Powering change in Vanuatu
The air is blistering, but the wind brings relief. The sand under our feet is hot as we wait for Amos, the ferryman, to ready his boat and take us on board. Ahead is a short boat ride from Efate to Lelepa island.
Our first moments on the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu are stunning. A sparkling, turquoise sea set against the emerald of the islands off the Efate shore, with a spotless sky as a backdrop.
“This is Hat island,” says Antony Garae Liu, Director of the Department of Energy at the Ministry of Climate Change. To our left lies a perfectly hat-shaped island, which is the burial site of a famous chief.
Lelepa is small, around five kilometres long, with about 100 households. Its main livelihood is fishing. Rising sea levels, extreme weather, and acidifying oceans will make it more and more difficult for island communities across Vanuatu to live in harmony with nature and rely on its resources.
Today fishing boats are still returning with a bountiful load and trees are laden with mangoes and coconuts. The one thing not in abundance is a very basic commodity: electricity.
In Vanuatu, only four out of 83 islands are on the national grid. The others struggle with solar home systems and fossil-fuel powered generators.
To remedy this and work towards Vanuatu’s ambitious climate target of generating all its energy by renewable means, the Ministry of Climate Change is piloting a so-called swarm grid.
It uses power-storing 200 watt cubes which are connected to solar roof panels. The swarm grid ensures that full system outage is impossible. A failure of one cube will immediately be compensated for by other units in the system. Easy maintenance makes this system highly viable for the outer islands of Vanuatu. If more power is needed, more cubes can be added.
The technology is supplied by Power-Blox AG, an award-winning Swiss company providing automated and decentralized electricity.
“Our challenge is to electrify communities where households are far from each other. It seems that the power blox can be a solution to this, and we are waiting to see if we can scale this innovative solar-powered approach across other islands of Vanuatu,” says Antony Garae Liu, Director of the Department of Energy at the Ministry of Climate Change
The installation happened in a few days at the end of October. The power cubes were shipped from Switzerland, while cabling, solar panels and other supplies were provided by local power and communications provider PCS Limited. Villagers chipped in as cables had to be laid out underground and solar panels fixed on rooftops.
Three power cubes supply 600 watts, enough for the church and four community buildings.
Chief Technology Officer Alessandro Medici shows how easy it is to hook up the cubes and monitor their performance remotely.
Brownie Billy maintains the cubes. “Alessandro taught me how to hook these cubes up and what to do in case there is a problem. I am a retired helicopter pilot, and can honestly say that working with these cubes is as simple as a breeze.”
Paramount Village Chief Reuben Natamatewia says the cubes will have a profound effect on village life.
“This is the first step into a great future. Once our village is fully electrified, we will be able to refrigerate and process our daily fish catch, so we don’t have to hurry over to the mainland. It will be possible to power the pump for local drinking water supply from the bore well, so that we don’t have to fetch water from the mainland. The schoolteachers and students will be able to benefit from the copying machine and printer. The sewing machines in the mama’s house will allow our ladies to be more profitable in their handicraft production.”
Alessandro has found a new friend in Chief Reuben. They are equally excited about the continuation of Lelepa’s electrification, which will take the island into a power range of up to 10 kilowatts. This will cover daily electricity needs, allow refrigeration and processing of fish, full-scale handicrafts production as well as powering refrigerators for the vaccines at the health centre.
As we walk down to the shore to climb into the boat that will take us back to Efate, we notice a traditional fishing boat. “We have been fishermen for generations,” Chief Reuben says. “It’s a careful balance out there on the waves. And just because we can get around faster with an outboard motor, it does not mean that we don’t want to experience being one with the sea every now and again. All new things need to be examined carefully, and it’s not to say that we throw away our traditions just because we adapt new ways.”
Ambitious climate action is urgently needed to realize the vision of a resilient, sustainable and low-carbon future for our planet. That’s why UNDP’s climate promise aims to support at least 100 countries in stepping up their Nationally Determined Contributions by 2020.
The island’s electrification is part of the global NDC project, funded by the organizations below.
Text by Ildiko Hamos. Photos by Ildiko Hamos, Alessandro Medici and Timea Luette