How can a whole developing country switch to renewables? The example of Tonga

tongaContinuing the theme of renewables, here’s a (small) developing country which has decided to pursue an energy transformation. I bumped into a Chatham House researcher called Cleo Paskal the other day, who was singing the praises of the Pacific island of Tonga. She wrote a piece for the Toronto Star on this – here’s a précis. Tongans are fiercely independent – it’s the only unconquered country in the Pacific – and they decided that they didn’t want to be beholden to the one thing that seems to keep even the world’s largest countries captive: imported energy. And so, the Prime Minister, Dr. Feleti Vaka’uta Sevele, with the blessing of the King, convened a cabinet subcommittee to look at all renewable energy options available to Tonga. And a target was set for 50 per cent renewable energy in Tonga by 2012. This involved rethinking its relationship with aid donors. For decades, Tonga has been on the receiving end of international aid, but often what is given, and where it goes, is decided by the donors. For example, $30 million came into the country for solar panels, but that went to people living on outlying islands, while 80 per cent of the population lives in the capital. Also, it was mostly for lights, which were not a high priority for locals compared to, say refrigeration or communications. The prime minister declared that he didn’t want any more of the sort of aid and established a new renewable energy department, headed by a respected Tongan, `Akau’ola. One of his first orders of business was to reinvent the relationship with aid partners. “Often, the first thing development partners do when they come here is to tell the government that it is duplicating and wasting resources,” `Akau’ola explains. “But they themselves do exactly that. In order to get around that, we decided to identify a sector, in this case the energy sector, and have all development partners coordinate solutions through one organization, in this case the World Bank.” Those solutions are not limited to a massive rollout of appropriate renewables. Also being considered are regulatory and institutional changes, and whether Tonga should develop a strategic energy supply, or hedge on energy prices. In another innovation, the country is going to have an energy poll, in which the population is asked exactly what its energy priorities are. And the energy sector isn’t the only one in which Tonga is leading the way. The Environment and Climate Change ministry is in the process of conducting one of the world’s most comprehensive national assessment of environmental change impacts. By talking with experts, from scientists to village elders, they are finding evidence of coastal erosion, coral bleaching, saltwater infiltration of groundwater, flooding, and more. Far from a mere list of ills, the research is being used to coordinate a wide ranging defence against the changes including everything from erecting sea walls to cyclone insurance. For more see the Tonga Energy Roadmap 2010-20. Now – as usual – I expect someone will tell me why this is too good to be true.]]>

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5 Responses to “How can a whole developing country switch to renewables? The example of Tonga”
  1. John Magrath

    Tonga isn’t the only country that’s making an energy revolution – have you heard of Heliosthana?? OK, it’s actually a virtual country but it’s a cleverly worked out concept by WWF to model how a typical Mediterranean country might get off fossil fuels. They’re launching it in Brussels on 29 June. The report is at 

  2. Peter Goldstern

    It is too good to be true!
    Using solar and wind it will be impossible to generate 50% of the power from renewables and lower power prices by 50% as proclaimed.
    The wind here is enough for only 13% of rated turbine capacity based on long term wind data and now operating experience with a 2.4 kW unit at 170′ AMSL.
    It is simply another example of many bureaucrats and consultants lining their pockets with aid money and accomplishing nothing else.
    I provided a comprehensive study on a 3 mW generating system burning local “straw” (Panicum maximum) that could produce 50% of the base load at 40% of the diesel cost and it has simply been shelved and not even included in their list of reports. Meanwhile the World Bank experts pursue coconut oil to replace diesel fuel for an existing 1.4 mW generator that has not worked properly since installed.
    Government officials and the coordinator make, in my opinion, unrealistic announcements just as they did in the past for a proposed offshore floating wind turbine project to produce hydrogen from seawater, pipe it ashore !!! and use it as fuel for fuel cells with a MTBF of 10,000 hours or large hydrogen engines that I don’t believe exist.
    How many “important” partners does it take implement a US$15 million 3 mW renewable power supply? Obviously a lot as can be seen from the list of participants.
    Unfortunately, it is all just a sad joke and TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE.

