Switching on renewables in the Pacific a slow process

Cosmos Magazine


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By Cosmos

The image of the Pacific is white sandy beaches, palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze; and villagers living a simple life in thatched huts – a seemingly ideal environment for solar or wind energy projects.

But the uptake of renewables in the Pacific has been slow.

For example the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) country profile for Papua New Guinea (PNG) shows that only 2 years ago there was little solar energy and no wind power, and that much of the population relied on bioenergy – burning wood to fuel domestic cooking fires.

In its country report on the Solomon Islands, IRENA says the country “continues to grapple with energy security and sustainability, especially in the outer islands and remote communities.

“These challenges are compounded by rapid population growth and a high poverty ranking.”

At its global conference in mid-April, IRENA called on rich nations to increase financing and technology for renewables in developing countries.

Samoa is looking for development partners to help it reach 70% renewables by 2031.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is funding projects in Tonga, PNG and the Solomon Islands through the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP). It will provide a $230-million (US$150 million) grant and concessional loan package to PNG to support the repair and upgrade of key energy assets.

The PNG projects are called “Pawarim Kumuniti.” (Video below)

“To date, Australia has delivered repairs to key energy assets which have reinstated around 30MW (megawatts) of renewable power to the Ramu and Port Moresby grids, as well as delivering two new solar plants in Arawa and Aitape and more than 25,000 solar home kits bringing community solar lighting systems to some of PNG’s most remote communities,” a DFAT spokesperson tells Cosmos.

“It has completed installation of solar kits and streetlights in remote communities in West New Britain, Western, Oro, Morobe, and West Sepik provinces. The kits are installed by trained installers in village houses and community facilities such as schools and health clinics.”

The cost per installation varies based on a range of factors, including how remote the community is or how difficult it is to reach. While a high-quality solar kit in PNG retails for approximately PGK620 (AUD $250; the average per capita income in PNG is PGK9,246), the cost of transportation and installation varies significantly.

While some households can afford to purchase cheaper solar home kits, these are often less effective and have a shorter lifespan (usually weeks or months). The Australian kits have an approximate 5-year lifespan.

“Our support delivers a range of benefits, including allowing students to study after dark and helping health workers respond to medical emergencies at night.”

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Japan is providing the UN Development Programme (UNDP) with about $60m (USD$38m) to fund 3 solar farms in Bougainville; help Samoa adopt electrical vehicles and outboard motors; help Timor-Leste solarise the National Medical Store and provide solar-powered lighting and improved cooking stoves to 1,000 households and set up 15 solar-powered ICT labs in general secondary and vocational schools. Japan is also funding renewables in Fiji.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is financing renewables for the Pacific Small Island Developing States, impacting 500,000 people.


Some Pacific islands are enclosed in cloud, limiting solar duration, and wind at the equator is not as strong as the lower latitudes.

Nevertheless, a 2016 study in PNG shows there is solar and wind potential at Umi Township and villages in the Markham District of Morobe Province in northern PNG. Its lead author, Sammy Samun Aiau at the the Papua New Guinea University of Technology writes that “connecting the electricity grid to rural and remote areas is very uneconomical to carry out. Therefore, it is more economical to electrify the rural areas with a micro-grid by means of existing hydro, solar and wind energy sources available locally.”

Another hybrid model would be “floating solar” as suggested by the Australian National University 100% Renewable Energy Group. Researcher David Silalahi tells Cosmos the hybrid is suitable for quiet waters and inland lakes.

“Our paper focuses on the potential of offshore floating solar PV systems. However, this technology might not be ideal for areas with high waves, strong winds, or frequent cyclones, like Pacific islands,” Silalahi says. “These factors increase the risk and cost due to the need for special engineering to protect the panels.”

The  UN Development Programme (UNDP) says in the Solomon Islands the consumption of electricity per capita is so low – approximately 160 times less than the average used in the top 10 countries – that just a few solar panels for a household can be life-changing.

Thibault Lepivain, the UNDP’s Climate Knowledge and Policy Specialist says: “Because of the low energy consumption on the islands, the issues of intermittency and limited battery storage that have proven to be challenges for the green energy transition in high-income countries are less of a shortcoming in the Pacific.

“All in all, solar power contributes not only to ensuring energy self-sufficiency, expanding energy access and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also to strengthening resilience against disasters in the Pacific islands.”

Consulting firm Entura is one of the companies providing technical support for the AIFFP.

It has long experience throughout the Pacific and believes in remote or isolated locations hybrid renewables are the most effective option. Commonly they include a mix of solar PV, wind turbines, hydro, battery and other technologies.

