Grid Scale, Hydropower, Solar

Solar in Paradise: Remote PV Systems Offer Power in the Pacific

Issue 3 and Volume 12.

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is one of the youngest nations in the world, released into independence in 1986 after a tumultuous history under various colonial powers. FSM covers a land area of just 702 km-squared but an enormous Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that covers some 2.9 million km-squared of ocean, containing some of the world’s most productive tuna fishing grounds.

Of its 607 mostly low-lying islands (located north east of Papua New Guinea, between the equator and 15°N) and stretching a vast 2500 km from east to west, only 76 are inhabited by a total population of around 120,000.

FSM has one of the best solar resources in the world, with an average 5.5 peak sunshine hours per day, and is therefore ideal for solar energy generation. Meanwhile, its remote location also makes the cost of imported fossil fuels extremely high.

A lengthy process

The REP-5 programme (Renewable Energy Programme – Support to the Energy Sector in Five ACP Pacific Islands) is being implemented by the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat, supported with funding from the 9th European Development Fund (EDF 9). The five countries covered by the programme are the FSM, Nauru, Niue, Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The Programme Management Unit consists of a consortium of IT Power, Transénergie and ADEME, with an office in Suva (Fiji) and a sub-office in Pohnpei (FSM).

The countries all chose ‘renewable energy’ and ‘energy efficiency’ as the key activities of REP-5, aiming to reduce their dependency on imported fossil fuels and increase the availability of environmentally sound electricity distribution to outer island communities.

The overall objective of the programme is poverty alleviation by improving access to electricity. This will hopefully reduce rural migration, reducing pressure on urban society by allowing diversified economic activity and improved living standards on the islands.

An inception report for the implementation of the programme was written in 2006 which identified a preliminary list of suitable projects in each of the five countries. Subsequently, a lengthy process started to confirm suitable sites; hold discussions and consultations with local authorities, utilities and island communities; carry out feasibility studies; design the PV systems; write technical specifications and tender documents; and evaluate bids – before installations could start at the end of 2008. In addition to this, several workshops and awareness campaigns were conducted.

New to solar installations

The preparations finally led to the arrival of the containers loaded with the system components on FSM’s capital island, Pohnpei, at the end of October 2008, along with a small team of installation supervisors and engineers.

They kicked off the implementation phase by training a select group of more than 80 technicians and interested government employees, most of whom had never installed a solar panel before. The trainees came from various backgrounds; some were working for local utility companies, others for vocational training institutions, as well as some from a newly established private renewable energy company. Everybody was on a steep learning curve.

Apart from training, a lot of other preparations had to be made during the first month: containers loaded with equipment had to be unpacked, checked and sorted for onward shipment to the outer islands; and special battery carrying racks to facilitate the lifting of the heavy batteries from the small boats onto the beach had to be fabricated locally.

Schools, dispensaries, offices and entire islands

A total of 16 sites were selected to receive a solar PV system, ranging in size from 2.5–25 kWp. The smaller systems were installed on dispensaries, while the larger ones were powering lights and computers in schools. The two largest installations, 20 kWp and 25 kWp respectively, were installed on islands in Yap state, feeding power into mini-grids serving individual households as well as some public buildings on both islands. Thus, Yap was the first group of islands in the North Pacific to be 100% powered by renewable energy, but more specifically, Asor, located in the Ulithy atoll, is the first island in the North Pacific that is 100% powered by solar energy.

All the solar systems were designed with the corrosive environment in mind; the panels are all situated less than 50 metres away from the ocean, which creates a very destructive environment, especially for electronics and support structures.

Though every effort was made to source equipment that could withstand the harsh, salty and humid environmental conditions encountered in these islands, no IP65-rated MPPT charge controllers for this size of PV systems were available in the market. Consequently, the performance of the charge controllers will have to be monitored carefully, and to counter potential failure the project has made provision for adequate spares, with long-term manufacturer warrantees in place.

The solar systems have generously-sized solar PV arrays to improve battery recharging capacity and the likelihood of longer battery life. Professional deep cycle storage batteries, with sufficient electrolyte reservoir and sealed connection terminals were used, and the inverters are fully sealed against the extremely hostile local environment.

Open seas transfer

Towards the end of November 2008, the Caroline Voyager left Pohnpei harbour carrying the solar components and installation teams for the first series of installations on the Southern Islands of Sapwuahfik, Nukuoro and Kapingamarangi.

One of the main logistical challenges of this project was to transport the equipment and installers to the remote islands. The Caroline Voyager is the only ship in the FSM which regularly sails to the outer islands, forming a vital lifeline for islanders. But given the large number of islands, visits are necessarily far apart – some islands only get visited once every six months.

Another big challenge faced was the landing of all the equipment on the islands, given that components – including batteries weighing up to 124 kg each – had to be off-loaded onto small fibreglass boats which would ferry them ashore. The transfer often had to be performed on the open seas. On one occasion one of the batteries fell into the water, but miraculously remained intact and could be salvaged and installed.

Once all the equipment was ashore, most installations took just three to four days to complete, with the exception of the Yap mini-grids which took up to 10 days to install. There was great co-operation from the islanders, who were very keen to see the systems up and running.

