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Sep 24, 2013

A High-Renewables Tomorrow, Today: Tokelau, South Pacific


Some of the most vulnerable places in the world to live in the face of climate change are islands. Rising sea levels, contaminated ground water, and increasing severity of storms are just some of the many threats to island communities. Many island residents also pay extremely high energy prices, due to limited domestic resources and the need to import fuel long distances. Switching to renewable energy can not only decrease fuel expenditures for many island populations, but can also show the world what can be done in the face of climate change.

Image courtesy of PowerSmart

Powered by the sun

Tokelau (population: 1,500) is an island nation in the South Pacific, made up of three atolls whose highest point is only five meters above sea level. Even though the New Zealand protectorate’s contribution to climate change is miniscule, it faces grave threats to its very existence. In 2011, at the Durban Climate conference, Foua Toloa, the head of Tokelau, said the island would be using 100 percent renewable energy by 2012. By October of that year residents accomplished their goal, becoming the first country in the world to produce 100 percent of its electricity from the sun.

Prior to 2012, Tokelau’s residents relied on three diesel-driven power stations, burning 200 liters per day at a cost of nearly $800,000 per year. Tokelauans only had electricity 15 to 18 hours per day. They now have three solar photovoltaic systems, one on each atoll. The 4,032 solar panels (with a capacity of around one megawatt), 392 inverters, and 1,344 batteries provide 150 percent of their current electricity demand, allowing the Tokelauans to eventually expand their electricity use. In overcast weather, the generators run on local coconut oil, providing power while recharging the battery bank. The only fossil fuels used in Tokelau now are for the island nation’s three cars.

New Zealand advanced $7 million to Tokelau to install the PV systems. But with the amount of money saved on fuel imports the system will pay for itself in a relatively short time period (nine years with simple payback). The successful project even inspired a video game, Coconut Sunshine, in which the player is in charge of the nation’s finance and energy policies. The goal is to build more solar and coconut oil plants to earn money from selling excess energy in order to pay off the debt before the year is out.

Sending a message to the world

While one of the main impetuses for the switch to renewables was economic—to avoid huge fuel expenses—it wasn’t the only impetus. Living with the impacts of climate change—droughts, hurricanes, and contamination of ground water—was a factor as well. In 2011 Tokelau had to import water, a first in the island’s history. Tokelauans now take workshops in rainwater collection, owing to the scarce availability of freshwater due to rising sea levels.

While the island’s renewable energy systems will only keep 950 tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year, a drop in the bucket as to what is needed to combat climate change, Tokelauans are hoping the rest of the world will follow their example. “We stand to lose the most of any country in the world due to climate change and the rising sea levels,” Toloa stated at the Durban Climate Conference, “so leading the way by making the highest per person investment in the world is a message to the world to do something.”

Islands around the world are turning to renewables to meet their energy needs. Other 100-percent-renewable-powered islands include Floreana in the Galapagos (population: 100) and El Hierro in the Canary Islands (population: 10,000+). Other islands with 100-percent-renewable-energy goals include:Cape Verde, Tuvalu, Gotland (Sweden), and all 15 of the Cook Islands. In the U.S., Hawaii is leading the way, ranking second in the nation for installed solar watts per person, with more than 1,000 megawatts of renewable projects in service, under construction, or awaiting approval.

Paving the way for the rest of the world

Many disbelievers argue that high penetrations of renewable energy aren’t practical for larger grids, and would jeopardize the reliability of our electricity system. One by one, island nations are proving the opposite is true. Generating electricity from an increasingly diverse array of sources makes their systems more reliable, not less so. While these systems require the islands to pay an upfront premium for assets like sophisticated controls and energy storage, these devices quickly pay for themselves given the high costs islands face to import diesel. This dynamic makes these hybrid microgrids practical for islands today, while the declining costs of these technologies will quickly make these technologies cost competitive on the mainland as well.

By switching to renewable energy, island nations reduce their reliance on imported fuels, keep money in the local economy, provide their residents with reliable power, and lower their carbon emissions. They can also serve as “test beds” for adoption of new technologies and models of what can happen on a larger scale. “It’s a lot easier to implement a high penetration of renewables on a small island,” according to Peter Lilienthal, founder and CEO of HOMER Energy, a company providing software and services to the international renewable distributed energy market. “But it’s absolutely scalable. You learn how to do things on a small scale first. Doing solar and wind at high penetration levels, there’s a lot of learning that needs to happen.” And island nations are helping us learn what needs to be done.

