An Energy Solution for Pacific Islanders


Illustration by Marc Fader/Solutions

When the Samoan government published its 2007 Climate Risk Profile Report to assess what global warming means for this tiny Pacific nation, it came as a shock to many of the islanders. Not that Samoa, a cluster of ten tiny volcanic islands in the midst of the South Pacific Ocean, weren’t already braced against the power of the Pacific. Still, the report made for pretty grim reading: an expected sea level rise of 1–1.6 meters by 2100 would mean the relocation of 300 of its 330 coastal villages, including the capital Apia, with its 45,000 residents, hospitals, schools, and harbor. Samoa’s only contact with the outside world, the single-strip international airport, sits only one meter above high water mark. Australia has already announced plans for resettlement camps to house the flood of Pacific islanders it expects to receive.

In the face of this looming disaster, Samoa’s citizens might be expected to bury their heads in the beautiful, white sandy beaches while they’ve still got them.

Instead, this island nation of 185,000 has embarked on an ambitious project to convert the islands’ energy profile from predominantly fossil fuels (currently 60% of the islands’ energy comes from $USD50 million worth of imported diesel each year) to renewable energy sources. The Alliance of Small Island States, of which Samoa is a member, has committed to a 45% reduction in carbon emissions based on 1990 levels. In so doing, they intend to set an example to large island neighbors, like Indonesia and Australia, that a switch to a low-carbon future is possible.

And they’re hoping to meet the challenge, in part, through the use of the humble coconut.

Every year, an estimated 200 million coconuts from Samoa’s dilapidated farming estates are left rotting on the ground. The government plans to use this coconut waste to power generators. New fluidized biomass gasification technology places the husks and shells of coconuts under high pressure to extract a high-grade form of coconut gas (mostly hydrogen). The gas, when burnt, gives off little carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide; the overall process of energy generation is carbon negative.

The government and private sector members plan to install 10 or more 100kW biomass gasifiers and place them in villages across the islands, starting in early 2010. At a stroke, coconut power will both revitalize local agriculture and increase energy self-sufficiency in these communities. In tandem with other climate change adaptation strategies—ecosystem-resilience building, reduced deforestation and forest degradation, improved land-use change, and attaining a low-impact, low-carbon agricultural sector—Samoa aims to be carbon neutral by 2015.

If coconuts sound too good to be true, then in one sense, they are: energy consumption continues to increase exponentially among Samoans, as much as 10% annually. The energy isn’t exactly wasted, however—refrigeration, transport, and lighting are the chief areas of growth, which places the government in a quandary. Until Samoans (70% of whom rely on subsistence farming) achieve some of the basic quality of life markers that we take for granted in the West, how can we put a cap on their energy consumption? Even the current cost of power can be prohibitive for many Samoans, with many schools in remote villages lacking lighting and internet access because they simply cannot afford such luxuries.

Coconut power offers a solution, although it will require some sacrifices. Tying power generation to the bounty of the islands creates a natural ceiling on how much energy can be produced. With power generation scattered across the islands, local communities will need to pool resources and make collective decisions about where their priorities lie. It’s going to take cooperation, adaptation, and plenty of good humor.

We’ve already witnessed a shift in mindset since the government announced the first trials of coconut gasification in early 2009. Samoa’s rich Polynesian culture has often been on the back foot over the past 25 years, as successive leaders have pushed for rapid, Western-style industrialization. But now, some are starting to return to their islands’ ancestral knowledge. Tupua Tamasese, the Honourable Samoan Head of State, in his recent book Su’esu’e Manogi (2009) argues that traditional values such as respect for nature and “va tapuia” (family connections) must be retained at any cost.

Can a cultural renaissance in Samoa fueled by coconuts save the island from destruction? The ultimate answer lies in the hands of others. They can’t stop their Pacific neighbors from pumping unsustainable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, but perhaps Samoans can provide a powerful example of an alternate energy future.