Tongan Government Moves Forward on Goal for 50% Renewable Energy by 2015

Urgent economic need is driving a transformation of Tonga’s energy system

by Zachary Rybarczyk

Can you even imagine the United States setting a 50% target for renewable energy production by 2015?

Perhaps the U.S. could look toward the Kingdom of Tonga for some inspiration.

Tonga is one of many Pacific island nations that have set very ambitious renewable energy goals. Officials have set a goal of procuring 50% of power from renewable sources by 2015.  Ambitious? Absolutely. But the transition is a matter of economic necessity.

Launched in 2010, the Tongan government laid out its Tonga Energy Road Map (TERM) in order to reduce carbon emissions, improve its electrical grid, and cut its dependence from foreign energy sources. Because Tonga is so dependent on imported resources for its energy needs — particularly diesel, which is used for 98% of electricity production — renewable energy systems are attractive:

The Tongan economy and electricity consumers have been exposed to high and volatile electricity prices linked to oil prices over the last ten years. Between 2001 and 2004, the average price of crude oil increased from around US$25 per barrel to around US$40 per barrel, an increase of 60%. In the next 4 years to 2008, the average price of crude more than doubled to a peak of around US$100 per barrel. In late 2008, crude oil prices dropped and continued fall into early 2009 averaging around US$62 per barrel during 2009. Diesel prices tracked the price of crude oil and led to Tongan electricity rates exceeding TOP1.00/kW-h in late 2008. Crude oil price is expected to increase in the future based on projections from the United States Department of Energy.

During the oil price spike in 2008, Tonga’s economy screeched to a halt. And since then, with oil prices continuing to rise, many consumers are not able to afford electricity at all.

In order to combat this problem, the island state recently received support from different organizations to execute on the roadmap for 50% renewable electricity.

With grants from the government of New Zealand to upgrade and expand outdated grid distribution, and technical support from the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Program (REEEP) to expand its renewable energy portfolio, Tonga could very well become “a blueprint for other Pacific Island states that are grappling with similar challenges,” said Martin Hiller, the Director General of REEEP.

In January, Tonga signed an MOU with project developer Madsar and the Abu Dhabi Fund for construction of a 500-kilowatt solar PV project on Vava’u Island. The project will provide affordable, clean power for over 13% of Tonga’s 110,000 citizens.

The government  has already broken ground on a large solar farm on its main island of Tongatapu with the help of another New Zealand grant, which will result in significant “diesel savings of around half a million liters a year, and around two-thousand tons of carbon emissions will be reduced per year as well.”

That’s one of the major differences between inertia in the U.S. and swift action in a place like Tonga: economic urgency. Until America faces an acute crisis, political leaders will likely continue to drag their feet on clean energy.

Below, Al Jazeera reports on the need for renewable energy in Tonga:


8 Responses to Tongan Government Moves Forward on Goal for 50% Renewable Energy by 2015

  1. Joy Hughes says:

    Projects like this can really benefit from community ownership. We envision a world where everyone can own their own solar panels.

  2. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    At a dollar a kilowatt, solar is very cheap, it is just a matter of getting the financing up front. Puerto rico is in a similar position, with alot of oil fired generation. Many third world countries rely on oil for electric generation, and can easily be converted to solar if there is financing. The oil is expensive, and it must be shipped by trucks on bad roads, today’s relatively cheap solar can greatly improve all aspects of life in these countries, while also cutting down on pollution and giving people energy independence. Wall $treet does not like this!

  3. thanes says:

    Decentralization of power generation will be an important step in the decentralization of power. Currently 10 of the world’s largest 20 corporations are in the fossil fuel industry (one of those is a car company, so it is dependent right now on fossil fuels). In addition, the trillions of subsidies the US gives to fossil fuel companies in the form of excess military force and aircraft carriers to provide a stable environment for oil extraction, also results in a more-difficult to account for tendency to use them (unless there was some actual logical reason W was acting on when we invaded Iraq). The enormous, beneficial changes we are about to experience as we move to renewable energy dwarf the transient pessimism I feel when I think of the temporary but dangerous delays the fossil fuel companies are paying Murdoch and his ilk for and the more gullible and fearful people of the world who fall for it.

