Posted on January 10th, 2013

Outside the Box – Solo Solar

Tokelau is a territory of New Zealand that covers only about 10 square kilometers of land, but it’s residents are taking a stand that countries far larger should take heed of. This island nation will be the first to be completely powered by solar energy. Not just their government buildings, but everything on their expanses will soon be powered solely by the sun. The territory is made up of three atolls (coral reef islands) and is comprised of only 1,500 inhabitants, but the message they are sending to the world is that they want to be completely energy self-sustainable. Currently, they employ biofuel generators (which will largely be fueled by their excess of coconuts) in tandem with their reliance on solar energy, but they are taking the necessary strides to completely cut themselves off from their 2,000 barrels of diesel a year habit. According to the Tokelau government website, they will be able to supply 150% of their energy needs, saving them some $850,000 a year with an excess supply left to grow into!

The islands are located about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand in the Pacific Ocean, and are approximately 300 miles north of Samoa. There is a fourth island (Swains Island) in the block, but aside from its geographic presence, it has little else to do with Toeklau as it is under United States control. Perhaps due to its locale, the American government will join in the experiment to gain a better understanding of how to maximize the sun’s potential in a tropical environment.

Tokelau was originally commandeered and turned into a string of coconut plantations, but those have been abandoned for the most part. The nation has taken other steps to become more environmentally conscious, for instance, declaring its surrounding waters as a shark sanctuary. There have been efforts to return the islands to their natural foliage, but much of the scrubby overgrowth from the coconut tree plantations remain. Non-native mammals such as the Polynesian rat have also taken their toll, and only time will tell if there is a push for its removal to return the islands to their original conditions.

Tokelau_QB_60cmnatcolor_12_15_2003_ENHANCE_II
As the polar icecaps continue to melt, this atoll will no longer be visible from above. Image captured December 15, 2003 by the 60-cm resolution satellite, QuickBird, and comes courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Photo enhanced by Apollo Mapping.
Tokelau_QB_60cmnatcolor_12_15_2003_ENHANCE_I
The island nation of Tokelau is only three islands, and perhaps had this nearby atoll had a little more land to offer, it would be a 4-island nation. Image captured December 15, 2003 by the 60-cm resolution satellite, QuickBird, and comes courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Photo enhanced by Apollo Mapping.

The project to go solar cost approximately $7 million, and had to overcome several logistical headaches to be completed. For instance, there is no airstrip on Tokelau so a large barge was anchored just off the coast to help ship workers and supplies in from Samoa. As Pacific nations often struggle with providing consistent electricity, there is a high probability that the Tokelau project will be emulated by other remote island chains. Neighboring Samoa and Tuvalu have set green energy goals for 2020, and the Cook Islands will install solar panels and wind turbines in the near future.

The solar panels on Tokelau were built to withstand the island’s corrosive humidity and strong winds, while the heavy-duty batteries that are regenerated by the panels will provide energy on the days when there isn’t enough Sun to do its job. The cars on the island and the cooking establishments will primarily run on coconut oil which is in abundant supply. While Tokelau is taking the lead on going green, it wasn’t the first to do so. A tiny island off the coast of Denmark called Samsø went 100% clean with wind turbines in 2007. Tokelau is entirely altruistic in its move to energy independence as they are very concerned about rising sea water levels due to global climate changing. The island’s highest point is only 5 meters above sea level, so by reducing their carbon footprint, they seek to extend their longevity. Hopefully their model will translate to other countries, and we can help keep them above water for perpetuity!

Justin Harmon

Staff Writer

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