Solar Power Systems To Be Implemented In Northern Cook Islands

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Australian company touring islands to assess community needs

By Calida Smylie

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, July 9, 2012) – An Australian design group is working to power part of the Northern Group of the Cook Islands using solar energy.

Solar power systems will be developed on Rakahanga, Pukapuka and Nassau with US$4 million which Japan donated to the Pacific Environment Community (PEC) fund.

A group of three designers from the Centre of Appropriate Technology (CAT) Projects, which won the tender for the solar system design work, and three government renewable energy development division (REDD) staff went to the Northern Group for 12 days, arriving back last Saturday.

They visited Rakahanga, Pukapuka and also Manihiki, with the hope that the NZ Aid Program will help fund solar systems there.

While on the islands, they looked at possible sites to set up central solar power stations, possible use of existing structures and storage areas, and environmental impacts.

The design brief is for a central solar farm, where solar panels collect the sun’s energy to be used by residents during the day. Excess energy will be stored in batteries to provide power throughout the night.

Energy is converted from solar direct current to conventional alternating current and distributed normally, with diesel only used as back-up.

[PIR editor’s note: Meanwhile, work is scheduled to begin on upgrading Prime Minister Henry Puna’s office with 16 solar panels, which will reportedly supply up to 16 kilowatts of energy daily. Puna has been a vocal proponent for renewable energy use in the Pacific and recently pledged that half of all Cook Islands energy will come from renewable sources by 2015.]

The island communities discussed their needs with CAT designers, as while the solar system for each island will be similar, different populations will change the system’s size.

The group also talked to communities about how to use energy efficiently.

"Funding is limited," says CAT project engineer Paul Rodden, "so we have to design to deliver."

The design company, which is based in Alice Springs in Australia, is well-practiced at setting up solar systems in small communities.

Rodden says they have set up over 150 renewable energy systems in Aboriginal communities in the Australian outback, and have also worked in India.

The design process will take about three months and should be ready by the end of September.

REDD PEC fund co-coordinator Ngateina Rani, who went on the trip, says the tendering process for building contractors will take another three months, with work due to start next year.

He says while the initial project costs are large, the ongoing cost to the community is minimal and goes on maintenance and new batteries, which need replacing every seven to ten years.

The rate tariff for solar power use has not yet been calculated by the government.

The Northern Group is the focus of this project due to their frequent fuel crises. But eventually the Southern Group will benefit from solar power too, says Rani.

Rodden believes the project is a "really worthwhile" one to be involved in. After CAT has finished the design work they will stay on as quality control and to help instruct local contractors do maintenance work.

"These islands are either un-electrified or highly dependent on diesel. It’s a no-brainer to make this move to solar power."

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