Barun Roy: Fear and hope in the Pacific

Last Updated: Wed, Sep 07, 2011 20:11 hrs

The tiny island nations of the Pacific, strewn like pearls across the vast body of the ocean and hardly visible on the map, have begun to write an alternative energy story of which the world may soon take notice. Their efforts are still small, and successes modest, but there’s a growing realisation that fossil fuels make little sense when their supply of sunshine and wind is abundant enough to take care of all their current and future energy needs.

Take Cook Islands. Like most other Pacific countries, it currently depends almost entirely on imported fuels. This archipelago of 15 volcanic islands, with a total land area of only 240 sq km and a population of 19,000, has just announced a target of producing 50 per cent of its electricity from alternative sources by 2015 and 100 per cent by 2020. “It’s an ambitious target but not an impossible one,” says Cook Prime Minister Henry Puna.

For a speck of a country like Cook, even a 2-Mw solar plant is ambitious, but that’s what it’s going to set up on the outer island of Aitutaki (population: 2,000). Rarotonga, where the bulk of Cook’s population lives, will have a 2-Mw wind power station, to be built with assistance from the Asian Development Bank.

Since demand is small, success will be easy to achieve. Examples of small successes already abound all over the Pacific. Last April, in Solomon Islands, 50 solar home systems were installed on the island of Santa Ana to provide electricity for over 300 people, while a solar/bio-fuel hybrid system perfectly meets the requirements of Guadalcanal’s only health centre in Aola. Household solar lighting was introduced in Nauru last year and almost the entire complement of street lights in its capital, Yaren, is hooked to solar power. New Caledonia has an extensive programme of wind power. In Kiribati, solar cookers and LED lighting are getting increasingly popular.

Fiji is even more ambitious, and perhaps more serious. The government there intends to meet 90 per cent of the country’s electricity needs from renewable sources as early as 2012. A wind farm, with 37 turbines, has been set up on the main island of Viti Levu, supplying 10 Mw of electricity through a power grid. To encourage more such initiatives, Fiji Development Bank has announced a lending programme for individuals and groups, while Fiji National University’s College of Engineering, Science and Technology is offering a bachelor’s degree in renewable energy technologies.

The island nations’ interest in alternative energy derives from an almost mortal fear of a likely climatic Armageddon. If global warming lets sea levels continue to rise, they feel they might simply disappear from the face of the earth in another 50 years. Tuvalu’s Deputy Prime Minister Tavau Teii voiced this concern when he told an environmental conference in Seoul last year: “All countries must make an effort to reduce harmful emissions and check global warming before it’s too late for countries like ours.”

That’s what Cook Prime Minister Puna also said when he announced his government’s alternative energy targets. “It’s important we practice what we preach, to mitigate the harmful effects on our environment,” he observed. “It’s important we get on and do something about it,” he added.

To help the Pacific nations overcome energy barriers, a Pacific Islands Greenhouse Gas Abatement through Renewable Energy Project, or PIGGAREP, was launched in 2007 with a $5.23 million initial funding from the Global Environment Facility. The five-year project is now in its fourth year, with the United Nations Development Programme as the implementing agency. Even as some progress has been made, a lot still remains to be done. Some of the 11 nations covered by the project still don’t have enough people with basic project skills, and a workshop was recently organised to educate them in simple things like writing project proposals.

In a similar initiative, the Pacific Environment Community (PEC) runs a $66 million fund committed by Japan for renewable energy development, with an emphasis on solar power and desalination plants. A management unit for the fund was established last December in Suva, Fiji, and Samoa recently became the first Pacific country to obtain a $4 million grant from the fund that will help it implement a 400 kwp (kilowatt-peak) solar photovoltaic project.

We haven’t yet seen a rush of projects on the ground, but PIGGAREP and PEC have certainly helped test the waters and spread alternative energy awareness throughout the Pacific community. When PIGGAREP comes in for an assessment and evaluation this October, the experience of the last four years will certainly influence its course for the future. The Pacific countries know they’ve quite a long way to go. But they’ve the motivation to make the journey and it’s growing all the time, driven by that lurking fear of an impending climatic doom.  

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