Consisting of 4,032 photovoltaic panels and 1,344 batteries with generators running on biofuel derived from coconuts, the $7.5 million Tokelau Renewable Energy Project is considered one of the world’s largest off-grid solar systems.
Tokelau, which has a total land mass of just 4.7 square miles and a population of about 1,500, previously relied on imported fossil fuels for its energy requirements.
New Zealand company PowerSmart, contractor for the project, said in a release that the original tender specification called for the project to supply 90 percent of Tokelau’s energy demand but instead it is capable of providing 150 percent of current electricity demand, allowing Tokelau to increase output without increasing diesel use.
The 1-megawatt project took three months to install, says PowerSmart, with the first system on Fakaofo atoll switched on in early August after a 9-week construction period, followed by the mid-September connection on the Nukunonu atoll and lastly the Atafu atoll, commissioned over the weekend.
“Our commitment as global citizens is to make a positive contribution toward the mitigation of the impacts of climate change,” Jovilisi Suveinakama, general manager of the National Public Service of the Government of Tokelau, told Inter Press Service.
Tokelau, comprised of three atolls, sufferers from extreme weather storm surges, droughts, coral-bleaching, inundation of land and salination of groundwater.
“We are proud of this achievement,” said Suveinakama, adding that he encourages other countries in the Pacific to take the same path.
Noting that the small populations of Pacific nations are typically isolated and scattered, Anirudh Singh, associate professor of physics at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji says the Pacific has “a massive problem” in importing its fossil fuel requirements.
“And replacing these fuels is the top priority as the import bills are exorbitant,” Singh told IPS.
Petroleum accounts for 32 percent of Fiji’s total imports and 23 percent of Tonga’s, for example, and Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands are ranked among the most oil price-vulnerable countries in the world.
“All across the Pacific there are clear issues with the current and expected future costs of electricity generated using diesel,” said PowerSmart Managing Director, Mike Bassett-Smith, adding that solar power will eliminate the environmental risk of unloading diesel drums on tropical atolls.
“Energy costs underpin the economic and social development of these nations and making a positive impact on these issues is the single most important reason we started this business,” Bassett-Smith said of the 5-year old company.