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Tonga, Tokelau aiming for 100 per cent solar power
The Pacific nations of Tonga and tiny Tokelau are reducing their carbon footprints - and energy costs - by going solar, as Dominique Schwartz reports.

Power has always been a problem for the islands of the South Pacific.

But now Tonga and tiny Tokelau are going solar; not only easing their carbon footprints, but also their multi-million-dollar diesel bills.

Dominique Schwartz reports from Tokelau.
DOMINIQUE SCHWARTZ, REPORTER: For the past two months the people of Tokelau have been building a brighter future, one reliant on the sun, not diesel.

With $7 million in New Zealand aid money, together with Kiwi and Australian expertise, Tokelauans are building a solar power plant on each of their three coral atolls.

Fokaofo Atoll has just flicked the switch on its solar plant. The other two were scheduled to be up and running by year's end.

FOUA TOLOA, TOKELAU ELDER: Probably by the end of this year we will be the first country in the world, you know, to meet our needs from renewable energy.

(Footage of King George Tupou VI unveiling solar farm)

DOMINQUE SCWARTZ: Tonga too is turning to the sun. Last month in Nuku'alofa, King George Tupou VI unveiled the kingdom's first solar farm. The one megawatt facility is called 'Maama Mai' meaning "Let there be light".

MURRAY MCCULLY, NZ FOREIGN MINISTER: This the first one of its size to be opened anywhere in the Pacific. It's taken a bit of tenacity for us to get there but I think itís a demonstration to others that it can be done. Itís a leadership statement from the government of Tonga and I commend them for it.

DOMINQUE SCWARTZ: Nearly 6,000 solar panels will generate 4 per cent of electricity used on the main island of Tongatapu.

That may not sound like much but Tonga Power says itíll save the country at least $NZ15 million in diesel over the 25 year life of the plant.

Last year diesel burnt up one tenth of Tonga's gross domestic product.

JOHN VAN BRINK, CEO, TONGA POWER LTD: We are consuming around about 13-15 million litres diesel a year. To put it into perspective that's one litre every two seconds. For a small company like Tonga Power with 20,000 customers, itís huge.

DOMINQUE SCWARTZ: Itís hoped these panels will not only generate solar power but more investment for this debt laden country.

MURRAY MCCULLY: A major impediment to investment here is the cost of electricity, it significantly limits growth opportunities. Over time we're going to change that.

(Footage of a shanty house with no electricity)

DOMINQUE SCWARTZ: Tongans pay double the cost of unit for electricity than most Australians. Many just can't afford it.

SIUTITI HALATOA, SOLAR PANEL INSTALLER: It's very hard for the people to pay their power expenses. That's why I come to help the solar power.

(Footage of man turning on light in his house)

DOMINQUE SCWARTZ: A community group is taking matters into its own hands, installing a single solar panel on scores of homes which aren't on the power grid.

(Footage of solar panel on roof)

This family now has electric light and reliable communications.

Tonga Power says solar energy will immediately shave 6 per cent off its customers' bills, and much more by 2018 when Tonga hopes to provide half of its power through sun, wind and biomass.

JOHN GRIMES, CEO, AUSTRALIAN SOLAR ENERGY SOCIETY: This is going to be a huge industry in the future. If we can mark ourselves out as being experts in remote and deployed solar technology, the opportunity is literally endless.

DOMINQUE SCWARTZ: Solar advocate, John Grimes, is a regular at Australia's Parliament House. He's keen to see Government and business seize the opportunities presented by a global industry already worth $100 billion a year.

JOHN GRIMES: We should be thinking about the technology to come, investing in and making sure that we play a disproportionate role globally in that industry.

DOMINQUE SCWARTZ: China is the solar industry's manufacturing superpower. Companies such as Suntech have built billion dollar businesses using technology and training provided by Australia.

SUNTECH CORPORATE VIDEO: We can make a meaningful contribution to combat climate change.

DOMINQUE SCWARTZ: Suntech's chief executive studied at the University of New South Wales under one of the men credited with inventing photovoltaic technology.

DR STUART WENHAM, CTO SUNTECH POWER (Suntech corporate video): Suntech is the world's...

DOMINQUE SCWARTZ: Now he employs his former teacher, Dr Stuart Wenham, as Suntech's chief technical officer.

STUART WENHAM: Much of the solar technology in the world today was invented in Australia by Australians. We have not as a country capitalised on that opportunity. This does require government focus and attention, but with a small investment we can make a disproportionate impact both on the industry and the lives of the people in the Asia Pacific region.

DOMINQUE SCWARTZ: Tokelauans are already showing the way, embracing solar energy in the hope it will help keep their economy and their low lying islands above water.
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