Tokelau to ditch fossil fuels

Many people have never heard of Tokelau, let alone know where it is, but tiny Tokelau is set to be the first country in the world to be fully powered by renewable energy.

Located in the Pacific around 480km north of Samoa, Tokelau is a self-governing territory of New Zealand. It comprises three atolls, each consisting of a number of reef-bound islets surrounding a lagoon. The three atolls, which are just three to five metres above sea level, run in a roughly northwest direction. The southernmost is called Fakafao, at 3.5 sq km the smallest of the atolls. Around 64 km further north is Nukunonu, the largest atoll at 4.7 sq km, while the third atoll, the 4 sq km Atafu, lies a further 92 km away to the north.

Tokelau’s isolation and lack of natural resources have restricted economic development and limited agriculture to subsistence level. It has also seen many Tokelauans shift to New Zealand leaving only around 1,400 permanent residents, of whom some one third are of school age, on the islands. Tokelau earns foreign revenue from sales of postage stamps, coins, handicrafts and copra but it is heavily dependent on financial aid from New Zealand and expatriate Tokelauans that remit money home.

So how is it that Tokelau is set to become a world leader?

At present, Tokelau gets its power from a number of diesel generators. These, however, consume about 200 litres of diesel fuel daily and produce 15 to 18 hours of electricity. The diesel has to be imported and takes up valuable financial resources. In 2004, therefore, the Tokelau Government endorsed its first National Energy Policy and Strategic Action Plan, proposing to make the islands free from dependence on fossil fuels by using renewable energy and improving energy efficiency. The Tokelau Renewable Energy Project was born.

Initiated the United Nations Development Programme and with financial and technical support from New Zealand, France and UNESCO, work on the Project should be completed in September 2012. Powersmart Solar, the major contractor, expects the 4.096 solar panels, 392 inverters and 1,344 batteries to be installed and up and running on time, each of the atolls with its own independent system. Planners have also allowed for lengthy periods of cloud cover by incorporating coconut oil-fuelled generators to charge the batteries in the absence of the sun.

Next in line for similar renewable energy projects are Tuvalu and the Cook Islands, Pacific neighbours of Tokelau. They should have their systems in place in 2020. The conversion to renewable energy of a few remote communities in the Pacific Ocean might not have a major impact on the world’s environment as a whole but it will have major impact locally. It should free up much needed funds for economic development so helping employment, will reduce dependence on outside fuel supplies and help reduce pollution.

Although these are only small-scale projects, could they serve to pave the way for larger projects in more heavily populated and industrialised areas in the future? Who knows what might develop from these small beginnings?