Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
For a few years, I managed a combination of businesses on a very remote 100 hectare (250 acre) South Pacific island. The main businesses were a shipyard; a machine shop building aluminum boats and water tanks; a banking agency; a postal agency; a buying point for locals selling copra (dried coconut), beche-de-mer (sea cucumber), and trocus shell; and a trade store. About 80 acres of the island were planted to coconut, which was harvested and sold. In addition to getting into the 1000-Metre Sweat and the Two-Month Wait as Olympic events, I learned a lot about the logistics and the economics of running a business on an island in the middle of nowhere. The operation was, of course, diesel-powered. You can’t run a big lathe on a few batteries and some solar panels. So I know the problems of supplying fuel in remote islands in the most intimate and personal way, because I was the person who had to arrange the fuel supply, the guy who took the heat when it ran short. I have also looked very, very closely at the economics of coconut oil as an energy source.
As a result, I was both glad and sad to see that the island nation of Tokelau was switching their entire energy system to solar power plus coconut oil … because Tokelau is definitely in the middle of nowhere …
Let me explain why I have mixed feelings about the changeover to the two alternative fuels, solar and coconut oil.
The first problem has nothing to do with energy sources. The difficulty is that as near as I can tell, the islanders have no stake in the project. The New Zealand Aid Programme is “advancing” the money to Tokelau, in the form of hiring a New Zealand company to purchase and install all of the solar gear. This kind of “parachute aid” tends not to last, because the local folks don’t have any skin in the game. If the people living in the area don’t take ownership of a project, if they don’t have to sweat to make the project happen, the odds of success plummet. I will be quite surprised if the “advance” of six million dollars from New Zealand Aid ever gets repaid. That’s a huge debt in a nation with the worlds smallest economy. Not just a small economy, the world’s smallest economy, and one of the poorest (182nd out of 194 countries in GDP/capita). So the project has a very shaky foundation.
Regarding solar and coconuts, let me take the easy one first, coconuts. Yes, you can run a diesel engine on coconut oil … if you have the oil. Figure 2 shows the main and largest atoll of the three atolls that make up Tokelau. It contains about half the land in the country. Like many atolls, it is in the form of a ring, with the widest and solidest individual islands on the windward side of the atoll. A coral atoll is not a solid thing. It is a hesitation in a storm-driven river of coral sand and rubble. As a result, on the side where the storms hit, the river of coral rubble is larger, and the islands are longer and more connected. Typically, none of the individual islands rise more than a few metres above sea level. The long island at the lower right of Figure 2 is only about 300 metres (1,000 ft) wide.
Figure 2. Nukunono, the main atoll of the three atolls (Atafu, Nukunono and Fakaofo) that make up the island nation of Tokelau. 5.53 miles equals ~ 9 km. There are about 1,200 people living in Tokelau, and there are about 5,000 Tokelauans living in New Zealand … go figure. Total land area is about 10 sq. km., but a good chunk of that is bare sand and uninhabited islets.
As you can see, there is very little usable land in Tokelau, and that’s the first problem with the coconut oil plan. It takes a heap of coconuts to equal the energy in a barrel of diesel. And it takes a heap of land to grow a heap of coconuts. I should know, coconuts were one of my businesses. And on the coral atolls of Tokelau, there’s very little spare land at all.
Next, humans and coconut palms have travelled together around the Pacific for a very good reason. Coconut palms are an astonishing plant. They can transubstantiate the worst soils, even the salty coral sands of tropical atolls, into rich oil, milk coconut meat, and fats. There are only a few food plants that can grow on the coral rubble and sand, so coconuts are very important to the nutrition of the children, because the coconut milk, meat, and foods cooked in coconut milk make up a large portion of the kids’ diet.
As a result of those issues, for me, on the atolls any coconut oil that gets burned is taken directly from the children’s nutrition … and I can’t see that as being a brilliant plan. Sure, on large volcanic islands like Fiji or the Solomon Islands it makes sense. Those islands have acres and acres of land on which they can and do plant coconuts. But on the atolls? Very doubtful.
Next, the solar question. In the US people say “What goes around, comes around.” In the South Pacific, I used to say “What goes around … stops.” The combination of heat, sand, humidity, and salt makes tropical islands one of the most corrosive and destructive natural environments. As a result, even “hardened” or “weatherized” systems tend to have both a high infant mortality rate and a short life expectancy.
