July 30, 2012 at 8:31 PM ET
A project to convert the tiny island nation of Tokelau to all solar power is nearing fruition, as workers finish the first of three major panel arrays. Once activated, the installations should provide more than 90 percent of the power used by the islands' 1,711 residents.
Tokelau is a remote nation northeast of New Zealand comprising three atolls, to which goods and passengers can only travel by boat. Their electricity needs, though modest, are met by burning diesel fuel in generators. The transportation of the nearly 2,000 barrels of fuel consumed each year costs the population around a million dollars — a heavy toll.
The three solar arrays will generate about a megawatt in total, and batteries will keep the lights on at times when Tokelau's citizens previously could not afford to run generators. They are designed to withstand the humid and windy tropical environment, and actually produce a surplus of power, meaning the population can expand without taxing the system.
"We would expect this system to repay itself in five years, and have a 20-year project life before it needs any sort of significant maintenance," the director of Powersmart, the company that built the arrays, told 3 News in New Zealand.
The roughly nine million New Zealand dollars (around $7.3 million US) needed to plan and build the installations was taken out in loans from the New Zealand government and contributed by the U.N. Development Programme.
When the installations are switched on in September, fossil fuels will only be necessary for the three cars maintained by the country. Other countries and territories in the area, motivated by high fuel costs, plentiful sun, and relatively small populations, are also working on going all-renewable. Tuvalu, Samoa, and the Cook Islands may soon be the second, third, and fourth countries to rely almost entirely on solar power.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.