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Island nation of Tokelau gets ready to go solar

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July 30, 2012

Workers install a solar array in Tokelau, an island nation that will be powered with renew...

Workers install a solar array in Tokelau, an island nation that will be powered with renewable energy from September 2012

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Adopting renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power is a great way to reduce emissions and produce energy locally. In places like remote Pacific islands, however, those benefits are potentially a key to independence. For that reason Tokelau, a 10 sq. km. (3.86 sq. mi) island nation that lies around 500 km (311 mi) north of Samoa and which is a territory of New Zealand, is about to ditch diesel as a source of electricity and switch to solar power.

In order to turn sunlight into electricity, Tokelau will activate 4,032 solar panels, 392 inverters and 1,344 batteries. The solar system will be spread across Tokelau’s three atolls - Fakaofo, Nukunonu, and Atafu. Special attention has been paid to the resilience and longevity of the materials due the faster wear and tear caused by the harsh tropical and marine weather conditions, besides the corrosiveness of the salty air. PowerSmart, a New Zealand-based company, is designing and installing the project, which will include one photovoltaic (PV) mini grid on each atoll.

Besides the environmental benefits, the NZ$7 million (US$5.66 million) New Zealand is investing in the project makes logistical sense as well. Because there are no flights, all transportation is done by water. The ship that covers the route to and from Samoa needs to anchor outside the reefs, from where passengers and goods are taken to shore on a landing barge.

Solar panels arrive by sea at Tokelau

Solar panels arrive by sea at Tokelau

Solar comes as an ideal solution to such a small population (1,411 people) and low power demand, which means the country will go from 0 percent to more than 90 percent renewable electricity in one fell swoop. The government estimates the solar system will prevent 12,000 tonnes (13,228 tons) of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere over the life of the project. For backup during long spells of cloudiness, coconut oil-powered generators will supply power and recharge the battery bank.

Many Pacific Island nations depend on fossil fuels for energy and are vulnerable to international price fluctuations. In some cases, the cost of importing fuel is higher than all export earnings combined. Tokelau burns around 200 liters (53 US gallons) of fuel every day and spends about NZ$1 million (US$0.81 million) per year shipping in the stuff. Currently, Tokelau’s population has 15 to 18 hours per day of electricity.

When the system goes live in late September after a commissioning ceremony, the Tokelau population will be at the leading edge of climate change mitigation efforts and on its way to energy independence.

Source: New Zealand Aid Programme via Celsias

About the Author
Antonio Pasolini Brazilian-Italian Antonio Pasolini graduated in journalism in Brazil before heading out to London for an MA in film and television studies. He fell in love with the city and spent 13 years there as a film reviewer before settling back in Brazil. Antonio's passion for green issues - and the outdoors - eventually got the best of him and since 2007 he's been writing about alternative energy, sustainability and new technology.   All articles by Antonio Pasolini
13 Comments

Definitely forward thinking and cool. Thanks Antonio.

Mike Nemeth
30th July, 2012 @ 08:43 pm PDT

I would have preferred OTEC (possibly enhanced with solar water heaters) and wave power and have it over the horizon but with just a teeny bit of luck photoelectric is better than going broke buying diesel. That depends on how well the system works and lasts, and how well the contract was written from the islander point of view.

Slowburn
31st July, 2012 @ 12:16 am PDT

So, let me get this right. A country that claims rising sea levels is reducing available land now thinks it is a good idea to use that land to fill it with solar panels and coconut trees to produce fuel?

Are they out of their minds? This is a nonsense token project. I'd love to hear a year from now how it is doing. Most likely half the batteries are no longer functional and dumped on some reef. Talking about pollution!

This technology requires specialised electronics, controllers and inverters where as diesel generators are simple and can be maintained by the people living there.

Paul van Dinther
31st July, 2012 @ 07:07 pm PDT

Hang on a minute. They are living on a coral atoll. I was under the impression that coral grew under water...wouldn't this imply that the islands were once underwater?

This makes it a bit hard for me to believe that anthropogenic climate change is the cause for rising sea levels...when they were that high previously.

Of course, someone will point out that volcanic/tectonic activity has thrust these atolls out of the water and ruin my argument, but until then...what gives?

Tony Smale
31st July, 2012 @ 09:36 pm PDT

Also, according to celsias, there is 1MW of capacity, which isn't stated in the article.

Tony Smale
31st July, 2012 @ 09:40 pm PDT

re; Paul van Dinther

If they hadn't been subject to New Zealand* I would say they should have gone nuclear perhaps after independence.

They already have coconuts and to power a backup generator it does not take a high production level to provide adequate supplies of oil.

What makes you think that they don't have, can't hire, or can't train techs?

Assuming solid state electronics locked into airtight boxes they should be good for 25-30 years without maintenance. Nickle-iron batteries while maintenance intensive# have a real good service life.

* which is why I would have gone with the OTEC and wave power.

