Tongareva Atoll: we are going solar!

Kia Orana everyone, very exciting news from this extremely remote atoll in the South Pacific. Last Friday a ship arrived with everything required to build a solar-power station on our island (in fact there will be two as the other village is far away across the other side of the atoll ~ so it will get a smaller set-up too).

It will take about a week to offload all the cargo by barge, but we may start laying out the site tomorrow and begin excavations. I’ll document the project as it unfolds, but we expect it will make a huge difference & ~ most importantly ~ think how much fuel it will save? To bring 1 litre of diesel here requires a voyage from Auckland to Rarotonga, then another from Rarotonga to the Northern Cooks; plus road haulage in NZ and electricity any place the fuel is pumped. Crazy, especially when the sun shines most days.

The build is by PowerSmart in NZ, and the project funded through NZAID [Aotearoa ~ New Zealand ~ has provided NZ$ 20 million to set up solar arrays on all the Northern Cook Islands. The scheme is called “Uira Natura ke Tokerau”. EU & NZ have formed an Energy Access Partnership].

Thank you, and very much appreciated. 🙂

40 thoughts on “Tongareva Atoll: we are going solar!

  1. WilkieRasmussen

    Thank you very much for accepting me to become a member of the Biodiversity Alliance. I add to Michael White’s report on the solar energy project in Tongareva. Another remote island Pukapuka (in the northern Cook Islands) have also got their solar system going. The other is Rakahanga – an island 100 miles west of Tongareva. Tongareva is the third in a Cook Island Government (aid funded) project to convert the Cook Islands into a solar powered country.

    1. Janos

      It’s our pleasure to welcome you, Mr. Rasmussen, at our website, and are very keen to see your comments, posts and exchange ideas with you. Best regards, Janos

    2. Michael White Post author

      Thank you Wilkie and welcome to the Biodiversity Alliance. Yes, thank you too for mentioning Rakahanga & Pukapuka; I had mentioned these to my colleagues here already.

      As I hear it the aim is for the Cook Islands to be mainly solar-powered by 2020, which is a wonderful gesture to the industrialised world ~ let’s hope they understand the message? If you get a chance some day we’d appreciate a couple of photos of Rarotonga’s solar array at the international airport, meitaki.

      Finally, we are not quite ready to publicly launch the BA, but we are close … some technical documents to finalise in Switzerland. So you will still see some gaps in website content, but we are working hard at producing documents to fill these spaces. We’re enjoying our efforts so far, Mike

  2. Janos

    Kia Orana Mike, what a great news is this. Congratulation and my best wishes to run a perfectly successful project! I’m very interested to see your pics as it goes on. Janos

    1. Michael White Post author

      Thank you Janos. On Saturday I went and took some pics of the site as it is now. Then as work gets underway I’ll have a record as it changes. I also have a good understanding of the birds on the atoll, so I’ll be able to spot any impacts (hopefully these won’t be too great (one species is nesting now ~ but they are right in the top of coconut trees, of which we have many). I’ve taken a few small video clips but these take up a lot of memory space. At the end I’ll, at least, produce a poster of the solar project. And I’ll aim to make a short film of the main aspects. It’s great to be here at the start of something so wonderful. The other thing is we’ll be able to figure exactly how much less diesel fuel we use. I imagine it will be substantial. Mike 🙂

  3. Janos

    I guess Mike, there is a Project Manager or a Construction Lead there in charge to keep track of records of the works officially. This project is a very good opportunity for you to get a deep insight into this field.

    1. Michael White Post author

      Yes Janos, there is a team of 4, not met any of them yet. So I imagine they will have everyone needed to build, install, test and connect to the grid. That last bit will entail getting the solar array fully functional and charging its own batteries. We have a diesel generator, as I mentioned, but it was way too powerful for our needs, so used too much fuel anyway. As part of the project they will install a small generator as back-up, and presumably take the big one for somewhere else.

      I’ve done some of these things during disaster relief work ~ you can run temporary cables from a generator to test the grid set-up; then properly mount the machine & main cables. Over the weekend we were working mainly with the cargo people: the whole village turns out when a ship comes, and we are expert at shifting cargo. PowerSmart had a dedicated team on the ship just for cargo … when all is off they’ll leave. That yellow digger and the red one in top pic came off the ship by barge … so I really did mean everything needed to do the project arrived.

      So my other point earlier about installing LED lights through the village houses fits nicely on top of this shift to solar. We’d reduce power consumption almost to zero. The main needs for power are fridges/freezers, small water pumps, televisions, computers and lighting. So not very much really. Most people don’t bother heating water ~ cool showers or a bucket. The hospital has 2 solar-water heaters on the roof … you know the things you see everywhere in Greece.