  4. Leif says:

    “Wall Street does not like this!” You said a mouth full there nyc-tornado-10. Wall Street, along with fossil exploiters, have been ridding the high profit free polluting energy horse for a couple of hundred years now. They both have invested billions of $$ during that time greasing skids to promote the status quo to their benefit. It is all they know. The present economy revolves around those underpinnings of the Capitalistic/Corporate thinking. To even contemplate alternatives gives them both the heebie-jeebies. “We the People” allowed this to happen primarily because we have been preoccupied with our daily bread. Now the very foundation of our daily bread, climatic stability, threatens all and the internet has allowed all to start to see the dire implications. Fossil exploiters and kin are fighting a rear guard action to prevent the facts from penetrating the awareness of the masses but the laws of physics refuse to corporate. Time to change the rules… Please hurry!

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Our basic problem, which lies behind every ecological crisis, social malady, economic debacle and geo-political disaster, is capitalism. Capitalism makes greed the highest virtue, places the worst in society in power and cannot compute the value of anything in terms other than dollars and cents. It is quite literally antithetical to life and living diversity, in that it homogenises and pasteurises everything, turning it into an undifferentiated goo of profit and loss, and that in monetary terms alone.

  6. Eric B. says:

    nyc-tornado-10 said “At a dollar a kilowatt, solar is very cheap…”
    You must have meant a dollar a watt, and that’s the current artificially low price only for the PV panels, which is likely to go up some. The “online capacity” price includes the costs of the other system components, the design, the labor, and any infrastructure costs (grid connection, etc.) You are correct in the larger sense that solar pricing now is at a historical low (which is why there has been a flood of investor $ in large-scale solar projects in the US), but this is also partly driven by government policy and market fluctuations. Even if installed solar PV is more expensive than the current price of coal-fired electricity – we still need to support it, and we need to start thinking about storage.

  7. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    That’s correct, i should have written a dollar a watt, and that’s installed capacity.

    This article is not about solar in the US, it is about solar on a small island nation, where there is very little infrastructure of any kind, including energy, so they rely on diesel powered generators, which is very expensive, in this case a dollar a kilowatthour. A solar panel will usually generate 1.5 kwh per watt of capacity within 30 degrees lattitude of the equator. 1.5kwh * 1dollar/watt comes out to a dollar fifty each year. Assuming 4 dollars a watt for installation of a solar system, this will only take 3 years to pay off. The system can offset power from a diesel generator, or it can work with batteries, or both. Anyway you look at it, it greatly reduces the cost of power compared to using a diesel generator as the sole source of power. On this island, it pays to buil a solar pv system just to offset the high cost of oil, even if you need the deisel generating capacity for when the sun is not shining.

    In the US, or any country where there is a massive infrastructure to transport energy and goods, solar usually costs more than coal or gas, although this may not be the case in all markets. The cost of building solar pv plants in the southwest deserts is supposed to be around 2.50 a watt, which may be cost competetive with coal or gas. Also, it takes less than a year to build a solar pv plant, fossil fuel is 5 years or more.

    Solar is currently effective for use as a daytime peak source of generation in the developed word, not baseload. We need continued government support for research and implementation of solar, but in the case of isolated parts of the developing world where oil is the only choice, solar just needs financing to offset the extremely high cost of oil.

  8. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    ” A solar panel will usually generate 1.5 kwh per watt of capacity within 30 degrees lattitude of the equator. 1.5kwh * 1dollar/watt comes out to a dollar fifty each year.”

    This should read,

    “1.5 kwh a year per watt of capacity within 30 degrees lattitude of the equator. 1.5kwh/yr * 1dollar/kwh comes out to a dollar fifty each year.”