# What has to be done is simple and automating it would not be too hard either.

Slowburn
31st July, 2012 @ 10:25 pm PDT

The actual intention is to be positive (http://www.tokelau.org.nz/site/tokelau/files//11th%20Edition%20Te%20Vakai.pdf) generating 90% of power by solar. However the risk is with putting all the solar panels in one field surrounded by trees they will simply be destroyed by the first storm.

American Samoa has a policy of wind power generation instead(http://www.epa.gov/region9/islands/conf04/pdf/jeff-shively.pdf) payback for PV is 18 years, since this is about independance it is not an issue. I expect a combination of wind to suppliment solar after this year and the panels to be broken up and fitted to individual homes only after the first tree has fallen on one.

L1ma
1st August, 2012 @ 02:30 am PDT

I lived on Karkar Island off the coast of Madang, PNG in 1969 as a teacher and we had power for 45 minutes in the morning to get breakfast, 30 minutes at lunchtime and then it came on at 5:00pm and was on until 11:00pm (all from the diesel generator). This was on the small government station, those who lived on other parts of the island had nothing unless they generated it themselves with portable generators. We had wood stoves for cooking, kerosene fridges and cold water showers. These days you could have solar panels on the roof with inverters and batteries to get power whenever you wanted it and could run electric fridges and even air-conditioning if you wanted. What a difference that would have made. Mind you, life was simpler then.

yawood
1st August, 2012 @ 03:13 am PDT

Antonio Pasolini has gave out some figures

I would like to elaborate:

Tokelau is burning 200 litres of fuel a day,

Diesel fuel oil density at 15oc is 885 kg/m3, 200 litres is 0.177 t

burning this fuel for 365 days in a year 0.177*365 = 64.605 t per annum

give spot price of diesel today's date in US $ per MT is $522

so 522*64.605 = $33723.81 annual cost

In the PDF I previously provided the Island is going to burn coconut oil for 10% of its power generation

Coconut oil density = 924.27 kg/m3, 200 litres is 0.184854 t

burning this fuel for 365 days in a year 0.1848*365 = 67.452 t per annum

Spot price for coconut oil in US $ per MT = 1060

so 1060*67.452 = 71499.12 – so the Island will still be burning through $7000 of coconut oil at least – but this is not imported being grown locally so will cost nothing.

Since PV pays for itself within 18 – 25 years costing for the initial solar farm must have been $607014 – 843075(ish).

Simply shipping fuel to Tokelau is costing $0.81 million per year or roughly doubling the price of diesel, replacing Diesel generators with PV will pay for itself in 8 years.

L1ma
1st August, 2012 @ 03:34 am PDT

When I did my rough calculation I forgot the $ 5.6 million quote for the entire instal. :p

Annual shipping fee: $ 810000

Cost of diesel per annum: $33723

total over 8 years= $ 6,749,684 so Tokelau breaks even in year 7. This means it could pay for 3 more PV plants in the next 25 years with falling prices.

L1ma
1st August, 2012 @ 11:08 am PDT

I would like to know if they started with other options such as solar ovens. No energy is needed for heating or cooling I presume. What are their needs? Internet? How connected are they? How informed about alternative energy? Did they all make this decision or was it made for them? What is their GDP? Is this new energy source a gift? If not, how is the cost distributed, i.e., what is their economic system, socialism or capitalism?

My point is that a 7 year payback is enough to privately finance this project, if independence is their goal. I'm sure NZ has put strings on the expenditure. Gov't always does, i.e., "free" is NEVER free.

voluntaryist
1st August, 2012 @ 03:15 pm PDT

@ voluntaryist;

Tokelau is a self governing dependancy of New Zealand since 1926 with a governor appointed by NZ. Its population is Polynesian but its website is in English, so its administration is very definitely pushing NZ partnership - this is not a Fiji. Sort of a limited village democracy if everyone votes the right way, but the Governor gets to veto and call in the NZ armed forces.

New Zealand is paying for the project but I expect this is a loan, of printed NZ dollars and the money is going back to NZ by way of the company installing the PV panels. Not necessarily a bad thing because of the quick payback but there is no technology transfer, so we will not be seeing a PV manufacturer startup on Tokelau.

As to an independence drive, ok but that means 130000 NZ residents of Samoan origin will have to go home. One of the problems we have is with unrestrained population growth is these people cannot now go back to live on a tiny atol with their relatives but still have strong ties with the resident country going through its system of English Grammar school education, and the right to vote in both NZ and the dependencies even if non resident and it is in their financial and personal self interest to keep the now minority of residents tied to NZ, remittences are also an important national income.

The boat is not going to be rocked by either population unless NZ does something like the rape of eigg or abandons the entire region. Projects such as this reinforce relationships even if they are about self interest at heart.

L1ma
1st August, 2012 @ 06:11 pm PDT

ironic alongside this

http://www.gizmag.com/yacht-designs-floating-island-megayacht/19309/

nutcase
1st August, 2012 @ 09:11 pm PDT
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