Involving the local community

Training local operators was seen as essential for the longer-term sustainability of the PV systems. The local operators were taught how to assess the current status of the systems, top-up the batteries, clean the PV panels, and to keep a daily logbook of the main system parameters. The latter will help technicians to monitor and analyse system performance over time.

Battery status indicator lights inform the operators of the state of charge of the battery bank at the end of each day – some basic demand-side management could take place by decreasing the load if the batteries ran low.

Community acceptance and involvement is an essential component of this kind of programme. It was quickly realized that there needed to be a lot more communication between the utility that was going to run the PV mini-grids and the beneficiaries, and efforts were made to improve and create a sense of ownership among the island communities concerned.

The users will also be educated in the conservation of energy and will actively participate in demand-side management when using their electrical appliances – not only on the islands with the PV systems, but nationwide.

On each remote island the community will be assisted to create an electrical supply committee. The committee will ensure the number of electrical appliances will not go beyond the installed capacity and that the systems will be well maintained, helping to avoid over-usage of the systems as designed. This was particularly relevant for the two mini-grid installations, since they were supplying power directly to private households and end-users will have to pay for their electricity consumption.

A local community energy mobilization and education committee was planned to be set up, but due to the remoteness of these communities and lack of transportation (no planes or boats served the islands for many months due to a fuel crisis), this process was not started until the installation phase had begun.

Taking on the ‘digital divide’

For most of the islands the only way to communicate with the outside world is via HF radio powered by a small solar system. The quality of communication is often poor and fickle, depending on atmospheric conditions. With the installation of the new large solar systems, introduction of satellite-based communication systems is one step closer and is being considered as a next phase to the programme. Not only can the satellite link be used for communication, but also to bring the internet to island communities and help close the so-called ‘digital divide’. Children on remoter islands could start learning how to use computers and surf the web, and be on a par with their peers in the rest of the country or even the world.

During one trip, the installation teams took a VSAT satellite transceiver and dish antenna to demonstrate the feasibility of such a system on the outer islands. This was done in close co-operation with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), which is keen to introduce these systems on the islands. They are also ready to introduce the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) scheme into schools – now that they can be reliably recharged with the new school PV systems.

Disappearing beaches

One of the sad realizations during the four month installation period was that climate change and sea-level rise is hitting FSM hard. Locals talked of how their beaches are disappearing and shoreline palm trees have started toppling into the ocean.

Salt water intrusion is also an ever-increasing problem for many of the low-lying atolls of FSM, causing extensive damage to taro patches and breadfruit trees, on which the island communities rely for their sustenance.

In December 2008, waves and tidal surges of up to three metres swept across many low-lying atolls, causing severe flooding and damage to crops. The President and Congress of FSM quickly responded with a US$1.4 million Emergency Food Relief Program for the outer islands of the FSM.

If current sea-level rise trends continue, eventually most of the low lying atolls (already barely more than a metre above mean sea level) will disappear under the waves, forcing inhabitants to relocate.

REAM

On the brighter side, a promising spin-off initiative from the EU REP-5 programme, was the incorporation of REAM – the Renewable Energy Association of Micronesia – on 3 February 2009.

REAM intends to become a window for the private sector companies of the FSM in the field of renewable energy technology. It will provide market insights, data and information for global system component suppliers, as well as potential donor countries.

Some of the aims of REAM are to:

  • Raise awareness and promote the use of renewable energy technologies in the FSM
  • Monitor all renewable energy industries in the FSM and work as an ‘umbrella’ organization
  • Develop professionalism in local renewable energy industries
  • Liaise with similar organizations in the Pacific region and facilitate the inter-agency co-ordination in the field of renewable energy
  • Organize renewable energy programmes, training workshops and community-based projects throughout the FSM.

 

This is only the beginning…

Despite the difficulties in getting these first 16 PV installations up and running, the real challenge still lies ahead. Maintaining these remotely located systems is not going to be an easy task, and it is one that will have to be sustained for many years to come.

Batteries will need regular topping-up with distilled water, which will have to be supplied from the capital – until a method is found to make distilled water locally, for example by using solar stills.

A major concern is corrosion, which will undoubtedly start affecting the systems over time, no matter how carefully considered during the design phase of the system and the selection of its various components. Indeed, several old solar systems were on some of the islands, many of them no longer functioning, often due to corrosion and poor maintenance.

The local operators of the systems have received basic instruction on how to run the system and the dos and don’ts, but this will not be enough to sustain the systems in the longer term. The systems will have to be visited regularly by a team of solar technicians who will have to be trained and re-trained in more advanced maintenance and servicing – including trouble-shooting routines.

A post-installation support programme is planned. This will firm up the local operators’ ability to use the systems and build capacity in local service companies to provide professional maintenance and troubleshooting skills to the remote solar systems.

All challenges aside, this roll-out of solar systems has already made a significant difference to the communities of these islands and are undoubtedly an appropriate and cost-effective energy solution for remote Pacific island nations.

Jos van den Akker is a freelance renewable energy engineer.
e-mail: [email protected]

Peter Konings is a renewable energy engineer working for IT Power.
e-mail: [email protected]

Axel Scholle is a renewable energy consultant, based in Cape Town. Carsten Michelsen is regional manager of Phocos AG.

Useful websites:

One Laptop Per Child: www.laptop.org

Secretariat of the Pacific Community: www.spc.int

IT Power: www.itpower.co.uk

REP-5: www.rep5.eu