The island nation of Tokelau switched on the third and final installment of its new solar energy grid last week, earning praise around the world as the first country to become entirely solar-powered—except it’s not a country.
Made up of three tiny tropical atolls - a few specks in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean - Tokelau is a dependent territory of New Zealand, whose government’s international aid and development programme advanced the $7 million to fund the project, aimed at replacing Tokelau’s diesel-powered energy grid.
“Electricity expenses make up a huge portion of their budget in Tokelau, which makes it hard for them to invest and look toward the future, so there’s a very clear financial argument for this system,” said Michael Bassett-Smith, managing director of Powersmart Solar, New Zealand’s largest solar power company, which directed the project.
Now, as a result of the project, “not only does the New Zealand aid programme save money from not having to import diesel, but Tokelau has a very clear sense of the price of their energy.”
Though its economy runs almost entirely on the sale of fishing licenses and Internet domain names and the atolls boast “at most” five motor vehicles, Tokelau still imported over 2,000 barrels of diesel per year at a cost of $1 million New Zealand dollars ($825,000) to provide electricity to its approximately 1,400 people.
According to Mika Perez, Tokelau’s director of economic development, natural resources and the environment, the jump to solar power is both a cost-saving measure and a commitment to environmental sustainability on the frontier of climate change.
“The industrial nations are contributing to climate change through emissions of fossil fuels into the atmosphere, affecting Tokelau, indirectly, quite a bit,” said Perez. Now, “Tokelau will take the lead in harnessing the sun to provide renewable energy, and other countries will look at us and know that we are doing something about it, and they should do their part.”
RISK FROM SEA LEVEL RISE
At no more than two meters (6 feet) above sea level, Tokelau is particularly vulnerable to climate change and will be among the first to feel its effects. According to Perez, the islands have already experienced significant coastal erosion.
Perhaps the good news, not only for Pacific islanders but for the industrialized world as well, is that the challenges overcome to install 4,032 solar panels on islands 500 kilometers (300 miles) from their nearest neighbors were logistical rather than technical.
How do you transport a heavy piece of equipment from a ship to a skiff to a coral atoll? How do you correct mistakes from nearly 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) away? How do you convince the locals that coconut trees have to be cut down to clear land for the construction of a cement foundation? These questions — and countless others — had to be answered to make the project work.
“We want to do more in the Pacific,” said Bassett-Smith of PowerSmart Solar, “and we have a fine delivery system now. …. The cost of electricity is going up. Momentum is on our side.”
Peter Madden is a US-based writer who formerly lived in New Zealand and Australia.