Renewable Energy: New Opportunities for Sustainable Development in Pacific Island Countries

Article excerpt

Abundant solar, coconut and hydrological resources, make Pacific Island Countries ideally suited to renewable energy options, ALLISON WOODRUFF writes. But currently seventy percent of the population in Pacific Island countries lack access to modern forms of energy, and are seriously disadvantaged by having to pay an estimated 200-300% above the average world price for petroleum. With oil prices rising, and Pacific Islands vulnerable to climate change impacts, they need to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Donor countries have pledged to improve access to affordable energy services as a means of achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals, including the target of halving the proportion of people living in poverty by 2015. If funds are provided by donors for the purchase and installation of renewable energy equipment, long-term sustainability in Pacific Islands can be achieved.

Rising oil prices make reliance on fossil fuels in Pacific Island Countries increasingly costly, and renewable energy options for promoting sustainable development look even more promising.

Renewable energy has expanded rapidly in use around the world over the past two decades as its technological feasibility, reliability and cost-effectiveness has been successfully demonstrated in various locations. Given the high cost of supplying electricity to isolated rural communities, decentralized renewable energy technologies can often compete on a cost basis with conventional fossil fuel-based supply options.

Pacific Islands, with their abundance of solar, coconut and hydrological resources, have great potential to harness large amounts of energy from renewable resources. But despite this natural wealth, many countries in the Pacific are almost completely dependent on imported fossil fuels for meeting their energy needs.

Sustainable development: the rural electrification challenge

Access to affordable, reliable energy services is essential for sustainable development and poverty reduction, (1) because energy is needed for education, health, water supply, transport and income-generating activities. At the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, developing and donor countries pledged to improve access to affordable energy services as a means of achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals, including the target of halving the proportion of people living in poverty by 2015.

Yet more than i.6 billion people worldwide lack access to electricity. (2) One reason for this is it's very expensive to provide electricity to rural areas by conventional means, like extension of the electrical grid, and stand-alone diesel generation, because of the remoteness of sites and low population densities. The advantage of many renewable energy technologies is they do not require distribution grids or imported fuel, so they can be deployed in remote areas, where household demand for energy is low, and at a lower cost compared to more conventional energy options.

Energy poverty: the Pacific Island context

Pacific Island Countries are characterized by small size, long distances between islands, and isolated populations. they face unique and difficult challenges in supplying electricity to rural households. Currently, seventy percent of the population in Pacific Islands lacks access to modern forms of energy. (3) In most Pacific Island Countries, grid-based, publicly distributed electricity is provided only on the main island and supply to rural areas is limited. (4) But the proportion of the population with access to electricity varies considerably from country to country, with universal access to electricity in Niue compared to less than ten percent in Papua New Guinea as Table 1 below illustrates.

Until recently, rural electrification strategies have focused on providing energy to rural communities using conventional fossil-fuel based options, such as extension of the electrical grid and installation of centralized, village diesel generators. …