The New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research is funding a major study to assess the feasibility of a Polynesian pathway to a more sustainable, low-cost, energy future without electricity grids.

The project is being undertaken by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (lead), the University of Auckland and Solar City.

A renewable future …

Using renewable energy to expand access to affordable, reliable and clean energy in the Pacific is a priority for governments in the region. Renewable energy targets feature prominently in all their Nationally Determined Contributions submitted under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Assisting states reach these commitments is a flagship investment priority of New Zealand’s current aid programme.

Currently, solar power is being used in Polynesia to augment fossil-fuel power generation, with the power being fed into existing grids. Electricity grids are expensive to install and maintain and can easily be damaged in adverse weather conditions. Increases in demand by existing consumers connected to the grid can require expensive upgrades.

… without electricity grids?

The ongoing reduction in the cost of solar panels and the increase in the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of batteries might be combined to mean that electric grids can be replaced with local solar generation and storage facilities. Costly and fragile electricity grids might become a thing of the past.

A two-staged approach

The first stage of the research, which is currently nearing completion, is a desk-based study designed to answer important questions about the economic and technological viability of replacing electricity grids with decentralised renewable systems in Polynesia.

If Stage 1 confirms that replacement is a viable option, Stage 2 will involve case studies in Tonga, the Cook Islands and Samoa designed to test that proposition on the ground.

The New Zealand research team will partner with local researchers to gather in-depth knowledge of the current systems in place in the countries studied and develop practical road-maps to chart the technical, economic and implementation paths to a more sustainable energy future. A key focus will be on how to build local capability in planning and implementing of a different type of energy system.

A final report will be published by NZIPR by the end of April this year.