Tokelau leads the world on renewable energy

100% electricity from the sun

By David Sheppard

January 2013

Share this article

On 29 October, 2012, Tokelau became the first country in the world to be producing one hundred percent of its electricity from a renewable source—the sun.

Tokelau’s three diesel-driven power stations now stand unused and peacefully silent across the three atolls of this Pacific island territory.

SPREP commends the government and people of Tokelau for seeing through their long held vision for energy self-reliance, while, at the same time, doing their part as citizens of the global community in reducing the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Tokelau stands a beacon to the rest of the world in how to reduce a country’s carbon footprint.

Commitments of this nature define the approach of developing “Pacific solutions to Pacific problems” as we strive to address the impacts of climate change on our island nations.

Tokelau is a New Zealand administered territory, comprising three small atolls, situated some 600 kilometres northwest of Samoa. These three atolls are home to just over 1,400 Tokelauans. The atolls are Fakaofo, the closest to Samoa; Nukunonu; and Atafu, the furthest atoll, situated northwest of the group.

Prior to the advent of the Tokelau Renewable Energy Project (TREP), the inhabitants of these three atolls used fossil fuel (diesel) power generators for their electricity needs.

A typical Tokelauan home consumes between 5 and 14 kilowatt-hour (kWh) per day, accounting for an average demand for the country of 150 kilowatts per day.

Based on this approximation, Tokelau emitted 1,695 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide per day when using diesel fuel for electricity generation.

This translates to 620.5 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases emitted by Tokelau in one year for power generation.

Although miniscule when compared with the millions of tonnes of GHGs emitted by larger nations, this reduction in emissions underscores how seriously the people of Tokelau view climate change and its impacts.

Tokelau, like any low-lying atoll state, is already bearing the brunt of climate change and sea level rise with impacts including salt water intrusion of freshwater lens and prolonged water shortages.

At the same time, Tokelau has traditionally relied on expensive, imported fossil fuel to meet most of their energy needs. The people of Tokelau are living life clouded in a mist of uncertainty regarding their future.

The move to solar energy for electricity is this small island’s reminder to the world that they are at the frontline of climate change and that can and will take positive and effective action. 

Solar energy is provided through photo voltaic systems which will provide the nation with all of its electrical energy needs, with some to spare.

The photo voltaic systems in the three atolls are hooked up to the existing power distribution network, but battery banks are used for storage for night-time use or during rainy days.

Usually, the batteries can only store power overnight before they are charged again by solar the next day. Current electricity usage on Tokelau means that only 30 percent of the stored power is actually utilised and the rest of the stored energy is usually “wasted”.

The designers of the project addressed this by increasing the storage capacity of the battery bank to ensure more power is available to accommodate other uses such as food freezing and cooling, space cooling (air-conditioning) and other productive sectors in the communities.

These installations of solar PVs with a battery bank are the largest of its kind in the Pacific. Large solar PV installations in most parts of the world generally do not provide for power storage and are mainly connected to the grid and ‘embedded’ into the existing power distribution network.

Whatever power is generated from the solar PV cells is inverted and sent to the distribution network.

Tokelau is therefore, well set in terms of its future energy needs.

What next for Tokelau?

Now that Tokelau has celebrated a milestone in becoming the first small islands nation producing 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, one could ask “what next?”

Will Tokelau just sit back or will it start planning for how it will keep the systems in ‘good health’ so that it can continue to maintain the ‘title’ of being the ‘world’s first’ to go 100% renewable for its electricity requirements?

The government of Tokelau has plans to maintain the strong momentum and ensuring the initiatives are maintained.

In particular, there are plans to ensure energy efficiency and conservation, coupled with appropriate awareness raising. SPREP looks forward to these next steps.

Despite being in a position to receive their electricity from a “free” and renewable source, the country recognises the costs of maintaining the system. Thus, the previous user-pays practice (through pre-payment meter or cash power) will remain.

The basic tariff is 50 New Zealand cents per unit. Bills are collected by the village council, the tapulegas, in each of the three atolls.

Funds will be used to pay for on-going maintenance of the power systems, including replacement of system parts and batteries.

SPREP commends these exciting initiatives by Tokelau and will support future planning and implementation of renewable energy, including the development of community education programmes.

This achievement by Tokelau is a significant step and SPREP recognises and commends the input of the New Zealand and French governments and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which have made this initiative a reality.

Critics may say that Tokelau’s smallness, its government structure and being a New Zealand territory, has made it far easier for this nation to implement the move to solar energy.

SPREP says that our collective vision for a sustainable Pacific is possible for all islands through leadership—of our citizens and governments.

In giving Tokelau the “thumbs-up” on its achievement, let’s also look at what lessons we can learn for ourselves.

David Sheppard is the director-general of SPREP and is based in Apia, Samoa.

« More articles from January 2013 edition

...or view more articles related to these topics:

...or try these related articles: