In 2012 PowerSmart's Dean Parchomchuk spent around six months working on the three remote atolls that comprise Tokelau, helping to bring almost 100% solar power to the region. Ahead of the Pacific Energy Summit in Auckland in March, NZAID asked Dean about the challenges of bringing solar power to remote sites, and why renewable energy solutions like solar are so important for the Pacific.
How long did the Tokelau Renewable Energy Project take to complete?
Powersmart’s installation team was in Tokelau five months. It took us on average seven weeks to complete each system on the three atolls. However our work began from the foundation up. Much of the hard work was clearing land, building concrete foundations for the solar arrays, and constructing new buildings to house batteries and electronics. These aspects were covered entirely by Tokelauans, but we had a PowerSmart representative oversee the construction jobs. He was in Tokelau for six months and overlapped the install team. Overall, PowerSmart had a presence in Tokelau for nine months. Including the months preparing to go to Tokelau, the entire project was approximately a year.
What was the main challenge you found working on the remote islands?
Our main challenge was the remoteness. Just getting equipment to Tokelau required chartering an entire freight vessel to carry the 1000m3 of freight from Auckland to Tokelau. There are no ports in Tokelau. When the vessel reaches Tokelau, it simply drifts outside the reef, so the freight is packed in loose pallets then offloaded one piece at a time via the ship’s crane onto a barge that can carry about a dozen pallets per load. The barge is just small enough to fit through a reef pass to reach the shore. As with any project we had minor hurdles. For example, if you realised that the quantity of some cables had been under estimated, you cannot simply ring up the electrical wholesaler and order more to be delivered tomorrow. To have even small parcels sent to Tokelau requires shipping to Samoa first where is goes to the Tokelau Liaison Office. The boat from Samoa travels once every two weeks carrying passengers and freight. When items are required urgently, it can be frustrating to have freight delayed at Samoan customs, or the boat schedule changes due to weather or other factors.
On the personal side, we found the remoteness challenging. Our install team was five men including myself and Shane Robinson, another Director of PowerSmart. Shane and I also had our wives and young children with us. We were all accustomed to our way of life in NZ where we can simply head to the local store almost any time of day to get nearly anything we may want. On Tokelau, each atoll has one store primarily selling food. The store gets new stock when the boat arrives every two weeks, but depending on the capacity of the boat and what is available the store may not get new stock of everything. So there were times when the island is out of flour, rice, eggs, or meat. Getting fresh produce is difficult. We had someone in Samoa send us fruit and vegetable on the fortnightly boat. Fresh fish was in abundance though.
How was PowerSmart’s work there viewed by Tokelauans?
For the most part, I think the Tokelauans were excited about the project. A real benefit about the way the project was structured was using local labour for the majority of the works. Apart from our five-man install team, the Tokelauans did all the work. In doing so they learned about the system quite intimately. These are the same men that used to offload hundreds of drums of diesel onto the islands every year. So they have a thorough understanding of what the solar power system means for their atoll.
Some residents were concerned that the new system would negatively affect how they used electricity. But the reality is, it is an improvement over the diesel generators they were accustomed to. Firstly, power outages are less frequent now because the solar power system is more reliable than the generators. Also, when there is a power outage, power can be restored quickly. When there was a power outage with the diesel generators, the Power Authority needed to re-start the grid in sections so the start up currents of the inductive loads such as electric motors did not come on all at once and overload the generator. The whole process could take an hour. The new solar power system can easily handle the start up loads of all the refrigerators and fans so re-starting the grid is simply a matter of flicking the switch. Many of the power outages of the past were caused by the generators being overloaded. All it took was too many people turning on their hot water jugs at the same time. The inverters in the solar power system can deliver far more instant power than the generators so overloading the system is virtually impossible now.
Now that PowerSmart has returned to NZ, who will maintain the installations?
As part of the installation we trained Tokelauans how to the operate and maintain the systems. Some of the main workers assisting with the installation were the members of the Power Authority. They were already operating and maintaining diesel generators and the distribution grid. They were generally trained as electricians or at least electrically inclined. They assisted with the more technical aspects of the installation so they could learn the system inside out. We also ran training seminars in the evenings for the Power Authority. They are now the operators of the system and we simply monitor the system remotely via the internet and provide consultation when needed.
How many photovoltaic panels, inverters and batteries were installed in total?
Across all three atolls there are a total of 4032 photovoltaic modules rated at 230W each, making the total installed capacity of photovoltaics on Tokelau 927kW; or nearly 1MW.
These are remarkable numbers because it means Tokelau is currently the largest “off-grid” solar power system in the world. Typically photovoltaic systems of this scale are grid-tied, meaning there are no batteries and the system feeds energy into a grid with other generation sources. On Tokelau, the solar power system is the sole generation source.
There are 1344 batteries installed across the three atolls. These batteries are not your typical car battery. They measure approximately 80cm tall and weigh nearly 200kg each. Altogether the amount of energy storage in these batteries is over 8000kWh; enough to power an average NZ home for a year. Bringing the photovoltaic modules and batteries together are 392 inverters and DC charge controllers. These components form the controls for the system. Having so many individual components allows for redundancy in the event of a failure. A component could potentially fail and the overall system would maintain operation. The local operators have been trained to replace each type of component if necessary. Extras of each piece of equipment have been supplied as well.
Why is solar power and other forms of renewable energy good alternatives to diesel for Pacific island countries?
The main driver for renewable energy in remote countries such as Tokelau is economic sustainability.
When you add up the cost of the diesel, plus the cost to transporting the diesel and maintaining generators, it was initially expensive to deliver electricity to Tokelau. Across the three atolls, they used to burn over 1000 drums of diesel each year. The upfront cost of the solar power systems was expensive but the operating costs are minimal, so long term they are saving money.
Solar power is an obvious resource to take advantage of in the Pacific. There is no winter, so the solar resource remains relatively consistent year round. And unlike wind energy, there are no moving parts to a solar power system. Moving parts means more maintenance and a higher likelihood of failure. In remote locations like Tokelau it can take a long time to get parts and/or technicians to repair components such as wind turbines.
Will PowerSmart be present at the Pacific Energy Summit in Auckland in March?
Yes, PowerSmart will be attending.