUC also provides wastewater service on Saipan, where most of the territory's population lives.36 Five diesel-fueled power plants supply the territory with electricity—three on Saipan and one each on Tinian and Rota.37 Proposed new power plants include a high efficiency replacement of the aging diesel-fueled power plant on Saipan and the addition of new solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants on Tinian and Rota.38

The Northern Mariana Islands are vulnerable to tropical storms. In 2015, Saipan's power generation and distribution system was badly damaged by Typhoon Soudelor, which led to several months of power outages and disruptions of the public water supply and wastewater treatment systems.39,40 In September 2018, Super Typhoon Mangkhut devastated Rota and destroyed much of that island's energy infrastructure, and in October 2018, Super Typhoon Yutu, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Mariana Islands, hit Saipan and Tinian and damaged critical infrastructure.41,42,43 CUC received federal funds to repair and harden facilities damaged by the typhoons. CUC plans to use the funds for power plant upgrades, concrete power poles, and underground transmission lines to avoid future storm damage.44,45

The commercial sector, led by tourism, is the largest electricity-consuming sector in the Northern Mariana Islands.46 Between 2015 and 2018, CNMI's electricity consumption increased as tourism increased.47,48 Hotels use electricity for air conditioning, water heating, water purification, and lighting. Most large hotels on Saipan also have generators to make electricity for their own use when grid supply is unreliable or fuel surcharges are high.49 In 2020, total electricity retail sales in the Marianas fell by 19%, and electricity retail sales to the in the commercial sector dropped by 33% as tourism decreased due to Covid-19. However, electricity retail sales to the residential sector rose by 13% as more people remained at home.50

Electricity customers in CNMI pay a fuel surcharge that varies with the price of diesel fuel imports. In August 2020, the price of electricity for residential customers in the territory included an added fuel charge of about 12 cents per kilowatthour, almost 37% less than in July 2019 when the fuel surcharge was about 19 cents per kilowatthour.51 The decline resulted from the decrease in world petroleum demand and prices in the same period, due, in part, to the global COVID-19 pandemic.52 In 2021, the fuel surcharge rose from less than 14 cents per kilowatthour in January to more than 23 cents per kilowatthour in November as world oil prices increased.53 Given the historic volatility of petroleum prices, CUC is improving its existing power system and adding renewable electricity sources to diversify its diesel-dependent system.54,55 In 2015, the utility worked on an integrated resource plan (IRP) to evaluate power plant replacement options that would reduce dependence on petroleum and accommodate proposed development and increased tourism to the islands.56 In 2021, CUC updated the IRP to implement new technologies and renewable generation.57

Renewable energy

In 2020, solar power accounted for 2% of CNMI's electricity generating capacity.

The Northern Mariana Islands have abundant sunshine and renewable resources, primarily solar energy, are used for electricity generation.58 In 2020, solar power accounted for 2% of CNMI's electricity generating capacity.59 In 2021, the CNMI public school system began the installation of solar energy systems on all 20 of its public schools, converting them from reliance on the CUC grid to on-site renewable generation.60 CUC has proposed several large solar energy projects, including a 3-megawatt solar PV plant on Tinian and a 2-megawatt solar PV plant on Rota.61 Although small-scale renewable powered projects exist across the three inhabited islands, the intermittent and variable power from larger projects, and the small size of each island's grid, require careful integration and power balancing of island transmission systems.62,63

Saipan, Tinian, and Rota may have wind resources suitable for commercial turbines, but potential sites are limited because the islands are mountainous, and suitable land is scarce. Wind turbines must withstand typhoons but not interfere with airstrip and military facilities or negatively impact several threatened bird species.64 Even so, there are some small onshore wind installations in CNMI.65 In 2019, CUC proposed a wind integration study.66 Pending legislation in the U.S. Congress amends federal law to authorize offshore wind development in all five U.S. territories, including CNMI.67

Geothermal technologies may also be an energy resource in the Northern Marianas. The islands are in an active volcanic region, and several of the uninhabited northern islands have active volcanoes. Other renewable technologies considered for the Northern Mariana Islands include the conversion of non-recyclable municipal wastes into energy.68 In 2017, the U.S. Department of the Interior awarded a grant to the CNMI government to conduct a feasibility study on extracting methane gas from landfills, which could reduce reliance on fuel imports.69 CUC pursues energy efficiency projects as well, including the installation of high-efficiency public street-lighting.70

In 2006, the CNMI government enacted a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that set an initial target of 10% of electricity sales from renewable energy by 2008, increasing to 80% by 2014. In 2014, CNMI reduced the target to 20% by 2016.71 Although the 2016 target was not met, several public facilities and schools installed small-scale (less than 1 megawatt) solar PV and wind projects.72,73 In 2014, CNMI also created a net metering program for residential and commercial customers and later modified it to require the utility to prioritize net metering at health and education facilities.74,75 CNMI law allows for net metering of customer-sited renewable energy systems with up to 100 kilowatts capacity. Total net metering is limited to 30% of the CUC system's peak demand.76 By August 2019, about 2.5% of all CUC customers participated in net metering, which was a larger share than in the United States, where about 1.6% of all customers participated in net metering in 2019.77,78

