Image: Powersmart Solar Director Mike Bassett-Smith
Tokelau, world's first solar power nation
By Keri Welham
A Mount Maunganui company is spearheading a pioneering project to transform the diesel-dependant South Pacific nation of Tokelau into the world's first solar-powered country.
Powersmart Solar is lead contractor on the Tokelau Renewable Energy Project (TREP). This winter, the island nation's diesel generators are being replaced with 4032 solar panels (one megawatt of solar), 392 inverters, and 1344 batteries (each weighing 250kg).
Powersmart director Mike Bassett-Smith says the TREP will enable Tokelau to be the first country to meet 100 per cent of its climate change obligations, while becoming the first wholly solar-powered nation on earth.
At present the country's diesel generators burn around 200 litres of fuel daily – 2000 barrels a year shipped in from New Zealand at an annual cost of NZ$1million and considerable environmental impact. Tokelau's population of 1400 can count on only 15 to 18 hours of electricity each day.
Tokelau's solar power system, designed to survive cyclone force winds of 230 km/h, is due to go live following a commissioning ceremony late in September. It will provide 24-hour electricity and Tokelau will only need fossil fuel for its tiny fleet of three cars.
The solar power plant is spread across Tokelau's three atolls - Fakaofo, Nukunonu, and Atafu. Powersmart's custom-designed solar system will provide 150 per cent of the nation's current electricity demand, allowing Tokelauans to expand electricity use without increasing diesel demand.
Diesel-dependence is just one environmental calamity in a country where drought has necessitated the importation of water via costly, environmentally-taxing shipping and every imported product (and person) must travel two days by boat from Samoa.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says Pacific Island countries are among the most petroleum-dependent nations and territories in the world. The UNDP contributed around US$450,000 and significant technical support over 11 years towards the goal of solar powering Tokelau. The Government of Tokelau also leveraged approximately NZ$8.5 million (US$ 6.8 million) in grants and soft loans from New Zealand for the TREP.
Tokelau's government estimates the country will save 12,000 tonnes of CO2 over the life of the solar power plant. During periods of prolonged cloud cover, generators that run on coconut oil will supply power and simultaneously recharge the battery bank.
Powersmart has six staff currently in Tokelau. Bassett-Smith says the company prides itself on extreme efficiency and thorough systems. In an isolated environment like Tokelau, mistakes are costly.
Tokelauans have provided the manpower for the project; learning new skills specific to the building, care and running of a solar power scheme.
Powersmart is a Kiwi business run by three ex-pat Canadians who met at university. Bassett-Smith (whose father is a New Zealander) and Shane Robinson moved to New Zealand and began developing the concept for a solar initiative on two laptops in a lounge. However, the idea quickly grew and, in 2007, they called Dean Parchomchuk out to New Zealand to help. The three directors are all 33 years old.
Today, from its solar powered Mount Maunganui head office – some 3500km from Tokelau - Powersmart is playing a significant role in the evolution of the South Pacific's solar industry. However, the company's directors insist Powersmart will not rest on the fact its core operation is within the sustainability sphere. It also strives to be a clean and socially-conscious company in all operations and staff management.
Powersmart relocated to portside Mt Maunganui from its original Bay of Islands base to improve operational efficiency in terms of cost, time and land transport emissions.
Directors and the company's 12 staff are encouraged to bike to work two days a week. The success of this initiative has been so significant that, during the 2010 financial year, it was estimated staff biked to work a combined total of 144 work days, over an average return distance of 4km, for a total carbon offset of 120kg CO2.
"Those sorts of things are important to us," says Bassett-Smith. "We take a holistic view to what we do."
There is an onsite hammock for naps, a ping pong table and a giant Bernese Mountain dog comes to work every day with its owner. Volunteering is actively encouraged and one staff member spent a month in Indonesia working on an environmental project. After six months with the company, employees are given sponsorship for a gym membership.
Bassett-Smith says sustainability and environmental impact are considered in everything from packaging to printing to office cleaning products. In 2010, the company calculated the limitless takeaway coffee tab it had provided as a staff perk contributed to the use of more than 1725 paper cups annually. That was unacceptable to Powersmart so a coffee machine was installed and double insulated glass coffee cups were provided to eliminate the need for reheating.