The head of the New Zealand islands of Tokelau just announced a new energy policy: They will be completely powered by sunlight and coconut oil. Fortunately Tokelau is rich in both resources. If successful, the three small atolls supporting about 1,500 people will be among the first regions to switch their entire energy system to renewable sources.
"I have been pushing the issue of 100 percent solar," said Tokelau’s leader Foua Toloa in an interview with Radio New Zealand in 2009. "So by February next year we’ll try to beat every nation in the world to become the first country to be energy renewable completely run by solar and a little bit of coconut oil." The islands, although behind schedule, are pushing ahead.
At the moment, the islands (administered by New Zealand) rely on diesel to meet most of their electricity demands. Most of the population has modern appliances such as refrigerators (90%) and washing machines (57%), along with satellite TV and Internet. The islands have been importing 42,000 gallons of diesel, 47,000 gallons of gasoline, and 15,000 gallons of kerosene annually, according to the government, but solar power has been making headway.
The new energy plan will transfer over most of the islands’ power generation—93%—to photovoltaic solar arrays, while biofuel derived from coconuts will supply the remainder. Motor vehicles and some cooking equipment will still require imported gasoline and kerosene. Still, the islands’ energy strategy looks realistic and, in fact, is part of an effort among many South Pacific island nations to commercialize renewable energy systems, freeing them of expensive fossil fuels. Their interest is also driven by something far more existential: Sea level rise as the climate warms and ice sheets melt has begun to inundate other Pacific island countries such as Tuvalu, and threatening others such as Kiribati, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, the Cook Islands, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands.
Tokelau’s effort, ultimately, is purely symbolic. Its meager economy generates about $1.5 million annually and likely emits less greenhouse gas emissions than most large factories. It does, however, set a precedent that others may follow. At the very least, the island will face a century of sea level rise knowing it’s not contributing much to the phenomenon that will eventually inundate it.