Natural gas

The Commonwealth has no natural gas reserves and does not produce, import, or consume natural gas.79 However, liquefied natural gas (LNG) use, dual fuel capability, and LNG storage tanks at new power plants have been proposed.80

Coal

The Commonwealth has no coal reserves and does not produce, import, or consume coal.81

Endnotes

1 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, Northern Mariana Islands, Geography, accessed December 20, 2021.
2 DistanceFromTo, Distance from Northern Mariana Islands to Hawaii, accessed December 20, 2021.
3 DistanceFromTo, Distance from Northern Mariana Islands to Philippines, accessed December 20, 2021.
4 CNMI Office of Planning and Development, 2019 Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Update (April 30, 2019), p. 5.
5 "Mariana Islands," Britannica, accessed December 20, 2021.
6 Ballendorf, Dirk Anthony, "Northern Mariana Islands," Britannica, updated December 17, 2021.
7 "Mariana Trench," Britannica, accessed December 20, 2021.
8 U. S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Energy Transition Initiative, Islands, Energy Snapshot, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, DOE/GO-102015-4683 (June 2015), p. 2, 3.
9 U. S. Department of Energy, Energy Transition Initiative, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Energy Snapshot, DOE/GO-102020-5413 (June 2020), p. 2, 3.
10 Baring-Gould, Ian, et al., Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Initial Technical Assessment Report, U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL/TP-7A40-50906 (July 2011), p. 5, 14.
11 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, Northern Mariana Islands, Geography, Economy, accessed December 20, 2021.
12 Baring-Gould, Ian, et al., Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Initial Technical Assessment Report, U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL/TP-7A40-50906 (July 2011), p. 3.
13 Chiu, Allyson, Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin, "Extreme Category 5 typhoon, the worst U.S. storm since 1935, leaves Northern Mariana Islands devastated," Washington Post (October 25, 2018).
14 Wong, Alia, and Lenika Cruz, "The Media Barely Covered One of the Worst Storms to Hit U.S. Soil," The Atlantic (November 14, 2018).
15 Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Office of Planning and Development, "U.S. Department of Commerce Invests $11.2 Million to Rehabilitate Roadway Infrastructure," Press Release (February 10, 2021).
16 Baring-Gould, Ian, et al., Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Initial Technical Assessment Report, U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL/TP-7A40-50906 (July 2011), p. 3.
17 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, Northern Mariana Islands, Geography, Population distribution, accessed December 20, 2021.
18 CNMI Office of Planning and Development, 2019 Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Update (April 30, 2019), p. 2.
19 U.S. Census Bureau, "Census Bureau Releases 2020 Census Population and Housing Unit Counts for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands," Press Release (October 28, 2021).
20 Goworowska, Justyna, and Steven Wilson, Recent Population Trends for the U.S. Island Areas: 2000 to 2010, U.S. Census Bureau (April 2015), p. 11, 21.
21 "3 remaining garment firms to close down," saipantribune.com (January 6, 2009).
22 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, Northern Mariana Islands, Economy, accessed December 20, 2021.
23 U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, "CNMI GDP increases in 2017, Growth led by tourism and gaming industry revenues," Press Release (October 18, 2018).
24 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, Country Comparison, GDP Real Growth Rate, 2016 estimate.
25 The World Bank, GDP per capita (current US$), Northern Mariana Islands, United States, 2002-19.
26 U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, "Gross Domestic Product for the CNMI, 2019" Press Release (April 6, 2021).
27 Marianas Visitors Authority, Strategic Plan Toward Sustainable Tourism Industry 2021-2031 (June 4, 2021), p. 3-5.
28 U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Northern Mariana Islands, Profile Data, Reserves and Supply, accessed December 21, 2021.
29 U.S. EIA, Number and Capacity of Petroleum Refineries, Total Number of Operable Refineries, Annual as of January 1, 2021.
30 Observatory of Economic Complexity, Northern Mariana Islands Imports, accessed December 21, 2021.
31 Commonwealth Ports Authority, Port of Saipan and Tinian Harbor, accessed December 21, 2021.
32 Baring-Gould, Ian, et al., Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Initial Technical Assessment Report, U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL/TP-7A40-50906 (July 2011), p. 6, 21.
33 U.S. Government Printing Office, Title 40, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 80, Regulation of Fuels and Fuel Additives, Sections 80.382, 80.608, accessed December 21, 2021.
34 Commonwealth Ports Authority, Saipan International Airport, Tinian International Airport, Rota International Airport, accessed December 21, 2021.
35 CNMI Department of Commerce, LFP Housing Characteristics 2017 by Fuel Cooking Fuel Type, accessed December 21, 2021.
36 Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, About CUC, accessed December 22, 2021.
37 Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, Services, Electric Power Generation, accessed December 22, 2021.
38 CNMI Office of Planning and Development, 2019 Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Update (April 30, 2019), p. 73-75, D-5.
