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Batteries the biggest obstacle to solar power in the Pacific

Monday 25th March 2013

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The rapidly falling costs of electricity produced from the using photo-voltaic cells makes solar power one of the best options for remote Pacific Islands, but the cost and short lifespan of current battery technology is still a limitation.

Speaking from an international donors' conference on Pacific Island countries' energy needs, the European Union's Suva-based head of operations for the region, Renato Mele, told BusinessDesk said solar PV technology was now "very high in our set of priorities" now that PV cell costs have fallen.

In New Zealand, for example, plummeting solar PV array prices can now deliver electricity at a cost lower than it comes from the national grid, although that is only true if the consumer cuts their links with the grid, meaning they have no security of supply during periods of low sunlight, including night.

In more built-up, urban parts of the Pacific, solar PV also needed to be grid-connected, and required island states' electricity grids to be configured to allow variable contributions from solar PV when it was available, backed up by batteries and high efficiency diesel generators.

"If the grid distribution isn't sufficient and there are excessive energy losses and the grid isn't configured to absorb production from a solar plant at full power, it doesn't work properly," Mele said. That made energy efficiency an equally important focus for Pacific Island states.

For cooking, the EU is promoting bio-gas production using organic waste.

The World Bank announced at the conference today a new solar cell project for Kiribati, jointly funded by the Australian government and the bank's Global Environment Facility.

AusAID Australia will provide A$3.2 million for the project, with US$1 million coming from the GEF, will install solar panels at four sites in the capital, South Tarawa, and is expected to reduce diesel use by up to 230,000 litres annually.

Around half the 110,000 people of Kiribati live on Tarawa atoll and are depend on diesel generators for electricity.

However, Mele said while solar was a viable solution for Pacific nations, the humidity and heat of the local climate could reduce battery life, normally around five years, to as little as 12 months, creating additional costs of clean-up and replacement.

While battery storage technology is also advancing swiftly, and "the cost of batteries is not as bad as the cost of diesel," he said.

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