As the planet warms and sea levels rise, Pacific Island-nations that are most at risk are taking large steps in reducing their CO2 emissions by switching from fossil fuel to renewable energy source. The small nation of Tokelau is expected to be fully solar powered this year and half of the energy use for the Kingdom of Tonga will be from renewable sources by 2018. This comes with the additional benefit of cutting the cost of importing fuel. Read more
By Dominique Schwartz for ABC Lateline (16 August 2012):
The Kingdom of Tonga and the New Zealand territory of Tokelau are going solar – reducing not only their carbon footprints, but also their multi-million dollar diesel bills.
Their switch to solar is part of a global trend, which Australian industry leaders say offers lucrative opportunities for those quick enough – and smart enough – to act.
With $7 million in New Zealand aid money – together with Kiwi and Australian expertise – Tokelauans are building a solar power plant on each of their three coral atolls.
Fakaofo atoll has just flicked the switch on its solar plant, and the other two are scheduled to be up and running by year’s end.
“Probably by the end of the year we will be the first country in the world to meet our needs from renewable energy,” Tokelau elder Foua Toloa said.
Tonga too is turning to the sun.
Last month in Nuku’alofa, King George Tupou VI unveiled the kingdom’s first solar farm.
The one-megawatt facility is called Ma’ama Mai, meaning “Let there be Light”.
“This is the first one of its size to be opened anywhere in the Pacific,” New Zealand foreign minister Murray McCully said.
“It’s taken a bit of tenacity for us to get there. But I think it’s a demonstration to others that it can be done.
“It’s a leadership statement from the government of Tonga and I commend them for it.”
Nearly 6,000 solar panels will generate 4 per cent of electricity used on the main island of Tongatapu.
It’s taken a bit of tenacity for us to get there. But I think it’s a demonstration to others that it can be done. It’s a leadership statement from the government of Tonga and I commend them for it.
New Zealand foreign minister Murray McCully
That may not sound like much, but Tonga Power says it will save the country at least $NZ15 million in diesel over the 25-year-life of the plant.
Last year, diesel burnt up one tenth of Tonga’s gross domestic product.
“We’re consuming about 13 to 15 million litres of diesel a year. To put that in perspective, that’s one litre every two seconds,” Tonga Power chief executive John can Brink said.
“For a small country like Tonga providing power for 20,000 customers – that’s huge.
“At $1.50 a litre, that’s about eight to nine million New Zealand dollars a year.”
That is the same amount as it cost to build the New Zealand-funded solar power station.
The hope is that these panels will generate not only solar power, but more investment for the debt-laden country.
“A major impediment to investment here is the cost of electricity, so it significantly limits the growth opportunities,” Mr McCully said.
“Over time we are going to change that.”
Tongans pay at least double the cost per unit for electricity than most Australians.
Many just cannot afford it.
“It’s very hard for the people to pay the power, it’s expensive. That’s why I help with the solar,” solar panel installer Siutiti Halatoa said.
A community group is taking matters into its own hands, installing a single solar panel on scores of homes which are not on the power grid.
This family now has electric light and reliable communications.
Tonga Power says solar energy will shave 6 per cent off its customers’ bills and much more by 2018, when Tonga hopes to provide half of its power through sun, wind and biomass.
Much of the solar technology in the world today was invented in Australia by Australians. We have not as a county capitalised on that opportunity.
Australian Solar Energy Society CEO John Grimes
Australian Solar Energy Society chief executive officer John Grimes says solar energy is going to be a huge industry in the future.
“If we can mark ourselves out as being experts in remote and deployed solar technology, the opportunity is literally endless,” he said
Mr Grimes is a regular at Australia’s Parliament House.
He is keen to see government and business seize the opportunities presented by a global industry already worth $100 billion a year.
“We should be thinking about the technology to come – investing in it and making sure that we play a disproportionate role globally in that industry,” Mr Grimes said.
China is the solar industry’s manufacturing super-power.
Companies such as Suntech have built billion-dollar businesses using technology and training provided by Australia.
Suntech chief executive Shi Zhengrong studied at the University of New South Wales under Stuart Wenham, one of the men credited with inventing photovoltaic technology.
Now Dr Wenham is chief technical officer at Suntech.
“Much of the solar technology in the world today was invented in Australia by Australians. We have not as a county capitalised on that opportunity,” Mr Grimes said.
“So this does require government focus and attention. But with a small investment we can make a disproportionate impact both on the industry and on the lives of people in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Tokelauans are already showing the way, embracing solar energy in the hope it will help keep their economy – and their low-lying islands – above water.