Last week, New Zealand-based Powersmart Solar officially switched on the first of three solar power systems being installed on the South Pacific archipelago of Tokelau. As reported on RenewEconomy earlier this month, Tokelau is replacing the diesel electricity systems that have powered its three atolls with solar power systems and battery storage.
But Tokelau is not the the only South Pacific nation currently undergoing a solar transformation. The Kingdom of Tonga switched on its own maiden solar plant at the end of last month – another New Zealand-funded project that, along with the plant at Tokelau’s Fakaofo atoll, are set to be the first of many to come in the region, according to NZ Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully.
As is the case in Tokelau, the Tongan solar plant – Ma’ama Mai, which means “Let there be Light” – is part of a scheme to reduce the island nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and, in particular, diesel. According to reports, Tonga was consuming about 30 million litres of diesel a year; an average of about one litre every two seconds.
A collaborative effort between Tonga Power and NSW-based Meridian Energy, Ma’ama Mai’s nearly 6,000 solar panels will generate around 1MW a year, which equates to 4 per cent of electricity used on the main island of Tongatapu. For such a seemingly small amount, this will help Tonga save an estimated 470,000 litres of diesel – $NZ15 million-worth – over the 25-year-life of the plant.
According to an ABC News report, the plant was originally going to be funded by Tonga Power and the Tongan Government, but the World Bank would not loan Tonga any more funds, so New Zealand stepped in to cover the $7.9 million cost.
Already it is paying off, with the government announcing a reduction in the price Tongans pay for electricity from August 1. And this could just be the beginning – Tonga’s Minister for Public Enterprises, William Clive Edwards, says the aim is to have 50 per cent of the country’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2018; including solar, wind and biomass.
”The ultimate objective is for the people to access an energy source that is clean, safe and cheap,” Edwards said. ”Despite the very ambitious goal set, the government and its development partners are fully committed to them.”
And while the goal might be ambitious, Tonga Power chief John van Brink is keen to point out it is not an ”inspirational” goal. “We’ve got the plant in place” he told NZ media. He said the move to renewable energy would give some Tongans the ability to afford freezers and air conditioning.
For NZ’s McCully, the development of Tonga’s solar plant shows other Pacific governments that a switch to renewables can be done. “Many of our Pacific neighbours are reliant on expensive imported diesel for electricity generation and this is a barrier to developing their economies,” he told the New Zealand Herald. McCully says New Zealand has already started talks with potential investors in the EU and at the Asian Development Bank.
And of course another great barrier to the development of Pacific Island nations – and an even greater incentive to make the switch to renewables – is the impact of climate change, with a new CSIRO-led study published on Thursday suggesting that the region will be hit by almost twice as many droughts, floods and extreme tropical cyclones over the next 80 years due to global warming.
The Australian reports that Cai and his team used sophisticated climate models to gauge the impact of climate change on a band of heavy rainfall called the South Pacific convergence zone. The huge rain band, whose location determines rainfall levels and cyclone frequency in the South Pacific, usually covers countries including Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa and the Cook Islands, but sometimes moves towards the equator, says Cai, which wreaks havoc on some island states.
“These countries are vulnerable,” CSIRO oceanographer – and research leader – Dr Wenju Cai said. “They will have to build resilience to food shortages, and design infrastructure taking more extreme events into account.”