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ENERGY: WIND AND SOLAR - Using renewable energy in the Pacific


Driving north along the coast of New Caledonia’s main island, the profile of the surrounding hills suddenly changes when you pass the town of Kone.

Silhouetted against the sky is a forest of wind turbines, twirling in the afternoon sun. The islands of New Caledonia have an extensive programme of wind power, using new technologies that are being exported to other Pacific islands nations.

At a time of concern over energy prices, peak oil and greenhouse gas emissions, countries around the region are looking to cleaner and cheaper sources of renewable energy. Kiribati and other small islands states are boosting the use of solar power for rural households.

Speaking to the December 2008 global conference on climate change in Poland, Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia stated: “We need a new arrangement for least developed countries and small islands developing states to pursue a low carbon future. We need strong international assistance to allow us to develop and deploy renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies so that we are guaranteed energy security. We cannot afford to be held hostage to continual leaps in the price of imported fuels.”

Improved access to clean and cheap energy is included in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which set targets for developing countries to achieving sustainable environmental changes by 2015. MDG Goal 7 aims to integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and reverse the loss of environmental resources.

Compared to other developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the islands states of the Pacific emit very limited amounts of greenhouse gasses. But even the smallest countries are trying to reduce greenhouse emissions coming from the diesel oil used to generate electricity. At a time of fluctuating oil prices, there is also growing interest in the use of renewable energy to reduce the costs for government revenue and assist household budgets for rural villagers.

Women and energy

Energy is increasingly expensive in rural communities and poor people spend a large percentage of their income on energy (up to 30% in some countries). Using some fuels can also have adverse environmental effects—for example, gathering fuel wood from local forests can be unsustainable.

Koin Etuati, co-ordinator of the Pacific Energy and Gender Network, says: “Women or children have to walk further to gather firewood after trees near the village have been used up, leaving less time for school or play. Lack of access to affordable electricity and poor quality lighting makes it harder for children to study in the evenings. There’s a digital divide where urban children can use computers more easily than those in rural areas.”

Based at the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) in Suva, Pacific Energy and Gender (PEG) has been promoting renewable alternatives for people at village level—looking at how women can change their energy use and save money at the same time.

PEG is working with government and community organisations to increase gender awareness when planning energy projects. But co-ordinator Koin Etuati says the network is also promoting new solar technologies that can benefit people at village level.

“In Kiribati and other countries, we’ve been trialling new parabolic solar cookers developed by Ferris University in Japan,” says Koin. “The sun’s rays are collected by reflectors and focussed under a cooking pot. Using these solar cookers, it’s possible to cook fish, breadfruit, pumpkin, shellfish or other foods. As long as the sun is shining, these new solar technologies allow women to reduce the use of costly kerosene.”

Beyond cost savings, there are also significant time savings: Kiribati women found that time wasted cleaning pots or collecting firewood can now be spent with the family, gardening or on income generating projects.

“We’ve been using small solar LED lighting systems in Kiribati and Solomon Islands, that allow women to light their homes after dark more efficiently than using kerosene lamps,” Etuati explains.
“In North Tarawa, women found they could use the evening hours more effectively. Some women have set up a small income generating project, where they work together in the evening to cook and prepare food like breadfruit and coconut cream, feke or fresh fish. Three times a week, they hire a boat to take the food to the urban centre on South Tarawa, where they sell it to earn income for their household needs.”

New Caledonia’s wind turbines

Beyond solar, there are other potential sources of renewable energy. For many years, New Caledonia has used hydro electricity from the Yate dam in the Southern Province. But over 90 percent of this electricity is committed to the nickel smelting plant run by Eramet/Société Le Nickel (SLN) in the capital Noumea, so the Government of New Caledonia has set ambitious targets to increase the use of other forms of renewable energy. Currently, 10 percent of electricity for domestic households is produced by wind power with over 30MW already installed. But New Caledonia’s draft energy policy aims to generate an extra 43 MW of wind power; 18 extra MW of hydro power and 15 MW of solar power from photovoltaic panels.
Wind power cannot be in all locations around the Pacific because of intermittent or cyclonic winds in some areas, and the difficulty of obtaining land leases on customary land in rural areas. But Gwenn Paturel, manager for wind turbine manufacturer Vergnet Pacific in Noumea, argues that wind power has great potential.

“We’ve been developing smaller wind turbines that are especially designed for developing countries,” says Paturel. “They can be transported to rural areas without the need for major roads, and using guy wires can be lowered to the ground at times of cyclonic activity.”

Vergnet Pacific’s wind power experience is being exported from New Caledonia to other countries in the Pacific region. In Fiji, the Fiji Electricity Authority (FEA) has established a wind farm with 37 Vergnet 275kw wind turbines at Butoni, near Sigatoka, on the main island of Viti Levu. Opened by Interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama in October 2007, Butoni is the first wind power installation in the country.
The Fiji government plans to supply 90 percent of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2011. With diesel costs soaring 200 percent over the last four years, the FEA hopes to save nearly F$3 million annually and reduce consumption of diesel fuel by 2500 tonnes a year.

In Vanuatu, the European Investment Bank provided a 400-million vatu loan to the UNELCO power company in 2008, for a 10-turbine wind farm at Devil’s Point, near the capital, Port Vila. The first turbine was launched in October 2007 and the farm is constructing other windmills with the aim of supplying 25% of power needed in the city. From Kiribati, President Anote Tong has also visited New Caledonia to inspect their wind farms to investigate whether wind power can complement his island nation’s ambitious programme of solar power for the electrification of rural villages.

Solar in Kiribati

“We’re really excited about the possibility for expanding the use of solar energy in the outer islands of Kiribati,” says Terubentau Akura of the Kiribati Solar Energy Company (KSEC). “Already 20 percent of rural households across the country are using solar photovoltaic technology for lighting and other energy needs.”

KSEC was founded in 1984 but went bankrupt within five years. As well as technical glitches with the new solar technology, the fledgling company faced a range of problems related to maintenance, finance and training. Twenty years on, the government-owned company is now booming with increased support from donors like the European Union and a new range of solar energy products, backed by a national network of solar technicians.

Terubentau Akura joined KSEC in 1989 and he now serves as the company’s CEO.
“Some of our islands in Kiribati now have a very high take-up of solar energy,” he says. “In Marakai, Nonutai and North Tarawa between 50-80 percent of households use solar photovoltaic technology for basic lighting and power.”

KSEC trains a solar technician on every island, who can assist villagers with cleaning, repair and maintenance of the solar kits provided by the company. After paying an initial deposit and security bond, households pay a $9 monthly fee to use a basic kit with solar panels, three electricity outlets, battery, cables and controller.

KSEC is lobbying the Kiribati Government for an increase in the monthly charge to cover future battery replacement, but there are clear financial benefits for villagers when kerosene has increased in price to $2.60 a litre and the price of diesel fuel is increasing.

The company continues to focus on small scale units to allow rural households to use electric lighting at night or listen to the radio, but has also provided solar panels for a range of public energy needs. KSEC has installed solar powered street lights on the causeway linking the main urban centres of Betio and Bairiki; lighting for large village maneabas (meeting houses); solar powered fridges for the Ministry of Health to protect vaccines in the outer islands; and solar water pumping systems. Akura says KSEC is also eager to trial new initiatives to benefit poor rural communities.

“We’re planning to trial mini-grid systems using solar energy in four schools in the outer islands. This will allow the school to replace electricity generated by costly diesel generators. We’re also looking to the future, so we can use solar technology on a larger scale, to feed electricity straight into the national grid on the main island of South Tarawa.”

• Nic Maclellan visited Kiribati with support from Oxfam International.

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