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The energy access challenge in the Pacific [part one]

22 April 2022 | By Paul Makumbe, Regional Director for the Pacific, Camco

Few can argue about the beauty of the Pacific; white sand beaches, coconut trees, turquoise waters, the almost year-round beautiful weather... But while that paints an attractive picture, there is nothing to rival the warm Pacific smile and welcoming nature of the people who live there. Any visitor will, I am sure, recall many a bellowing “bula” or “malo”, which come from the genuine appreciation of you choosing to call by their wonderous part of the world.

Such is the warmth and passion of the welcome, you might never suspect the perils the Pacific faces today. From rising sea levels to catastrophic floods that used to be once-in-a-century events but now occur twice in a decade, Pacific islanders are on the frontline of climate change. Making matters worse, energy poverty remains rife on many islands, limiting both the income-generating opportunities of adults and the education of children, while simultaneously restricting islands’ capacity to build their own resilience to the threat of climate change.

Energy access across the Pacific lags behind global standards, largely due to two main factors: the dispersed nature of the islands and their low populations. Taken at face value, these issues are seen not to warrant the same level of urgency that is applied in Africa or Asia by both the international donor community and private sector participants working to meet SDG7 and ensure energy access for all. Indeed, Africa and Asia have attracted significant investment in recent years, and continue to do so as the need to solve the energy access conundrum remains critical.

The solutions and focus paid to the Pacific Islands today is mostly notional. Save for Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the participation of international multilaterals remains largely absent, or is focussed on large-scale multi-year marquee projects akin to flag-planting without the follow up to ensure the sustainability of the projects.

There is no denying that the dispersed nature of the Pacific Islands makes the electrification of rural communities through grid extension extremely challenging. The Pacific Islands have seen numerous lantern and solar home system programs over the years. However, these initiatives have not enabled real productive use of energy activities and can be limiting the full potential of true energy equity. To enable true energy equity the Pacific needs to progress the roll out of renewable energy mini-grids and make them an integral part of rural electrification, just as they are becoming in Africa and Asia.

Given that the Pacific region suffers the impacts of climate change more acutely than most, it is imperative that the electrification and decarbonisation potential that mini-grids offer receives the recognition it deserves.

The roll-out of mini-grids in the Pacific region requires innovative solutions encompassing the entire value chain - from business models and technical advances to broader private sector involvement, financing and regulatory changes - to succeed.

  • Look out for Paul's next installment, where he will be exploring what these innovative solutions look like and how they can be achieved.

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