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

June 18, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

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.

June 18, 2010
Duncan Green