The whole solar package consists of over 4,000 solar panels, 392 inverters, and 1,344 batteries. I would suggest that the lifetime of the batteries and the inverters will not be large. And who will do the repairs when they come due? I have looked at a variety of solar systems that have been installed in some of the more remote Pacific islands … hey, evaluating solar systems on tropical islands is a brutal job, but someone had to take it. Let me say that long-term success in Pacific solar systems is far less common than failure …
Finally, the entire concept of maintenance is quite foreign to the mindset of most Pacific Islanders. I ascribe this to the lack of winter. If you live in say Norway and you don’t plan ahead for the winter, you will die … which puts a real premium on, and selects for, folks who not only think about tomorrow, but act before tomorrow arrives. In the tropics, on the other hand, there is no winter, and no need to plan for the future. Here’s an example.
I once visited a lovely island in the outer reaches of Fiji in order to look at a solar system that they had installed. It was all designed to be foolproof … but the people in the islands are no fools, they are quite ingenious.
In order to keep the batteries from being killed by being drawn down too far, the people who designed the solar system had wisely designed it so that it would only provide power until the battery voltage fell below a certain threshold. At that point, the system was designed to shut off entirely to protect the battery. However, some enterprising soul found out that if you stuck a paper clip or a bit of wire between a certain pair of the contacts on the controller, it would let you drain the batteries entirely … and as a result, every battery on the island was stone, cold dead.
I was new to the Pacific at the time, and I didn’t understand that at all. Didn’t these folks think about what the future would bring when their batteries were dead? But it was all explained by what happened as I was leaving the island. We were all getting in the boat to depart, when a charming guy I’d met on the island came running up with a string of fish. He said “Here, I caught these, take these fish with you.”
I tried to demur, saying “Keep some for yourself, are you sure that you have enough for your wife and your kids?”, because I knew he had a whole passel of children.
“Oh, yes,” he said, “I have plenty. I have kept enough fish for all day tomorrow.”
I realized at that instant that I had just witnessed the long-term time horizon for event planning on a small island … the end of tomorrow. So I didn’t bother to lecture him on smoking fish and salting fish and pickling fish and all the stuff that a good Norwegian burgher would do. I took the fish, and I thanked him profusely.
And I realized later that his response was indeed much more reasonable than mine—the fish would keep much better swimming around in the lagoon than they would last as salted fish in a hot environment …
Sadly, however, while this point of view worked fine for many, many years, it doesn’t work all that well these days when it comes to the maintenance of complex machinery … and while solar systems are better than most in requiring minimum maintenance, they still do need to be maintained. This does not bode well for the future of the Tokelau solar system.
Fortunately, since the Kiwis are putting up the money, none of this really matters. Let me say, however, that my prediction is that in ten years, Tokelau will still be importing fossil fuels for a host of uses, and that much if not all of the solar system will be quietly rusting away … I could be wrong, and I truly hope that I am wrong. I hope that the good folks of Tokelau realize what they have, and that they learn to cherish and maintain and protect it so it serves them well, long into the future, and that they repay the six million dollar “advance” to the Kiwis …
I just wouldn’t bet any money on that happening.
PS—Why do I think the “advance” from New Zealand won’t be repaid? Well, GDP per capita in Tokelau is about a thousand bucks a year … but that doesn’t mean that an average individual earns that much cash in a year, much of that is subsistence farming and fishing, or government income from tuna fishing licenses. What little money the people have goes to things like school fees and clothing and medicines and the like. Most people survive in large measure because of “remittances”, money sent back to the “old country” by Tokelauans living in New Zealand and elsewhere.
The CIA World Factbook says:
The people rely heavily on aid from New Zealand – about $10 million annually in 2008 and 2009 – to maintain public services. New Zealand’s support amounts to 80% of Tokelau’s recurrent government budget. An international trust fund, currently worth nearly US$32 million, was established in 2004 to provide Tokelau an independent source of revenue. The principal sources of revenue come from sales of copra, postage stamps, souvenir coins, and handicrafts. Money is also remitted to families from relatives in New Zealand.
The annual government expenses in Tokelau are four times their revenue … a neat trick made possible by the New Zealand Government making up the shortfall each and every year. In other words, forget about affording to repay the “advance”, they can’t even afford the government that they have.
Six million dollars divided by the 1,200 inhabitants of the atolls is a debt of about $5,000 for every man, woman, and child in Tokelau. Or we could divide it by the “labor force”, which the CIA Factbook puts at 440 souls, which means a debt of about $13,600 per adult …
Given that disparity, I see no feasible way that the advance will ever be repaid. Which is perfectly fine, it simply means that solar energy in Tokelau is just another NZ Aid project, good on ya, Kiwis … but let’s not pretend that it is a loan.