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Power to the People

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When you walk up to the Power House at Tuila, there is something that is not quite right, something is missing.  Then you realise that it is awfully quiet. There is no noise. There is no slight whiff of burnt fossil fuel in the air. In fact there is no steady rhythm of the diesel generators – but there is no power cut, the island still has electricity.

Welcome to the cutting edge of renewable energy. This is the new world of PVs, Tesla storage cells, micro-grid controllers and the like.  Cutting edge? Well, maybe not – solar power technology has been around for while but it’s certainly new for the island. And the scale is way beyond anything we’ve seen thus far. This is a far cry from when electricity was first introduced.

It all started in a small shed overlooking the landing in Alofi. The year was 1924 and the New Zealand Administration had installed radio equipment that enabled contact to be made with Apia, another of Wellington’s outposts in the Pacific.  From Apia, the messages could be relayed to Wellington. But to operate the radio transmitting equipment, another vital piece of equipment was needed, more specifically a generator to provide electricity. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history, in a manner of speaking. In reality, it took a few more decades for that modest introduction of electric power to trickle down to the rank and file.

Power House Manager Hui Paola – pic Talaniue.

It was not until after World War II that some thoughts were given to the provision of electricity, but not for the island as whole but for selected government operations such as the radio station and the hospital and the residence of chief administration officer the Resident Commissioner. The best that the locals could hope for was to get their wet-cell 12volt batteries charged at the radio station so that they can power their radio receivers, those very few who were fortunate enough to own one.

In the early 1950s, with Wellington turning its attention towards improving life on the island and with more public servants arriving on secondment, a generator was installed at Amanau. A young electrician Ernie Welsh was recruited to supervise the installation. He didn’t know it then, but Ernie was destined to marry a local lass Hine, raised a family and to spend his final days on the island.

Through the 50s and 60s, the supply of electricity was available only in Alofi. In most local homes, a typical installation would be two or three lights and one power point. For those who did not live in Alofi it was kerosene pressure cookers and kerosene pressure lanterns.

Solar Panels Funded by NZ – Pic Talaniue.

It was not until the late 60s and early 70s that definite plans were made for the reticulation of electricity island-wide. In those early days the decision was made to use underground cabling. Experience in Alofi had shown that overhead cables were prone in tropical hurricanes but getting the cable underground proved to be a particular challenge. A D8 bulldozer with a ripper was used but while this was successful in breaking the hard coral, manual labour was still needed to form a trench. And then someone discovered that there was machine, made in Canada at that time, called a ditch-witch which can dig a trench in a straight line using a spinning wheel. Almost overnight, with the aid of the ditch-witch, the cables were quickly laid and for the first time, the villages other than Alofi, from Makefu to Tamakautoga, were able to put away their kerosene lanterns for good. The age electricity has finally landed on the atoll.

Given the all pervasive nature of electric power on modern day life, it is difficult to imagine how the island could have existed without it. That total reliance was never more graphically illustrated than when a catastrophic fire broke out at the power house in May 2006. The fire was apparently caused when a built-in safety system had failed to detect an overheating problem. It destroyed half the power house and the generators and switching equipment. After a week without electricity, the whole island was suffering from withdrawal symptoms. It was several days before New Zealand was able to provide assistance to restore power.

If that was not bad enough, the newly created Niue Power Corp was about to be confronted with another serious problem. The cable which had been buried underground for some 30 years was breaking down; experts say that for the cable to have lasted that long was implicit endorsement for the cable manufacturers. What followed was a series of interruptions that drove consumers to despair and subjected Niue Power to an unprecedented barrage of criticism.  Only a few informed souls on the island were able to understand and to accept that Niue Power’s ability to deliver a reliable service was dependent entirely on the resources made available by the tribal wise-people at the Fale Fono. Clearly, the government needed to take action.

Once more New Zealand was able to provide assistance in renewing the cables and replacing transformers.

In 2009 photovoltaic cells – solar panels – started making an appearance. New technological developments had seen the cost for PVs dropping to a more affordable level.

Panels funded by the EU – pic Talaniue.

When Premier Sir Toke Talagi announced that his government’s intention was to look at solar energy to provide up to 80% of the island’s electricity requirement, his critics were unconvinced. The island had, after all, some experience with solar panels, with both the European Union and the Japanese Government funding two arrays. Installing the panels was one thing – connecting it to the national grid was quite something else.

