Tokelau: a leading light in renewable energy

An innovative renewable energy project is set to transform Tokelau and lead the world in transitioning from dependence on fossil-fuels to renewable energy.  

With global attention focused on the effects of climate change and the international price of oil, it may come as a surprise that the tiny nation of Tokelau, comprising three remote atolls midway between New Zealand and Hawai’i, is moving to the forefront of the debate by installing renewable energy systems that will dramatically slash its reliance on imported fossil fuels.

Undertaking a project of this scale on all three atolls is no mean feat. The closest atoll is around 500km north of Samoa; there are no airstrips or wharves, and the only access is a long boat trip from Samoa that ends outside the reefs, where a landing barge takes passengers and equipment to shore.Offloading goods in the swell is challenging. However, soon the job will become easier since almost 2,000 barrels of diesel a year will no longer be required to generate electricity. 

Developing renewable energy projects in the Pacific brings unique challenges. Systems and components must be designed to withstand harsh tropical and marine environments, strong winds, high temperatures, and a corrosive salt-laden atmosphere. Unlike in New Zealand, where if a part breaks or needs replacing it is possible to replace easily, in Tokelau the systems and components must be designed to promote robustness and longevity, because transport is infrequent and challenging.

And yet by the end of 2012 Tokelau expects to switch off its generators and begin to use an indigenous resource it has plenty of – sunlight.

Tokelau’s 1,411 residents are New Zealand citizens, and New Zealand is advancing $7 million to the Government of Tokelau to install the renewable energy systems that will help achieve its long-term goals of energy independence and reducing reliance on expensive imported diesel, which will put Tokelau at the forefront of global climate change mitigation efforts.

The energy crisis in the Pacific is not confined to Tokelau. Most Pacific Island nations are highly dependent on imported fossil fuels to meet energy needs, and are vulnerable to international price fluctuations and escalating fuel costs. Almost every aspect of Pacific economies is underpinned by imported fossil fuels, and the increasing cost of diesel results in extremely high costs of electricity for households and businesses. In many cases, the cost of importing fuel is many times higher than all export earnings combined, so Tokelau’s, and the Pacific’s, dependence on diesel is bad for the economy as well as the environment.

But the Pacific is beginning to fight back and the focus on energy concerns in the region has never been stronger. Spurred on by increasing and unsustainable costs, almost all Pacific Island countries are prioritising developing renewable sources of energy as key objectives.

In addition to the work in Tokelau, New Zealand is assisting Tonga to build a 1 megawatt solar photovoltaic power plant, plans are afoot in the Cook Islands to transform their entire sector from being 100% reliant on imported diesel to 100% reliant on renewable energy, and Tuvalu and Samoa are undertaking energy-sector investment planning work which brings them not far behind Tokelau’s charge. 

Tokelau may not be the first to use renewable energy but having a small population and low power demand means it’s possible to go from 0% to over 90% renewable electricity in one push. 

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Murray McCully has put an emphasis on renewable energy in the Pacific under the New Zealand Aid Programme. "We have a fully committed development programme with Tokelau.  Notwithstanding that, we have advanced funds to Tokelau to achieve their renewable energy goals due to the high priority we and Tokelau place on making this happen," he said. New Zealand's focus on renewable energy as part of sustainable economic development in the Pacific region was highlighted at the 2011 Pacific Forum in Auckland.

“This project is unique and has the potential to demonstrate what can be achieved through the perseverance and hard work by the Government of Tokelau,” adds Joseph Mayhew, Development Manager Energy in the New Zealand Aid Programme. “Photovoltaics are a mature, reliable off-the-shelf technology that has been proven for years. Given the high cost of diesel, renewable energy should not be seen as an ‘alternative’ source of energy, but rather an essential key to unlocking the Pacific’s potential.”

Photovoltaics

A key to the success of the project is that solar electric panels (photovoltaics) have decreased in price worldwide. Photovoltaics is a mature and reliable technology which works by converting the energy in sunlight into an electric current. Installing photovoltaic systems in the Pacific is often cost-effective and relatively straightforward. New Zealand-based company PowerSmart is designing and installing the project, which is made up of three (one for each atoll) photovoltaic-based mini-grids that include battery storage (to store electricity overnight, or when it is cloudy) and inverter/charger system (to convert DC electricity from the photovoltaic modules into AC electricity for use in homes, and to charge the battery).

[a version of this article appeared in the March 2012 edition of Spasifik magazine]

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