      But I’ll certainly learn all I can during this experience ~ I’m good with project management anyway. Watch this space. Mike 🙂

        1. Michael White Post author

          Yes I will keep posting. This morn I spent 4 hours sitting in my little boat filming the ship offloading onto the barges; actually the best weather we’ve had in 3 weeks. Gorgeous colours and sunshine ~ no turtles though. This afternoon I went to the site and took more pics ~ the coconut trees already pulled up and grid lines being marked out. Tomorrow the ship will try & get nearer the eastern village to make offloading easier for them ::: so I’ll head off and do a survey instead.

          You are right Ven, Oceania is the place to watch for environmental friendliness; small nations with good ecosystems, and a wish to leave something for our future generations. So fingers crossed 🙂

  4. Janos

    How does the construction works proceed, Mike? Are the solar panels there already? do you know approximately when will they finish and be all the stuff operational? I guess the young generations is always around. Janos

    1. Michael White Post author

      I’ll put some photos up. Maybe the easiest will be do make short PDFs of major steps and upload to BA. Monday the trees came down and some coner points painted on ground; Tuesday finished offloading at Omoka, and the ship worked itself painfully slowly round all the coral heads to make offloading easier at the other village. Today the hole is being dug here for foundations.

      Kids are at school, so all is quite quiet, but man it’s very hot indeed these days, very hot 🙂

      The array should all be complete by 27th April ~ Easter falls within the building phase, so maybe some delays, as we are not allowed to work on Sundays or religious hoildays. The plan is pretty simple: two main groups of panels, then a small building in the middle with batteries and a small generator, just in case it’s cloudy for a couple of weeks. Looks good. All the gear is good quality too. Mike 🙂

  5. Janos

    Hi Mike, It was exactly 3 weeks ago when you sent us the great news about the delivery of the solar equipments. IT would be great to hear some news about the last week. 🙂 Janos

  6. Michael White Post author

    Rakahanga, our next nearest atoll, has just reported that they’ve saved $25,000 in diesel fuel since their solar array went online in September 2014. Obviously the atolls have to pay for the freight too. That is awesome 🙂

  7. Michael White Post author

    Rakahanga, our next nearest atoll, has just reported that they’ve saved $25,000 in diesel fuel since their solar array went online in September 2014. Obviously the atolls have to pay for the freight too. That is awesome 🙂

  8. Michael White Post author

    22nd April ~ quick update. Construction phase at Omoka nearly done; next step is to erect the solar panels and then install all the batteries in the building; then set up all the electronics. Construction work at the other village started yesterday. A nice surprise is that the project has included new electricity meters for all the houses. I’ve heaps of photos of every stage and will shortly update the PDF to upload here. Meitaki Poria 🙂

  9. Michael White Post author

    22 April: quick update. Construction phase at Omoka nearly done; next step is to erect the solar panels and then install all the batteries in the building; then set up all the electronics. Construction work at the other village started yesterday. A nice surprise is that the project has included new electricity meters for all the houses. I’ve heaps of photos of every stage and will shortly update the PDF to upload here. Meitaki Poria 🙂

  10. Michael White Post author

    Update for 1st of May 2015. First solar panels now in place; batteries being loaded into their racks; most of the inverters in place and connected ~ next week we’ll see some of the wiring between panels & storage system. Rarotonga wants a formal opening on Monday 11th May (system probably won’t be complete), but NZ Foreign Minister McCulley and loads of PR people will turn up for a few hours. I’ll grab some pics of that event too: so we’ll have the complete story from start to finish. It’s been a very busy time for us all, so my apologies for not updating. 🙂
    Most impressed with PowerSmart NZ by the way ~ very professional and top quality equipment. So if anyone is looking for solar systems then I can recommend them. 🙂

  11. Michael White Post author

    In case you are interested: this is our internet connection ~ goes from here, bounces via Rarotonga, then enters WWW at Auckland. Any glitch along the way and we have no comms with the industrialised world 🙂

  12. Krishnan Srinivasan

    Kudos Mike. Great Job. Small insular countries necessarily have to be self reliant for energy sources, lest they get hijacked by the “near and dear” ones!!. But, one has to be prepared for the “end of the life” disposal procedures of solar panel chemicals, batteries and non-consumed disposables etc. Trust your atoll shows the way to other insular nations too. If there is a will, there is always a way. In India – we are – “light years” – away from such committed work !!. Best wishes for the inauguration by the big guns.

    1. Michael White Post author

      Thank you Krishnan and Ven, much appreciated. You are exactly right about the small insular nations showing the way to a brighter and more sustainable future. I’ve other very good plans taking shape here too. Last Friday I took 6 of the senior students on a field-trip: we cleared fallen dead trees and then planted 10 new coconuts ~ so over time it will become very much their future… quite exciting really 🙂 Getting some nice data on seabirds too.

