Solar power Feasibility in the Southern Pacific Island States

The growing demand for energy in the twenty-two Pacific Island countries and territories has resulted in new economic, political and environmental challenges, emphasizing the need to push toward a more sustainable energy solution (Yu & Taplin 1997).  The diversity in the islands’ natural environments, political systems, cultures, and basic energy needs vary greatly.  What kinds of methods work best for implementing sustainable and renewable energy sources on islands in French Polynesia, Kiritimati and Hawaii?   Are foreign donors helping islands like Christmas Island in Kiribati?  Moreover, how can solar energy be best utilized sustainably with the resources each island has and how is the energy demand being met?

Twenty years ago, Rizer and Hansen wrote that with “the transition from a subsistence economy to commercial integration with the global marketplace,” Pacific island nations became “net energy importers” (Rizer & Hansen, 1992). In fact, many states spend an amount “equal to their GDP” on imported fuel and oil  (Whitman 2012).

For remote islands, the cost of oil increases tremendously because of the price of shipping long distances. In Tahiti, it costs 26 cents to produce 1 kWh of electricity; in Kiritimati it costs over 35 cents per kWh (Witting Feb 2013).  By comparison, it costs 14-17 cents/kWh in New England (Witting Feb 2013).  Hawaii is number one in the U.S. in terms of the price of electricity; 76.9% of its electricity is petroleum generated and the price to import it is $89.65 per barrel (IER 2012).   A vital difference between Hawaii and French Polynesia is that Hawaii can afford high energy costs and keep meeting the growing electricity demand.  The cost of oil is a key limitation factor for many of the Polynesian islands, including Fakarava.  However, solar power is even more expensive and initial costs are often seen as unaffordable.

Demand for energy in the South Pacific is ever-rising with increasing population and advancing technology. The large population density in the urban environments of Tahiti and Hawaii seems to correlate with an especially high demand for energy. Though they have similar populations, Tahiti actually has a much lower level of energy consumption per person than Hawaii. While Tahiti has a population of 178,173 (with 2879.2 kW per person), Hawaii has a population of 186,738 and 53,347 kW per person (EIA 2012).  Tahiti has a peak energy demand of 100 mW of electricity (EDT 2013).  It generates 527 gWh of electricity; 182 gWh, or around 34% is generated using renewable energy (EDT 2013).  Only .7% of the total energy use is solar (PV), while hydropower makes up the other 33.2%. In the Marquesas, peak demand stays at 2 MW; only 11.5 gW generated, and of that, 3 gWh are renewable (EDT 2013).  Here, around 30% of electricity generated is with Hydropower (EDT 2013).  Tahiti has almost exactly 50 times the level of energy demand as the Marquesas.  Hydropower seems a more viable option on high islands like Tahiti and Nuku Hiva than solar power.

In the smaller islands of Fakarava and Kiritimati, the electricity generated is dependent on the financial resources available to them.  Fakarava currently has 3 generators working to produce 350 kWh each (Burns Feb 2013). These were paid for by the central government in Tahiti with money from the French government. In contrast, Kiritimati has four generators— one in each of its larger villages (MLAPI 2013).  Electricity use measures only .077 kWh/person/day (Witting Feb 2013).  If Kiritimati has a current population of 7000 people, and it takes 107 kg of oil to generate enough electricity for one person per year, then Kiritimati imports about 749 bbl/oil annually currently to satisfy its demand (Witting 2013).   These numbers are not accounting for the estimated 70% of families, or houses, without electricity on the island (MLAPI 2013). The assistant secretary of Kiritimati evokes that, as a non-annexed state, Kiritimati can appeal to foreign aid donors like New Zealand for financial help.  However, it might be that before any stable energy plan is made, serious infrastructure problems such as sanitation and waste management need to be addressed.

Fakarava, experiencing 3000 hours of sunshine per year, shows great potential for solar power; however, the main obstacle continues to be the financial limitation (Burns 2013).  Tetamanu Village, a small, fairly sustainable community in Fakarava, has a completely independent energy system.  Its entire population of 10 people is supported by a small solar power plant.  Though these people use less energy, this success story presents a great example of how solar power can excel in these climates— once installed of course.

Upfront equipment and installation costs are obvious requirements of using solar power, but regular maintenance and upkeep costs can also pile up, and adequate land/space must be available.  Further problems regarding alternative energy sources include reliability and consistency.  Solar power can waver and drop to only producing 10% of peak power (EDT 2013).  Therefore, much like wind power, a backup power source such as an oil-powered generator should also be maintained for times of limited sunlight, which limits the economic feasibility of solar power on small islands like Fakarava. 

Solar panels can be up to 30% less efficient in the tropics than in cooler climates, however the large amount of sunlight time available in the South Pacific is enough to make the installation worthwhile financially (Rizer, J. and Hansen, J. 1992).  The size and type of system is dependent on the population and demand of the island.  Generally, small solar production plants can be enough to power small villages, but the more demand, the more money must be paid to install solar panels.  In general, in a larger and more urban community, more goods and energy are consumed and therefore more money and land is required to cater to the demand. Areas such as Pape’ete may be too large to have a centralized solar production plant, however, individual installations might be more efficient use of space. Solar water heaters can be seen on most rooftops in French Polynesia, and there is intention in Hawaii to require new houses built to all be equipped with one.  The upfront costs will eventually pay for themselves in money saved, but the initial cost remains expensive.

Problems that come with small island size include: lack of island resources (both natural and financial), isolation and high operating cost hinders regular maintenance (EDT 2013).   Looking at their situation with an economic perspective, many South Pacific states are relatively poor with a low GDP.  Hawaii’s GDP per capita is more than twice that of French Polynesia. Kiribati has one of the lowest in the world, at 5,900 GDP per capita (EIA 2013).  Yet despite their lack of a booming economy, the Assistant Secretary of Kiritimati proudly states that they have no poor people.

How would an island nation like Kiribati respond to an increase in technological capability to secure energy resources? It might be that if power generation increases through the use of solar panels, it would encourage the increase of consumption in island culture.  The question of what could be done vs. what should be done lies in the center of a tug of war between education, financial resources and a dedicated workforce to maintain systems now and in the future.  These factors indicate that this delicate balance could be further explored in order to offer a more stable platform for implementing larger scale, successful alternative energy projects.

Looking forward to sustainable lifestyles in the South Pacific, a hopeful saying supports that “our future is on our shoulders and the past is in front of us” (Tutavae Jan 2013).  This Marquesan saying depicts a wish for a sustainable future based on the values of the past.  There is quite a lot of hope for future sustainability in the Polynesian islands. It should be noted: “the majority of Pacific island countries have established renewable energy targets over the last five years” (Ricketts 2008).  As the cost of solar power decreases, these islands will be able to start producing their own energy, (hopefully) increasing energy and electricity availability for more of the population.  My findings on these island nations have shown me a snapshot of the struggles that accompany energy sustainability in the South Pacific.

Devin Burri, Lawrence University

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How to cite this page:
Devin Burri. “Solar power Feasibility in the Southern Pacific Island States,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.  2013.  Web. [Date accessed]  <html>