Bright spots, dark patches for Pacific solar programmes

Despite its benefits to remote villages, solar energy plans in the Pacific are hounded by enormous obstacles, notes Mike Ives.

Only one of the 33 islands that make up Kiribati, a country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, has an electricity grid.

But since 1991, the state-owned utility company Kiribati Solar Energy (KSEC) has distributed around 4,400 home-solar systems across 21 of those islands and enabled many rural residents to stop using kerosene-powered lamps. 

Roniti Piripi, a shopkeeper in the village of Buariki, says his family leased a solar system in 1991 for US$52, with monthly payments of US$7. They still use it to power their home and dry-goods shop on Buariki’s unpaved main street. 

“Once we got solar energy, everything was easy,” says Piripi’s wife, Taanti Kaitangare. “We’re so much happier.” 

Tavita Airam, KSEC’s chief executive, says solar power had enabled activities like weaving and night fishing in many villages across Kiribati. But he acknowledges that the country’s nearly three-decade solar rollout hasn’t always gone smoothly, and that many poor villagers — including Piripi’s neighbours — still cannot afford to lease KSEC’s solar systems. 

Kiribati’s energy story highlights the pros and cons of off-grid solar projects in the South Pacific, a region that includes some of the world’s poorest countries, according to several energy consultants. 

These projects have brought power to thousands of remote villages despite enormous geographic and logistical obstacles. But the region’s solar programmes, which are typically funded by international donors, have also been plagued by bureaucratic inefficiency and a lack of attention to long-term sustainability, experts say. 

“Systems are installed, and then what?” says Peter Konings, chief executive of Asia-Pacific Energy Group, a US energy company that specialises in off-grid solar development. “The batteries fail, and after five or six years people want to replace them — but no one has money set aside.” 

Barriers to energy access 

The remoteness of Pacific island states, combined with a lack of fossil-fuel reserves, makes them heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Geographic isolation also impedes construction of electricity grids and other energy infrastructure projects on all but the largest South Pacific islands. [1] 

The lifetime of the panels can go up to 20 years, but for the storage batteries, the lifetime is five or six years only….And that is always a major issue.

Anirudh Singh, renewable energy specialist, University of the South Pacific in Fiji

According to a recent study in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, the electrification rates in Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands — the region’s least-electrified states — are in the teens. Kiribati’s rate, at 63 per cent, was high by comparison. [2] 

Matthew Dornan, a South Pacific expert at the Australian National University, says a key barrier to improving energy access is that the region’s governments direct the bulk of their energy funding to state-owned power utilities that operate primarily in urban areas. 

“That’s an understandable endeavour given the low incomes of many people in these countries,” Dornan says. But urban-centric energy policies, he added, have also prevented utilities from expanding electricity to rural areas. 

The push for off-grid solar power in the South Pacific began about two decades ago and has intensified as the cost of solar systems has steadily declined, says Anirudh Singh, a renewable energy specialist at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. 

In Kiribati, the current renewables target is 45 per cent for urban areas and 60 per cent for rural areas. Mwaati Oten, the acting energy planner at the Ministry of Public Works and Utilities, says the government is mulling a proposal to make all of its rural homes and schools fossil fuel-free by 2025.

Three other Pacific island states — the Cook Islands, Niue, and Tuvalu — have already set the ambitious target of sourcing all their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The New Zealand protectorate of Tokelau is already producing its electricity entirely from renewables. [3, 4] 

But Singh says that because Tokelau has a population of fewer than 2,000 people and sources its energy from large solar panels, it is not a realistic model for the rest of the region. 

“The lifetime of the panels can go up to 20 years, but for the storage batteries, the lifetime is five or six years only” for stand-alone solar systems, he says. “And that is always a major issue.” 

Mixed results 

Despite the ambitious energy goals and generous development assistance, many of the South Pacific’s off-grid solar projects have produced mixed results, according to energy consultants with years of experience in the region. [3] 

In Fiji, for example, a plan to lease home-based solar systems to rural consumers, which began in the late 1980s, has been hampered by bureaucratic mismanagement, “perverse” financial incentives and “a lack of interest from successive governments”, according to Dornan. [3] 

The constant presence of donors in the region’s solar energy projects encourages beneficiaries to think, “If it breaks down, a donor will come and fix it,” says Geoff Stapleton, the secretary of the Sustainable Energy Industry Association of the Pacific Islands, a trade association whose members include government departments. 

“That, to me, is one of the biggest stumbling blocks,” he says. 

Other solar energy experts says that state-owned electric utilities do not always work in the public interest because they have clunky bureaucracies and are not responsive to consumer preferences. 

“In the Pacific, it’s the utilities doing the job, and they are limited in know-how and capacity,” Konings says. 

Continuing difficulties 

KSEC was launched in 1984, under a slightly different name, and sold 270 home-based solar systems in its first five years. But many customers unintentionally damaged their solar systems through misuse, says Herbert Wade, a solar energy expert who worked as a UN contractor in Kiribati at the time. 

The government later made KSEC a state-owned electricity utility that would lease solar units to consumers for a base deposit and a monthly fee. The European Union then upscaled the project to about 300, and then 2,100, systems. 

Wade says that proved too ambitious for the remote country’s limited human and technical resources: “How do you get from taking care of 325 systems on relatively nearby islands, to 2,500 systems spread all over the country?” 

Airam says the company has since streamlined its operating procedures by licensing solar engineers on 21 of Kiribati’s 33 islands. It has also collected US$74,235 in user fees for a long-term equipment repair fund, he adds. 

But Kiribati’s remote location still makes it difficult to arrange equipment transfers and return damaged or defective equipment to manufacturers, Airam says. And KSEC’s rainy-day repair fund is only about half what it should be to ensure long-term sustainability, so the firm plans to ask the Kiribati government to make up the shortfall, he tells SciDev.Net

But even that would not help most of Kiribati’s poorest villagers, who typically earn a living through fishing or harvesting coconuts. 

Bitta Tamoaieta and Boata Tooma, a couple in their mid-forties who live near Buariki village, said they once leased a solar system from KSEC for US$36. But the company repossessed it seven years later after they defaulted on several US$7 monthly payments so they went back to kerosene for a few years. 

Last year they received some hand-held solar lights – one of 10,000 distributed across Kiribati by the Taiwanese government as a charity project. But Tooma says they will return to kerosene again once the lights break because they still cannot afford a KSEC solar panel. 

“We don’t have another choice,” she says. 

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