Shops selling solar panels, batteries, and other components are literally everywhere in Port Vila and Luganville. Some are sold in ‘green power’ shops and others are leaned up against the display windows or positioned by shop entryways along with clothing, toys, and other household goods. Solar is far from unknown in Vanuatu. In fact in a country where approximately 70% of people have no access to electricity, solar is quickly becoming the energy source of choice.
Over the course of three days in Port Vila, Maria and I have met with representatives from NGOs, government organisations, and the private sector within the power industry. The meetings have provided a quick schooling in the trials and tribulations of development, given us a good picture of the energy situation in Vanuatu, and provided us with a rundown of who’s who, who’s doing what and what’s already been done. It has not, of course, given us the perspective of those in the communities – that comes next.
During our meetings we have heard of positive developments in the energy sector, some coming from ‘top down’ large donors and some from grass roots ‘bottom up’ development. For example a JICA funded hydro plant in Luganville has enabled the utility to reduce its diesel consumption and cut it operating costs. Some of these savings were recently passed on to homes and businesses in the form of a tariff reduction. We have also been told of Epau village outside of Port Vila which has installed 75 home solar systems. The systems are maintained by women in the village who received training at the Barefoot College in India.
Amidst the positive developments we hear tales of unsuccessful projects where well-meaning donors have provided solar systems only to have them fail and be looted for parts. The failure of the systems, in the opinion of most, has been due to a lack of knowledge and documentation around the maintenance required.
With regards to schools, there is a consensus that better access to energy is needed. A representative from the Ministry of Education we met with estimated that approximately 400 of the 460 schools in Vanuatu are off-grid. This means they have limited or no ability to use computers, lighting, and photocopiers. During 2006 to 2008, the EU funded solar systems in approximately 80 schools across Vanuatu. There is some uncertainty and conflicting information as to how many of these are still operating. Maria and I decided scoping and reviewing some of these systems with a view to understanding what has worked and not worked is essential part of the feasibility works required.
There are obvious technical challenges with installing solar systems in schools, particularly in rural areas. However, what is perhaps more challenging is developing a framework to ensure that there is money for maintenance and there are people trained to perform this maintenance. The EU funded solar schools programme did have a maintenance training aspect but, just like in elsewhere in the world, people sometimes leave their job or move in search of better opportunities and a proper hand over does not always occur. No matter how robust the design systems risk quickly falling into disrepair without ownership, training and a solid frame work.