Government information showed that in 2014 the total installed capacity of solar PV was 343 kWp. kWp stands for kilowatt peak and it is a measure of how much a system of solar PV can produce at maximum efficiency.  However because of grid instability only 80 kWp was connected to the main power supply. And so for a year or two, the very visible solar panel arrays, served more as a billboard for the donors than providing electricity for the island. Something needed doing.

Following the release of the government’s Strategic Energy Road Map 2015 – 2025, this time there appeared to be a more co-ordinated and determined approach to providing the island with renewable alternative energy.  In the meantime, the island continued to experience power interruptions.

High Tech Tesla Batteries – pic Talaniue.

As Of Now

The policy and planning for the island’s energy requirement rests with the Ministry of Infrastructure. Government’s aim, if it follows its own Energy Road Map, is to increase the amount of electricity generated by solar energy to 80% of total requirement. The task of carrying out that policy rests with the Niue Power Corporation.

Board member for the Power Corp Mr Poi Kapaga, who is also the government’s financial secretary say that the Corporation is pleased with the progress it is making in weaning the island away from fossil fuel in favour of renewable energy. To help Niue on its way, the NZ government has provided and is continuing to provide some serious assistance.

In 2018 a New Zealand based company PowerSmart NZ Ltd were awarded the contract to install a substantial array of PVs at Kaimiti. The company had successfully installed a similar system in the Tokelau Islands, where the three atolls of Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo were now powered by solar panels.

Towards the latter half of 2018, Niue was to discover that it is one thing to have a nice array of PV cells, it was quite another to get it to work and to provide power to the people. Following a number of power outages – some of it unrelated to bringing solar power on-line – there were murmurings regarding the reliability of the new system. The engineers commissioning the system said that they needed time for testing the system. Not on my island declared Premier Sir Toke on national radio and certainly not at the risk of even more disruptions to the power supply.

Poi Kapaga said that the Premier was concerned that Niue was being used as some kind of a test-bed for solar energy. “The challenge in getting the system up and running was to bring the different components from different suppliers – the PVs and generators – together and to make it work”, says Poi Kapaga. “Essentially they needed to communicate better”.  While the engineers and consultants continued to work to solve the problem, the power outages continued to plague the island over the festive period. Social media went into over-drive. The folks at Niue Power hunkered down as best they could and continued to absorb all the flak over something they had little control over.  

Eventually, by January 2019, the engineers and consultants had sorted the problem.  They can now combine both energy sources, solar and diesel generator, to deliver the power.

The Good ole Work Horse – the Ditch Witch – pic Talaniue.

“All the large PV installations at the Airport, Kaimiti and Tuila Power House are now running,” said a much relieved Poi Kapaga. “On a bright sunny day, we’re averaging 10 hours a day on solar power” he said.

At the Power House in Tuila, the manager Hui Paola and his staff are adjusting to the fact that when the diesel generators are silent, it just means that the system has sufficient solar power to meet all the island’s requirements. When Talaniue visited the Power House on a sunny morning, at the control centre, we could see for ourselves that the solar energy was slowly building up to the point where the Tesla storage batteries were showing 75% charged, at which time, the diesel engine had shut down. Another click of the mouse by Hui Paola and another screen appeared showing that combined power of the Tesla batteries and the solar panels was delivering a total of 1.3 megawatts.

So what happens when there is no sun? “That’s when the generators kick-in”, explained Paola. “When the storage batteries are charged to 75% of their total capacity, the generators will drop out and the island’s total power is provided by solar energy.  If the battery drops down to 65%, one generator will kick-in. When the batteries drop to 30% both generators will run and help recharge the batteries.” Poi Kapaga and Hui Paola agree that the island is on target to achieve 80% solar energy by 2025. The lifespan for the solar panels is approximately 20 years and about 15 years for the storage batteries.

When it comes to cost savings, it is early days yet but the expectation is that there will be significant reduction in the use of diesel. One diesel generator can burn between 500 to 700 litres of fuel over an eight hour period. For two generators running over a period of 24 hours can burn between 1,200 to 1,500 litres. Without being overly pedantic, there will probably a savings in cost of bringing diesel to the island of say $1 million.

The burning question for consumers has to be: will there be any reduction in the electricity charges? Again the officials say it is early days yet but the fact is that power to the households is still being subsidised by the government. There are also ageing transformers to be replaced. It is unlikely therefore that there will be any reduction in power charges anytime soon. Clean energy is the best we can hope for.

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