      I take onboard the concern about disposal of our solar panels, but the quality of the equipment is very good indeed, so hopefully it will be many years away. We may not even have a planet to stand on by then, so fingers crossed of course. I noticed Fukushima is still struggling, so that’s another impact we never wanted.

      We have another very busy week coming up, then hopefully all will settle down again. By the end of May all five northern atolls should have their solar arrays functioning, then NZAID will step back and I think EU will help install arrays on the southern islands ~ they are much less challenging to get to of course. Not sure when Rarotonga will get their solar power, but from here it looks as though the Cook Islands will achieve its goal of being on renewables by 2020. Thanks, Mike 🙂

  13. Janos

    Thanks Mike for the photos, congratulation for all of your efforts. I can imagine how busy you are with preparing such a PR event. Worth the effort for sure. I cross my fingers that everything goes smooth.

  14. Michael White Post author

    We’ve been doing trials and have had the solar online for two days, also tested the new generator and topped up all the batteries. Today we’re getting ready for Monday’s opening ceremony.

    The photo shows the arrays, you can just see the two sets behind the battery house ~ same size as the three in the foreground. Good job. Thanks PowerSmart 🙂

    Installed solar panels on Tongareva

  15. Janos

    I’m glad Mike that you reached this final phase of the project. By this time I guess the ‘PR day’ is over as well. Slowly the last photos and notes will find their way your project dossier. From tomorrow you and the community gradually return to normal, where normal means a much more Eco-friendly way of life and also a much higher level of consciousness.

    When living on clean, solar energy will become normal, part of everyday life in few months time from now on, I’m sure that thinking back about the days when hundreds of gallons of fuel had to be burned to get electricity, it will be seem as a terribly polluting exercise. And by that time the mindset of the community will be adopted as well, thinking of renewable energy sources as being normal, instead of polluting the environment in order to get energy. Congratulation for this project!

    1. Michael White Post author

      Thanks Janos 🙂 Yesterday was very busy as you can imagine. We were at the solar array around 7 a.m. then the plane was late, arriving at 1030. The day went OK: the Kiwis were worried about the timetable being a minute or two late, instead of relaxing into ‘island time’ ~ which they should have done.

      I’ll try and get photos done by the weekend, and now we have the new file upload system on BA maybe the powerpoint will load too.

      The most curious thing here now is that there is no noise when you go by the generator shed 🙂

  16. Michael White Post author

    Update from 10th July: Omoka has been online for almost two months now; Te Tautua came online about 3 weeks later. Power supply is stable and reliable. Interestingly the entire set-up is monitored via the internet by PowerSmart NZ, so they can quickly see if any battery or part of the system has a problem.

    Our environment is quite dusty so the solar panels need cleaning to avoid reduced output, so we’ve been washing them as need be. We get rain at times (even with El Nino) and that cleans the panels remarkably well. We notice that on the brightest days the batteries may charge to 92%, but on partially cloudy days they easily reach 100%.

    So what do we think? Well … we are pretty much all agreed that having 24-hour power is not such a good idea. In the first month we found that our power bills increased (the units consumed roughly doubled), so individually we started turning off fridges & freezers overnight. Talking with others around the community we had all arrived at the same solution; we’ve yet to see the latest bills, but imagine we’ll be back to our normal usage rates. A benefit is that if we get up overnight we can work online or turn power on.

    PowerSmart advised us to think about battery replacement in 10 year’s time; they will last longer than that but it’s a good plan. We expect that battery technology and availability will improve rapidly (e.g. Tesla’s new California factory), so batteries will be cheaper then too. The Atoll Council is thinking about reducing the price per unit for electricity, as we are no longer dependent on importing diesel from Auckland*. If that happens then our power bills will reduce ~ but that is the money for battery replacement. Anyway, we are pleased and thank the NZ government for their visionary AID programme. ‘Meitaki Poria’ 🙂

    *I’ve adapted a map from MacMillan New Zealand’s World Atlas (p. 48), showing the two voyages needed to bring fuel from NZ to Northern Cook Islands ~ maybe 7000 km each way! That is the carbon footprint we’ve just thrown out 🙂

  17. Michael White Post author

    Two important stories here that show us we cannot continue along our present carbon-intensive pathway and expect to survive; and also that there has never been a better time to completely change our entire life-styles. “We can change if we want to” 🙂

    That 2nd article is great: I imagine that PowerSmart is managing our power supply in the same way. Think too about these short time scales: Denmark wants to be 50% renewable by 2020; Cook Islands entirely renewable by that same date. Remarkable 🙂

  18. Janos

    Thanks for the update Mike, it’s great to see Northern Cook Island’s achievement in such a short time scale. Regarding projections and expectations from similar quick advance on global scale I can see a BIG TRAP ahead.

