World’s Oldest Solar Nation Turns Three

Three years ago, Tokelau made a huge change.

They ditched their diesel generators and have been successfully running on solar ever since.

Small Pacific islands, like Tokelau, with its tiny population of just 1,500 souls, are generally dependent on the most expensive and dirty – and unreliable energy there is.

With so few people living in such isolated islands, their choices have been limited to diesel generators.

The huge belching diesel generators required constant attention. There were frequent outages. When they had diesel, their fish catches frequently rotted away in power cuts due to the unreliable generators.

Fuel cost a million dollars a year, taking a month-long journey in 2,000 oil drums across the vast Pacific to their three tiny islands. So even when they had electricity, these generators were so expensive to fuel that they could only afford 6 hours of power a day.

Living at close to sea level, Tokelauans have long had an awareness of climate change. So going solar was an obvious choice for the islanders, once solar costs were lower than diesel.

Solar costs have been dropping fast and by 2012, solar had become the natural alternative for Tokelau.

Life has changed completely.

Now, their solar system output can be monitored remotely from New Zealand, online. A bank of batteries with a total capacity of 8,000 kilowatts now store the day’s sunshine to supply the evening hours of homework and television.

With 24 hour electricity, for the first time, Tokelauans have internet access and can study abroad while never leaving their island paradise.

Their proximity to the equator supplies them boundless hours of sunshine.

A New Zealand solar firm installed three small solar farms that add up to 1,000 kilowatts of solar capacity, divided between the three islands.

The solar project was financed with funding by the New Zealand government. Part of the savings in fuel costs alone are being used to repay the grants and financial assistance that paid the upfront costs for this project.

Coconut oil is also used as a backup fuel.

An analysis was made of what other renewable resource the island might offer. These atolls have an abundant supply of coconuts, that is well in excess of food needs or what can be profitably exported.

So as the result of the analysis, it was suggested that they should keep the old generators, and repurpose them to run on readily available coconut oil, rather than toss them in the Pacific – as you can imagine, 1,500 people on an isolated island have to also be very eco-minded about generating waste!

This killed two birds with one stone: the coconut bounty now finds a purpose fueling the old generators, and the machinery is recycled.

Since these (now coconut-oil-fired) generators are only used very occasionally, in rare instances when the battery backed solar cannot last a week of cloudy days, the occasional breakdown does not impact daily life or the economics of fishing the way it did in the bad old days when they were the only alternative.

These two renewable energy resources combine to make up what is one of the largest self-sufficient, completely independent “islanded-grid” projects in the world, running on solar and coconut oil.

Image Credit: via Flickr  under Creative Commons Licence

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