Green energy in the Pacific

A guest blog from Henrietta McNeill, head delegate at the Samoa SIDS conference with the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute (AYLI).

In an abstract amalgamation of my regions/countries of interest, today I was invited to attend the official opening of the Samoan solar photovoltaic array funded through the New Zealand-European Union joint partnership.

This was of particular interest to me, as a New Zealander, who grew up in Samoa, who worked for the European Union, and assisted with the organisation of the Pacific Energy Summit (2013) which led to the conception of this partnership. The opening was timed (planned) perfectly to coincide with the 3rd United Nations Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) held in Samoa this week.

Fa'a Samoa

Firstly, I would like to comment on the fantastic structure and features of the event. Everything had been thought out to encompass the sense of partnership this event had. A local representative of the church was invited to give a prayer and blessing for the food and land to be used, in accordance with the Samoan culture of incorporating religion. Similarly, instead of using wasteful styrofoam plates, as have been used throughout the SIDS conference, the food was served on plates woven from fresh palm leaves. This retained the image of sustainability that a renewable energy plant opening should have. Giving local ownership to the project and thinking about the overarching reasons for doing it, gave this opening more credibility than an average "show and tell event" held within a major international conference.

The array itself was actually very impressive. At 2.2MW, it is expected to cover 4.5% of the total energy demand in Samoa, and supply electricity to approximately 4,400 families. It spanned the inside third of the Apia Racecourse, which provided for an entertaining entrance driving around the racetrack when we entered.

Kiwi partnerships

New Zealand is becoming increasingly well known for instituting solar arrays in the Pacific. In recent years, Tokelau has become one of the first countries in the world to be entirely run on renewable energy, and many islands in the Cook Islands are moving towards a 95% renewable energy outcome also. When I visited Niue earlier this year, an array was being built near the airport. I commend this use of otherwise unused land (such as the middle of a racetrack) for development projects that are going to significantly benefit the community. Also, as the arrays are in areas where people will go, the excitement is generated in the population when they are built and the locals have a positive view of the project.

The use of a partnership to fund the project was a fantastic idea. NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully, and EU Commissioner for Development Andreas Piebalgs have made some significant partnership dialogue occur in the Pacific region in recent years. As FM McCully stated today, New Zealand is a small country, and has become very good at working with larger donors and utilising their funds for development projects. I was slightly surprised that FM McCully took most of the credit for the project, having only put in $7.5m to three projects across the country. However, the European Union was thanked significantly for its involvement, considering they bankrolled most of the project. New Zealand, it was suggested, was the negotiator, with strong Pacific ties and access to Samoa, while the EU was a funding enabler.

EU buy in

Renewable energy is a hot topic in partnership dialogues around development. The European Union have developed an Energy Partnership for the Pacific, which has included significant increases in annual funding in the area of renewable energy in a time when development aid in general is decreasing. Similarly, for New Zealand, the commitment was made at the Pacific Energy Summit for Pacific countries to have 50% of their energy sourced from renewables by 2030. The UN has called for similar action, through the Sustainable Energy For All (SE4A) initiative run by Ban-Ki Moon.

All of these commitments to renewable energy sources and development projects show the impetus placed upon the issue: the need to act now and mitigate climate change (which is affecting SIDS the most) is urgent. However, access to reliable and inexpensive energy sources is also paramount to sustainable economic development, which is encouraged by both NZ and the EU in the Pacific. It can also encourage local capacity-building, if islanders are able to build, use and fix the machinery involved in the array.

The EU-NZ partnership seems to be an effective one in the Pacific so far, with over 78 other projects started at the Pacific Energy Summit last year worth $635m, alongside this array. The EU does not tend to focus so much on countries so far from its immediate borders, so I hope that the EU continues to be an active and normative player in sustainable development alongside New Zealand, encouraging the use of renewable energy in efforts to combat poverty and climate change. The EU has certainly encouraged NZ to push beyond its commitments, contributing to 25 renewable energy projects in the Pacific, worth over $80m.

With good friends, comes effective and beneficial outcomes for all involved. I would like to see these friends become even more effective leaders in climate and development programmes in the Pacific, through their current trade and framework talks.

Photos: Henrietta McNeill. Views expressed are Henrietta's and do not necessarily represent Oxfam's.