  3. John Magrath

    Coming back after a weekend away from the blog I see yet more comments in – Sylvain, Teo, Ken, Robert, Steffano, Andrew,Peter, thank you very much. It’s great that this subject has provoked so much input. I need to spend some quiet time now to digest all the suggestions and wise words that have come in. They’ll help us in Oxfam enormously in our thinking. So thanks again!
    And Peter – thanks for the blunt warning on Tonga. Groan…..
    Perhaps I should conclude on a more positive note -the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy are announced next week and are a great advert for RE schemes that really are working. There is an Ashden Awards conference,all day on 30 June at the Royal Geographical Society, London, (including a debate on climate finance featuring Friends of the Earth, Climate Care, Oxfam etc). There may be some tickets left. The registration is at:

  4. Cleo Paskal

    Thanks for opening up this discussion on the The Tonga Energy Road Map (TERM). It is a really interesting project that deserves to be followed.
    The latest development was, on June 24, a signing ceremony for TERM at the end of the IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) AdminCom
    Signatories included H.R.H. Princess Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita, the Interim Director General of IRENA, Ambassadors from Japan, New Zealand, Australia, the European Union, the World Bank and I. To be clear, I am not, and have never been, a paid consultant on this or any related project. I just think it is very interesting and promising and so am following it closely.
    The TERM is IRENA’s first major partnership and it plans to use it as a blueprint to develop a toolkit for other small island developing states.
    The TERM is not the usual renewables project. It is designed to be a comprehensive approach to sectoral reform, both technically and in terms of policy. That is why so many different development partners have been involved. Detailed assessments had to be made about the existing technical and policy challenges before a cohesive plan for future development could be put in place. It is also designed to be adaptive so that as new circumstances arise, they can be met.
    While many renewable technologies were considered, the initial renewable technologies chosen were the ones deemed, after extensive study, to be the most proven and reliable. Again, this is open to reevaluation as the project continues.
    The goal is a 50% reduction in importation of diesel with much of the savings accomplished not only through renewables, but efficiencies. Also, there should be no increase in cost to the consumer and, ideally, a reduction in cost (compared to current deisel prices) if possible. Anyone interested can see more here:
    The TERM provides hope for a more equitable, stable and renewable future for the Kingdom of Tonga (and possibly beyond). The plan has been assessed by the needed range of experts in their respective fields. But it is early days yet. So far there is nothing really tangible on the ground. The next stage is implementation. This is where the TERM will have to prove itself.
    The TERM will either accomplish (or come close to) its goals or it won’t. It is only then that we will know if it was too good to be true, or a truly good plan. That should be clear in about 1-2 years. Until then, it seems only fair to let the Tongans get on with implementing their plan with the support they deserve for trying to give themselves the power (both literally and figuratively) to control their own future.

  5. Peter Goldstern

    I respectfully disagree with Cleo’s call for patience as he fails to recognize reality and indeed, himnself hits the nail on the head when he says
    “Signatories included H.R.H. Princess Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita, the Interim Director General of IRENA, Ambassadors from Japan, New Zealand, Australia, the European Union, the World Bank…”
    It is my opinion that the process is grandstanding on the part of many highly paid bureaucrats for photo ops and travel allowances while spending tax payer money which could be put to better use by addressing the known issues.
    The technical issues and economics of all the processes available to our little Kingdom have already been worked through many times elsewhere so the wheel does not need to be reinvented for Tonga.
    I submit that there is an off the shelf biomass option available for US$15 million that would reduce power costs by 50% in less two years which has already been spent with nothing to show but meetings and agreement signings.
    While the bureaucrats talk and posture, Tongan businesses and individual users of power based on their average incomes pay per unit of electricity about 50 times that of the Swiss !