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Showing 1-2 of 2 comments

October 7, 2013

Fantasy Island

Let's deconstruct this propaganda tale with reference to all the relevant facts.

The islands still need generators for electricity because solar power is intermittent and even 1,344 batteries cannot cover the outages. According to the feasibility study that was done for the solar project, each atoll needs an average of 20-30 liters of coconut oil a day to power three custom-built coconut oil-fueled backup generators. (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20901-coconuts-and-sunshine-will-power-south-pacific-islands.html). Are these pricey generators and the costs of their perpetual fuel supply included in the cost figures?

The fuel for these generators is a fatal oversight in the claims that the islands' electricity is sustainable and 100% solar. Making fuel from coconuts is an involved process that requires mechanical energy for harvesting and splitting and separating the hulls and pressing the meat, heat energy for boiling to remove water, acids/solvents/enzymes (often hexane) for extracting the oil from the fibers, filtering/centrifuging to separate out the oil from the soup, etc. The coconuts themselves are a limited resource and need to mature for 20 months before harvesting. The typical yield of 1,000 mature coconuts is only 70 liters of raw coconut oil, which means the daily coconut harvest to feed the 60-90 liters needed by the generators is more than 1,000 coconuts (Bourke, RM; Harwood T (2009). Food and Agriculture in Papua New Guinea. Australian National University. p. 327. ISBN 978-1-921536-60-1.) The raw oil harvested requires some degree of energy-intensive upgrading via deoxygenation, hydrogenation, isomerization, and fractionation to be a viable liquid fuel for an internal combustion engine, and this input process energy and the requisite hydrogen gas typically comes from natural gas. This process is very likely to produce a product far more expensive and far inferior in quality to the $4/L diesel fuel they have previously been using. The alternative is to burn raw, non-upgraded coconut oil in an external-combustion boiler arrangement to create steam for a turbine generator. If this is their method, they are getting only 1/3 the fuel-efficiency of a diesel generator in generating electricity because of heat-exchanger losses and the inefficiencies of long start-up and shutdown cycles of intermittent operation.

Their 1MW solar farm amazingly operates with only a 17% capacity factor to generate 1,465 MWh/yr. This is 167 kW of power shared among 1,500 people which is 111 W per person -- less than 1/5th the 600W of power required by the average American.

So the real picture of Tokelau is that it takes 1,000, 20-month-old coconuts a day collected by hand and processed with large amounts of additional fossil fuel energy, plus the 4,032 solar panels and 1,344 batteries, to provide each of the 1,500 residents with 1/5th of the electricity enjoyed by the average American. Is such a coconut harvest on these small islands sustainable, especially when fresh water is already in shortage?

Oh, BTW, this story is only about electricity. The islanders are still importing kerosene, gasoline and natural gas from New Zealand for heating and cooking and transportation fuel, and presumably still for some kerosene lamps as well.

Tokelau is a perfect microcosm to study energy consumption in a holistic way across all energy sources and services to see how much solar can contribute and with what cost-effectiveness. Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute would serve us all better by putting out a thorough factual report instead of propaganda.

October 7, 2013


Thank you for your comments. However, it is unreasonable to compare Tokelauns' electricity use to a person from the U.S. In the U.S. each household uses about 4,500 kWh per year of electricity, which is about twice that of Western Europe, six times that of the global average per capita, or more than five times the average for those who have electricity access.

The yearly demand for electricity in Tokelau is 676 MWh/yr. The 1 MW of PV has been providing close to 90% of their electricity needs since it was installed.

As far as generating the other 10% from coconut oil, the Empower Consultants study found that each atoll needs 20 to 30 liters of coconut oil per day, which can be produced from 150 to 220 coconuts per day. The study showed that this was sustainable in terms of availability of both coconuts and labor to process them.

You are correct in saying that the islanders are still importing kerosene and diesel for transportation and cooking. However, they are importing a fraction of what they imported prior to the solar installation. Of the 162,000 liters of diesel they imported annually prior to 2012, almost 99% of that was for power generation, with the majority of the rest (~2000 liters) for transportation.

In these times, when the human cause of climate change is well documented, any effort to reduce the use of fossil fuels should be applauded. And I’m sure the Tokelauns who are currently living with reliable clean electricity would tell you that their island is not a fantasy, but a reality they live in every day.