Electrical engineer Ranjith Perera from Entura grew up in Sri Lanka, without electricity.

“I know how much my life changed after I got power. I see a similar thing when I go to the Pacific, where some of the people don’t have electricity or it’s difficult to afford – whether that’s the upfront costs or the ongoing costs. People’s lives change with power – from better education and health to stronger economies – and I’d like everyone to have these life-changing opportunities regardless of their income or wealth. I want to help with that.”

Entura’s Senior Principal Renewables, Andrew Wright, believes despite the plummeting cost of solar PV and ease of installation, there is still a role for wind.

“The sun is out only in the day but wind is likely to be available across the full 24 hours. It is still cheaper to directly source renewables from wind energy than to store energy in a battery and retrieve it later.”

Wright says wind turbines are getting bigger, not smaller.

Powerim komuniti website
Solar panels on thatched roofs. From Pawarim Komunity website.

“Turbine manufacturers target the large grid-connected wind farm market, and larger turbines push down the cost.

“This is fine for outback mines where there are large spaces, good infrastructure and access.

“It’s not so helpful for small Pacific island nations with relatively low windspeeds, lower electrical loads and under-developed infrastructure.

“At a scale of less than 1MW there are now few proven wind turbine options. At an even smaller scale of say, about 100kW, solar PV dominates.”

Entura was involved in an ADB-funded project to install a system on the island of Yap with a 2.2MW load for about 7,000 people with a mix of small wind turbines and solar energy from rooftops of government buildings.

The company is supporting an upgrade of the network in the Cook Islands which will soon be operating at 100% renewables, but with diesel generators as backup.

Brendon Bateman is another engineer at Entura. He says where there’s a lot of cloud cover, like in PNG and Fiji, it makes sense for hydropower to be part of the renewable energy mix. “However, in a place like Kosrae, Micronesia, we found that the choices were very limited because there was very little wind and nowhere to install ground-mounted solar – so we were restricted to considering floating solar or rooftop solar on existing buildings.

Brendan bateman compressed. Jpg
Brendon Bateman Tuvalu (Supplied)

“At Yap there were hills that suited wind turbines. And in the middle of the country, there’s Chuuk, where the best solution was isolated mini grids on each small island.”

“In terms of rooftop solar, there are challenges, including that many roofs are not structurally suitable to host solar panels. And even for large buildings, such as churches and schools, there can be complex ownership arrangements and community issues to work through.

Bateman says the decisions come down to what kind of power supply the village wants.

Solar installation in Nui atoll, Tuvalu sponsored by the ADB. Contractor is CBS Power Solutions (From CBS Power solutions website)

“If people are left to themselves, they’ll often find the cheapest option to do whatever they need to do – such as candles or kerosene or a tiny solar panel that can charge up a phone or light. “We’ve seen the full gamut across the Pacific. At the very small end, we once did a study in western PNG that looked at powering communities of less than 50 people with innovative solutions such as dropping in small 5kW micro hydro generators into streams which could power a few lights.”

“Ultimately, a centrally managed system may be the best option from a maintenance perspective, but another question arises: if the houses are nearby to each other, you can draw a line between them. But if they’re very spread out, it can be difficult to recover the cost of connecting them.

“We had an example of this in Kosrae (Micronesia): the cable couldn’t stretch to the last houses, so they needed to have home solar systems.

“If it isn’t possible to power individual houses, it may be an option to create an electricity supply at a local centre – such as church, hospital or school. This can be a cheaper solution while still giving people some access to electricity.

“One of the things to flag here is that what appears to be cheap might not be if it isn’t well maintained. Unless the business model includes maintenance, it is hard to keep solutions running in the longer term. Initially, a small household system with two solar panels and a battery might work very well, but after 2 to 3 years it will fall over if it isn’t looked after.

“Power systems are moving away from traditional diesel generation which is very mechanical and has tended to be very male dominated.

“The biggest challenge that remains is looking after the renewables with a maintenance mindset rather than a replacement mindset. Tonga is really leading the way in this. It comes down to getting younger generations involved – and training them to look after, maintain and have a sense of community ownership of the assets.

“Succession planning is very important. In Tuvalu we’re particularly trying to get young women involved who haven’t necessarily seen this kind of work as attractive, but who can be trained up to operate power systems and maintain lines. This is part of the projects underway in Tonga too. “The modern power sector will be more computerised and automated, and it would be great to see a much younger and hopefully female-led future workforce in the energy sector in the Pacific. To achieve this, there’ll need to be significant capacity building and training – so this should be a focus for the next chapter of the energy journey in the Pacific.”

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