Adopting renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power is a great way to reduce emissions and produce energy locally. In places like remote Pacific islands, however, those benefits are potentially a key to independence. For that reason Tokelau, a 10 sq. km. (3.86 sq. mi) island nation that lies around 500 km (311 mi) north of Samoa and which is a territory of New Zealand, is about to ditch diesel as a source of electricity and switch to solar power.

In order to turn sunlight into electricity, Tokelau will activate 4,032 solar panels, 392 inverters and 1,344 batteries. The solar system will be spread across Tokelau’s three atolls - Fakaofo, Nukunonu, and Atafu. Special attention has been paid to the resilience and longevity of the materials due the faster wear and tear caused by the harsh tropical and marine weather conditions, besides the corrosiveness of the salty air. PowerSmart, a New Zealand-based company, is designing and installing the project, which will include one photovoltaic (PV) mini grid on each atoll.

Besides the environmental benefits, the NZ$7 million (US$5.66 million) New Zealand is investing in the project makes logistical sense as well. Because there are no flights, all transportation is done by water. The ship that covers the route to and from Samoa needs to anchor outside the reefs, from where passengers and goods are taken to shore on a landing barge.

Solar panels arrive by sea at Tokelau

Solar comes as an ideal solution to such a small population (1,411 people) and low power demand, which means the country will go from 0 percent to more than 90 percent renewable electricity in one fell swoop. The government estimates the solar system will prevent 12,000 tonnes (13,228 tons) of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere over the life of the project. For backup during long spells of cloudiness, coconut oil-powered generators will supply power and recharge the battery bank.

Many Pacific Island nations depend on fossil fuels for energy and are vulnerable to international price fluctuations. In some cases, the cost of importing fuel is higher than all export earnings combined. Tokelau burns around 200 liters (53 US gallons) of fuel every day and spends about NZ$1 million (US$0.81 million) per year shipping in the stuff. Currently, Tokelau’s population has 15 to 18 hours per day of electricity.

When the system goes live in late September after a commissioning ceremony, the Tokelau population will be at the leading edge of climate change mitigation efforts and on its way to energy independence.

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