A one-megawatt solar panel array has been erected across the three atolls to provide its more than 1,400 residents with 150 percent of their electricity needs. It comes at a cost of £4.7 million, which might seem pricey considering the territory’s entire GDP is only £187,000 — but the long term savings from not having to import diesel and petrol will more than make up the cost in the long-term.
The 4,032 solar panels and 1,344 batteries have been installed by New Zealand company PowerSmart. The original plan was to generate 93 percent of Tokelau’s needs, with the remainder coming from burning coconut oil. It turns out that the panels can actually manage up to 150 percent of Tokelaun energy requirements, but the coconut oil is still around for cloudy days, working by night and emergencies.
The total capacity of the network on Tokelau has been estimated as greater than 1,400 megawatt hours, with a reduction of more than 950 tonnes a year in carbon dioxide emissions. Tokelau’s total contribution to global carbon emissions may be miniscule, but the issue is incredibly urgent for Tokelauns, as it is with many other Pacific islands — the highest point of Tokelau is only five metres above sea level. Some small parts of the three atolls may survive rising seas, but fresh water supplies have already been contaminated by salt water seeping in from the surrounding, creeping ocean.
Tokelau is not an independent country in its own right — it’s actually a territory of New Zealand, made up of three coral atolls located about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. Its population is small (just over 1,400) and its total area across the three atolls of Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo is roughly 10km2. Like many Pacific islands, its economy is dependent not so much on tourism but selling stamps and internet real estate — as of 2012,a sixth of Tokelau’s GDP came from sales of its .tk domain.
That small economy means that Tokelau has a budget deficit of£1.4 million, which New Zealand covers with aid. Since Tokelau was already spending more than £500,000 a year on importing fuel for generators, the solar panels are an important step towards greater independence for Tokelauans. The nation is currently moving towards an eventual state of free association with New Zealand, which will allow it to govern itself domestically but leave international representation to the larger country — similar to the relationship between the UK and the Channel Islands, for example.
Other countries which get their energy from renewable sources include Paraguay (from huge hydroelectric dams) and Iceland (from a combination of hydropower and geothermal energy). The UK still barely scrapes beyond six percent of total energy coming from renewable sources, unfortunately.