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PNG schools lit up by solar and batteries – delivered by banana boat

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A remote school in Papua New Guinea has received a solar power system to supply consistent power for the first time. And the logistics of bringing in a solar array to the middle of the jungle in Middle Fly is a story worth telling.

The Nakaku Primary School in Middle Fly, Western Region of Papua New Guinea has nearly 300 students who, for the first time, can now study in lit classrooms and use computers and printers.

Previously, the schools had only limited access to power, using one to two kilowatt petrol generators. Since petrol is expensive and scarce in the region power was only run to keep lights on for a maximum of three hours a week and printers and computers could not be used.

Even worse, due to the unreliable and unstable nature of the petrol generators, the Nakaku School’s only laptop was shorted whilst charging.

The Middle and South Fly regions, where the Nakaku and Kuem primary schools are located, are in some of the most remote parts of PNG making access restricted as several rivers and tributaries run through the provinces.

All components of the system had to be delivered via banana boat up the Fly River.

The original plan to send the equipment up the Fly River was thwarted due to low water levels, only essential cargo such as food and fuel were able to travel upstream.

The equipment, that was originally in a shipping container, had to be unpacked and then carefully repacked, loaded onto banana boats and shipped three and a half hours downstream to the Nakaku site, with an equal amount of time upstream to the Kuem site.

Another issue, due to the fact that the system had be ground mounted because of old roofing onsite, was the sheer weight of the cement that they had to transport to the town. The system required twenty 40 kg bags of cement per solar system plus 72 40 kg bags of sand.

The electrical inspector in charge, Ian Strachan, explained the complexity of carrying the solar batteries to the site.

“We made a purpose-built cradle for the batteries to sit in for the trip up river. The same care was taken with the solar panels as they were unpacked. The empty box was then loaded onto the banana boat and the panels carefully repacked for the three and one-half hour trips up and downstream.”

The system currently consists of a 4.95 kW Ground Mounted PV Array, with 22 Hyundai 225 W modules, a 4 kW SMA Sunny Boy PV Inverter, a 2.2 kW SMA Sunny Island Off-Grid Inverter/Charger and 12 number 900 Ah BAE VRLA Gel batteries.

The system will be able to provide 3.5 kWh per day to power lights, a computer, printer, projector and a small fridge. The system can also store up to three days of battery autonomy in case of poor weather.

A second solar power system is being commissioned at Kuem Primary School in South Fly, PNG and will be fully installed later this year.

The two standalone solar systems were installed as part of collaboration between OK Tedi Mining Company, OK Tedi Development Foundations and Queensland-based Solari Energy (a subsidary of Solar Inception).

The Ok Tedi mining company and the company’s Development Foundation provided the cost for the solar systems and system implementation, respectively.

The Papua New Guinea Department of Education was also involved, planning the construction coordination, which, considering the logistical issues associated with such a remote school, was a large task.

Solari Energy, from Queensland, provided the bulk of the on hand services such as design, engineering consulting, technical assistance during planning and construction as well as supplying the actual solar system equipment.

Strachan was provided with technical and logistical support throughout – from packing to the final programming of inverters and start-up – from Solari’s electrical project engineer and engineering manager, Jeremy Tranter.

The support was provided via email due to the patchy phone service.

The system installed at Nakaku cost of $38,000 and more than 750 people attended the July 2013 official opening with most people travelling hours by dugout canoe.

The Ok Tedi Foundation is now looking at bringing a 100kw system to support a small community hospital, medical centre and staff housing in another remote area of PNG.

Doug Fletcher, the owner and CEO of Solari Energy, hopes these projects will continue as they are an “essential and immensely rewarding part of our business”.

“The ability of solar energy to bring light and power to communities in the most remote areas of our world is perhaps its most exciting application.”  

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