Author: Akuila Tawake
Head of Geo-surveys and Geo-resources Sector, Geoscience Division, SPC
Access to electrical power is one of the major impediments to development in the Pacific, let alone access to clean and affordable energy. While Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs) are making some progress in harnessing renewable energy resources, access to electrical power to support major development projects remains an issue. In Papua New Guinea (PNG) – the largest country in the region – only 12 per cent of the population has access to electricity (2016 Pacific Energy Country Profile). Unless power generation capacity is significantly increased in many PICTs, major development initiatives will be curtailed, which will adversely impact on employment, wellbeing of the population, and economic growth.
Among the renewable energy options that are available in the Pacific Islands region, geothermal energy has been identified as a promising option. Eight PICTs – PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), and American Samoa – are geologically-located along active tectonic margins where shallow heat sources underlie geothermal reservoirs that can be assessed and utilised for electrical power generation. Developing these geothermal resources will enhance the diversity of the region’s energy mix and help build energy security in the most populated countries: Fiji, PNG, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.
Unlike fossil fuels, which are expensive and generate unwanted greenhouse gases, geothermal energy is a renewable resource. While the front-end cost is high, geothermal development offers a reliable baseload energy source with low operating costs, which would enhance the capacity of PICTs to pay off their loans in a shorter period of time. Harnessing geothermal energy resources would enable PICTs to reduce or eliminate fossil emissions, as well as the cost of power generation, resulting in clean and affordable power. Additionally, direct geothermal heat would support a variety of industries and activities, including tourism, crop drying, aquaculture, and food processing.
Geothermal activities in the Pacific region
Over the last ten years, surface scientific assessments of geothermal resources have been carried out in select PICTs – Fiji, PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – by both external experts and government entities. As a result, prospective sites have been identified for exploration drilling. SPC’s Geoscience, Energy and Maritime Division (GEM) – formerly the Geoscience Division (GSD) – coordinated and managed the 1993–1995 comprehensive regional geothermal resource assessment programme. In 2010, the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Science (GNS) of New Zealand also conducted an overall technical assessment based on publicly available data, and identified geothermal potential in a number of PICTs*. The six PICTs that have geothermal potential – PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga – are referred to as the Pacific Geothermal countries (PacGeo 6).
SPC promotes geothermal energy development in the Pacific
In 2014 GSD hosted a subregional workshop on geothermal energy development with representation from three of the PacGeo 6 countries, which resulted in the establishment of the Pacific Geothermal Steering Group (PGSG). The PGSG has been established to facilitate geothermal development activities in the Pacific including sharing of relevant information and attracting funding and investment opportunities. SPC through the Geoscience Division is coordinating PGSG’s activities.
In the last three years SPC has been promoting geothermal energy development in the Pacific at regional and international meetings and has explored collaboration and funding opportunities with donors and partners.
These efforts have resulted in interest on the part of the Japanese Business Alliance for Smart Energy Worldwide (JASE-W) to discuss geothermal development activities with SPC and PacGeo 6 countries. A JASE-W team visited the PacGeo 6 countries on two separate occasions between 2015 and 2016, and held discussions with key stakeholders. They also visited select geothermal sites in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and PNG. Additionally, the World Bank is providing advisory and technical assistance in reviewing previous years’ reports to Fiji and Vanuatu and is keen to collaborate with SPC.
SPC continues to advocate for the value of harnessing geothermal heat to generate power in PICTs with a number of donors and development partner. Consequently, Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) has agreed to fund two geothermal experts: one to be based in Suva and the other in PNG. Additionally, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have expressed interest in working with SPC to progress geothermal development activities in the region.
* McCoy-West et al. 2011. Geothermal Resources in the Pacific Islands: The Potential of Power Generation to benefit Indigenous Communities.