Funafuti has gone solar!

Well, despite my best intentions to give you regular updates on our big solar project in Funafuti it’s been two months since my last blog. After a slowish start, which gave me a bit of spare time to write about what was happening, the workload and the pace of the job really took over. Now, 12 weeks after we started, it’s finished and I’m back in our Auckland office.

Talk about climate change. After weeks of working on a tropical island in 32 degree heat I’m now crunching across frosty ground on my way to work and happy to be indoors.

To give you a quick recap, we were installing 648 panels on two government buildings on the island of Funafuti which is the capital of Tuvalu - a tiny atoll north of Fiji. You may have heard of Tuvalu, not because it’s a holiday destination (less than 300 tourists last year) but because it’s one of the first countries which will disappear under water if climate change is left unchecked.

Most of the locals I spoke to are aware of climate change (far more than most Kiwis) but don’t appear too concerned. They’re used to the weather dictating daily life and taking the good with the bad. An increase in the number of storms and their severity are going to be the more obvious signs of a warming planet before rising sea levels have an impact.

As they’re so exposed to the elements Tuvaluans see getting power from the sun as a logical choice. However, they’re a little sceptical having seen other solar projects fall over due to a lack of support from the installation companies.

Without solar, all their power has to come from diesel generators. That’s not only expensive (most Pacific Islands spend a significant portion of their GDP on diesel for power and vehicles) but burning fossil fuels for energy is contributing to climate change which, in a cruel twist, is threatening their homes and way of life.

I’ve worked on a number of solar projects in the islands and this was the toughest as I was there from start to finish, juggling a number of roles and dealing with issues ranging from a missing forklift driver to sudden downpours of rain hampering our tight and exhausting schedule.

The island diet was challenging to say the least. Every meal comes with a mountain of rice, vegetables are rare and, at one point, the island almost ran out of food due to a supply ship delay. So, despite what most of my friends and colleagues think, it was no junket.

Once the final panel was installed we still had a lot of work testing and commissioning the system and training  people how to run it. This is a really important aspect otherwise it’s like giving a teenager a car and expecting them to learn to drive without any help. Unlike other island solar projects, which have failed due to lack of support, we’re here for the long ride. We want to make a real difference to our Pacific neighbours, like Tuvalu, which until now have had no choice but to rely on fossil fuels to power their communities.

Our system will generate enough power to cover around 5% of Funafuti’s annual demand. They’ll save about 62,000 litres of diesel per year or as I put it in my interview on Tuvalu Radio - enough to drive the 12km length of the islet we inhabited 74,000 times!

By the end of the three months I’d learnt a lot about island life and met a lot of the locals. We joke that there’s only a couple of degrees of separation in New Zealand but on Tuvalu it’s definitely just one - everyone knows everyone. And for me that included the Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga who attended a party at the end of the project shortly before I got on the plane to come home.

All going well, I’ll be heading back in a few months’ time to check everything is working smoothly...and to thaw out after the New Zealand winter.