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Renewable Energy Challenge in the Pacific

Shi Dinghuan & David Morris

Speech to the PECC/China Renewable Energy Society Expert Seminar on Renewable Energy and the Pacific Islands

Beijing, 4 June 2015

Professor Shi Dinghuan, Counselor of the State Council and President of the China Renewable Energy Society, Your Excellency, Sela Molisa, Ambassador of the Republic of Vanuatu, distinguished guests.  Thank you to the International Eco-tech Cooperation Committee, China PECC, for organizing today’s important discussion.

I am delighted to address this most important topic for the Pacific Ocean and indeed for the world.

Secure and reliable energy is critical to support our economies and future economic development to support communities from the small islands of the Pacific to the major economies of the world, such as China.

While previous generations have relied upon relatively stable supplies of fossil fuels, we are reaching a tipping point in our energy use.

No longer can we afford to rely upon fossil fuels, in a world that the consensus of scientific opinion tells us is warming, with rising sea levels and other manifest evidence of global climate change.

This is understood only too well in the Pacific.

In remote Kiribati, for example, a nation of 100,000 people, scientific forecasts indicate that its low lying atolls will be inundated and its drinking water contaminated by saltwater, making much of the nation uninhabitable by 2050.

Currently, renewable energy cannot satisfy all of our demand but decision makers the world over are seeking more of a balance between traditional sources of energy and renewable sources.  At the same time, research and development, in particular in China, is bringing affordable renewable technologies within reach and in a wide range of applications.  Small island grid systems are now feasible and can indeed be important test beds for larger renewable projects the world over.

As testbed sites, the Pacific Islands economies are diverse.  The members of the Pacific Islands Forum range from Australia, a resource-rich developed economy, and Papua New Guinea, a resource rich but developing nation, to tiny coral atolls that are seeing the daily impact of rising ocean levels, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu.

I am not going to address my comments to Australia or New Zealand, but to focus on those smaller, developing Pacific Island economies.  My organisation, Pacific Trade & Invest, promotes their interests in trade, investment and tourism and we are keenly aware of the energy challenge as we seek further economic development in these fragile island states.

In the small nations of the Pacific, balancing traditional with renewable sources of energy for electricity generation means reducing reliance on expensive, imported diesel-generated energy and increasing solar, wind and other sources such as locally produced and consumed biofuels.

The Pacific Island Countries are pursuing this transition by reducing and aiming for the eventual removal of subsidies to fossil fuels, improving energy efficiency and increasing energy conservation.  There is also important work underway in policy development, skills, capacity building and public awareness.

The Pacific Island Counties have been supported in this transition by the work of the Pacific Island Greenhouse Gas Abatement through Renewable Energy Project (PIGGAREP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and important research by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

The research and feasibility studies have led to the development of public policy strategies and commercial opportunities in renewables.

Some examples include Samoa, which is rapidly developing solar and wind capability and aims to achieve 100% renewable electricity by 2017.

Tiny Tokelau, three Polynesian islands with just over 1,000 inhabitants administered by New Zealand, has already reached that goal with an aid-funded solar project.

Vanuatu is also advanced in shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy.  Innovative renewables company Unelco, supplies small-scale and affordable solutions for local communities without needing to invest in high cost infrastructure.  It has solar power facilities and wind turbines and is also developing biomass utilizing coconut oil fuel and all types of wood and green waste.  Currently Unelco only has infrastructure access to half of Vanuatu’s population of 250,000 and electricity coverage is below 20% of the population.  There is potential for growth in coverage with further investment and this is a similar story in many of the Pacific Island Countries.

Papua New Guinea has enormous renewable energy resources.  In Papua New Guinea, around 65% of electricity is generated by hydro power.  A small proportion of the population has access to electricity and, unusually, private generation is about equal to electricity generated by public utilities.  This is because large mines, plantations and other resource extractive industries have their own sources of power, often renewables in the form of hydro, biomass and geothermal energy in addition to diesel-powered generation.

Despite the potential to transition to renewable sources of electricity, in the Pacific Islands, it is actually the transportation sector that accounts for 75% of fossil fuel consumption.  That raises different challenges.

Across the Pacific there is much work to do in developing appropriate policy frameworks, public awareness, funding sources, commercialisation and institutional strengthening to support the transition to renewable energy.  But it is happening and it must happen.

The people of the Pacific are experiencing the reality of climate change and it is a real and present threat to their continued way of life and their further economic development.  The nations of the Pacific welcome cooperation with China and other nations in tackling the renewables challenge and appreciate the support received to date.

Together we can develop the solutions for these small countries and their success can be a showcase to the world.  The successful transformation to renewables in the Pacific can be a demonstration to the generations to come that we value this unique part of the world, its resilience, its communities and its prosperity.

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