    Climate change is the result of two parallel factors: 1) increased greenhouse gas emission due to exploding human population – currently roughly 80 million people per year; 2) ever increasing (artificially increased) consumption in developed/rich countries due to growth-, and profit-centric global economic system.

    People should finally understand that EVERYTHING what we, humans, produce, even bottled water, costs ENERGY. (Not to mention the DELIVERY of goods). Currently on global scale 85+% of energy is produced by burning fossil fuel (coal, gas, oil). So: politicians campaigning for increased consumption, life standard, etc, are actually campaigning for increased GHG emission, hence climate change.

    Consequently, reducing the likelihood and scale of climate change the root causes must be addressed: 1) lowering the increase/explosion of human population; 2) lowering consumption (production);

    Unfortunately #1 is a global taboo, #2 is a global taboo too. Why? Because progress in any of them severely hurt the interest of the global wealthiest, including politicians. They don’t care about climate change, only about their private wealth. Increased human population means constant supply in cheap labour force and ever growing market.

    Governments and political parties all over the globe are in constant contest about how to achieve more growth, more production, more consumption. Even during the most stressful moments of the Greek – Eurozone negotiations even The Guardian found it important to insert a news about that crude oil price went up due to the growth expectations towards the (Chinese) market. Countless similar examples can be cited to highlight, that GROWTH is the ‘greatest common divisor’ among all the decisive political, financial and economical powers.

    Until this is the case GHG emission will increase rapidly. People all over the world should be educated to understand such basic rules among growth, consumption and climate change.

    1. Michael White Post author

      Thank Janos, sadly you are correct. I also read an article about USA scare-mongering against Russia. The story clearly showed how the US military-industrial complex are the only ones to benefit from all of these wars and conflict zones. [we saw that in Iraq when Haliburton (Dick Cheney’s company) won all the repair contracts ~ curious hey?]. Now the US is trying to get the European countries to pay for NATO’s wars???

      Your point about energy use, especially ridiculous things like bottled water, is very true. When you get some spare time I’d be interested to see your proposal for carbon-labelling of consumer goods. I think it’s important that shoppers understand just how much energy is used up by their consumer choices. Even if they don’t stop their buying, they should at least read the labels. Thanks 🙂

  19. Venkatasamy Rama Krishna

    Great work in that part of the (your) world Mike. There is no greater proof that it can be done….as long as those with vested interests in fossil fuel are not there to disrupt and discourage.
    And the move is gathering momentum among islands too:;_ylu=X3oDMTEybW9hN3RjBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMyBHZ0aWQDQjA1NzdfMQRzZWMDc3I-/RV=2/RE=1437070768/RO=10/;_ylu=X3oDMTEyYmtucWJoBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMzBHZ0aWQDQjA1NzdfMQRzZWMDc3I-/RV=2/RE=1437070768/RO=10/;_ylu=X3oDMTEyZGh1YXZlBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwM0BHZ0aWQDQjA1NzdfMQRzZWMDc3I-/RV=2/RE=1437070768/RO=10/

    And others are still to follow.

    A word of caution about turning off fridges & freezers overnight Mike. You may end up using more energy and paying more. Best to keep them at the right temperature, and always filled up. There is nothing worse, and more expensive, than keeping the air inside fridges and freezers cold.

    1. Michael White Post author

      Thank you Ven. I knew about Tokelau ~ very remote group of small islands that you can only access by a ship from Samoa, or private yacht. One of the mamas living here originated from Tokelau, so we know something of their lifestyle. New Zealand has been great with their very wise investment and AID programme. They understood very clearly the true impacts of burning fossil fuels ~ shame many other so-called developed countries don’t! [I noticed that both Cameron in London, and Abbott in Canberra have undone the green energy policies: Cameron has just given tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry and removed the subsidies on renewables ~ effectively causing them to increase in price. So much for the ‘caring Conservatives’?].

      That’s good news from the Virgin Islands ~ I’ve been to them. Typical very wealthy tax havens jammed full of luxury yeachts ~ a number of poor folk of course, but some jobs available in the service sector (bars, restaurants, marinas, hotels, transport etc.). What jumped out at me is that they want the people to pay for PV, whereas NZ took a long view on sustainability. It cost NZ$ 20 million to convert the entire Northern Cooks to solar ($4.5 million for the 2 arrays on Tongareva). PowerSmart replaced the meters in all occupied houses, and apparently will rewire them too (certainly new lights and power sockets are planned ~ whenever a ship comes again). NZ had previously converted Tuvalu to solar too.

      Thanks for the caution about fridges. We understand that. In fact turning the power off overnight is exactly what our situation has been for the last few years ~ we never had any power at night. 🙂

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