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By Giff Johnson

For Marianas Variety

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (April 15) - The Marshalls Energy Co. took over management of a solar power program Friday for a remote outer atoll, becoming the first power company in the north Pacific region to deliver both diesel- and solar-powered electricity.

The Marshalls Energy Co., which operates two 12-megawatt diesel-power plants in Majuro, the capital, has taken over responsibility from the government for the operation and maintenance of all solar systems in the country.

Namdrik Atoll has over 100 household solar systems provided through an aid project of the French government. It is the first remote rural community for which MEC is now operating solar power. But with European Union funding expected to kick in next year for a major expansion of solar power in this central Pacific nation, MEC will soon have a network of solar power operations in the Marshall Islands.

Solar power customers on Namdrik are paying a flat rate of $12 per month for the service, in addition to the $100 user fee that was initially paid for the equipment. The monthly charge will be reviewed after three months. But assuming everyone pays on time and stays current with their bills, the monthly rate may drop by at least $2 per month, MEC general manager Billy Roberts said.

The government turned over management and maintenance to MEC in recognition of an earlier failed attempt to establish solar power use on the outer islands. In the mid-1990s, France funded the installation of solar units in Namdrik Atoll. But with no maintenance built into the program, within three years most units were not operating properly.

France agreed to fund a second project to reinstall solar units in Namdrik last year, with the agreement that MEC will supervise maintenance and operations. MEC has hired two former Resources and Development solar technicians to provide day-to-day support for the Namdrik solar project.

Roberts believes that with the backing of MEC – which runs diesel-power operations on Majuro and two outer islands, Wotje and Jaluit, and is the only utility in the country that is profitable – the solar power program can take off and be sustainable for the long-term in contrast to the experience of the 1990s.

"We were impressed with the quality of the installations that were assisted by MEC Majuro employees and the maintenance that the Ministry of Resources and Development, now MEC, employees are carrying out," Roberts said.

"We will be sending some additional spare parts and building materials to Namdrik next week," he added.

In the long term, Roberts said MEC will double the installed 75-watt capacity to 150-watts, which is what the next solar project in Mejit Island will provide. This upgrade will allow use of more electronic devices.

MEC is the first power company in the North Pacific to assume responsibility for solar power and is supported by the European Union, which is making solar funding available through the Pacific Power Association next year, Roberts said.

Power companies in other islands are expected to follow the Marshall Islands government’s and MEC’s lead in "privatizing" solar management in the near future, he said.

April 15, 2004

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