39 "Typhoon Soudelor Becomes World's Most Powerful Storm This Year After It Trashes Northern Marianas," ABC News (August 4, 2015).
40 Chan, Dennis B., "CUC: 2 to 3 Months for Power," saipantribune.com (August 31, 2015).
41 "Rota in shambles after Typhoon Mangkhut," New Zealand Radio (September 12, 2018).
42 Watanabe, Masako, "Super Typhoon Yutu slams Northern Mariana Islands with 180 mph winds," USA Today (October 18, 2018).
43 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Administration, "Super Typhoon Yutu: One Year Later," Press Release (October 24, 2019).
44 Nauta, Justine, "$36M grant for CUC OK'd," saipantribune.com (November 16, 2020).
45 Cabrera, Bea, "Buried power lines eyed," saipantribune.com (February 7, 2019).
46 U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Transitions Initiative, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Energy Snapshot (June 2020), p. 1.
47 U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, "CNMI GDP increases in 2017, Growth led by tourism and gaming industry revenues," Press Release (October 18, 2018), p. 2.
48 U.S. EIA, Electric Power Annual, Table 12.7. Northern Mariana Islands, 2011-20.
49 Baring-Gould, Ian, et al., Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Initial Technical Assessment Report, U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL/TP-7A40-50906 (July 2011), p. 10.
50 U.S. EIA, Electric Power Annual, Table 12.7. Northern Mariana Islands, 2011-20.
51 Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, Rates and Tariffs, Electric, accessed December 22, 2021.
52 U.S. EIA, "Oil market volatility is at an all-time high," Today in Energy (March 27, 2020).
53 Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, Rates and Tariffs, Electric, Rates and Tariffs, accessed December 22, 2021.
54 CNMI Office of Planning and Development, 2019 Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Update (April 30, 2019), p. 130.
55 Todiño, Junhan B., "CUC: 17 renewable-energy projects this year," The Guam Daily Post (February 13, 2018).
56 U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Insular Affairs, Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, 2015 Integrated Resource Plan, accessed December 22, 2021.
57 De La Torre, Ferdie, "CUC board adopts Integrated Resource Plan," saipantribune.com (March 5, 2021).
58 Shea, Eileen L., et al., Preparing for a Changing Climate: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (October 2001), Chapter Two, Pacific Islands Region, p. 9
59 U. S. Department of Energy, Energy Transition Initiative, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Energy Snapshot, DOE/GO-102020-5413 (June 2020), p. 1.
60 Erediano, Emmanuel T., "CNMI schools launch solar energy system," The Guam Daily Post (Updated Dec 1, 2021).
61 CNMI Office of Planning and Development, 2019 Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Update (April 30, 2019), p. 75.
62 "Kilil: $658,692 for Marianas Energy Projects," saipantribune.com (June 30, 2017).
63 U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Energy Transitions Initiative: Islands, Energy Snapshot, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, DOE/GO-102015-4683 (June 2015), p. 1.
64 Baring-Gould, Ian, et al., Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Initial Technical Assessment Report, U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL/TP-7A40-50906 (July 2011), p. 27-37.
65 U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Energy Transitions Initiative: Islands, Energy Snapshot, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, DOE/GO-102015-4683 (June 2015), p. 3.
66 CNMI Office of Planning and Development, 2019 Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Update (April 30, 2019), p. 76.
67 Perel, Kyle, and Gabriel Harrison, "Summary of Climate, Energy and Environment Provisions in the House Budget Reconciliation Package," Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld LLP, JDSupra (November 5, 2021).
68 Conrad, Misty Dawn, and J. Erik Ness, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Strategic Energy Plan (July 2013), p. 17.
69 "$3.5M Energy Grants for Territories," saipantribune.com (July 5, 2017).
70 Todiño, Junhan B., "CUC wants to upgrade streetlights," Marianas Variety (May 19, 2020).
71 U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Energy Transitions Initiative: Islands, Energy Snapshot, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, DOE/GO-102015-4683 (June 2015), p. 1, 2.
72 U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Energy Transitions Initiative: Islands, Energy Snapshot, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, DOE/GO-102015-4683 (June 2015), p. 3.
73 Todiño, Junhan B., "CUC: 17 renewable-energy projects this year," The Guam Daily Post (February 13, 2018).
74 Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, House of Representatives, H. B. No. 18-165, SD1 (September 4, 2014).
75 Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, House of Representatives, Public Law No. 18-75 (February 13, 2015).
76 NC Clean Energy Technology Center, DSIRE, Northern Mariana Islands, Net Metering, updated March 19, 2021.
77 De La Torre, Ferdie, "More CUC customers avail of net metering," saipantribune.com (October 16, 2019).
78 U.S. EIA, Electric Power Annual (2020), Tables 2.1, 4.10,
79 U.S. EIA, Northern Mariana Islands, Profile Data, Reserves, Supply, Imports & Exports, and Consumption, accessed December 24, 2021.
80 CNMI Office of Planning and Development, 2019 Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Update (April 30, 2019), p. 74, D-5.
81 U.S. EIA, Northern Mariana Islands, Profile Data, Reserves, Supply, and Consumption, accessed December 21, 2021.