Solar energy is a climate solution with a demonstrated track record of success. Applying smart business models it can be mainstreamed without help from subsidies or policy concessions. It is feasible, commercially viable and it brings economic opportunity that supports sustainable development goals.
I am a dual citizen of two countries, one a sophisticated first world country with strong scientific resources, the other, a developing island nation in the middle of the Pacific. Guess which one understands climate change more? I live in Fiji, we get climate change, we are standing in it.
In the Pacific Islands, perhaps more so than many places on the planet, we are increasingly aware of the serious threat that climate change poses to our shared prosperity. The Pacific Island countries contribute very little to the human causes of climate change, but we are the first to experience them.
Changes to patterns of rainfall, sea level rise, and increasing incidences of cyclones, flooding and other extreme weather events are all predicted. Those who are most vulnerable to change – remote, economically marginal communities – will face the greatest risks.
Earlier this year Fiji relocated its first community of so-called “climate change refugees”. These are people whose lives are no longer sustainable in their ancestral lands, which are fast disappearing as the shoreline advances.
Fiji, along with the other small island developing states, continues to show remarkable leadership – punching above its weight in international climate talks, and implementing ambitious targets to cut carbon emissions and increase renewable energy. But in a capital-intensive sector like energy, targets alone are not enough. To be ready for climate change, and to truly future proof, we need to find an intelligent way to harness the power of the market.
Business has a critical role to play – and we’ve proven that in the Pacific with our company, Sunergise. Sunergise is a full service utility – we finance, design, build and maintain solar systems. We operate in the Pacific Islands and in New Zealand, entirely using private capital. Our core business is targeted at corporate customers – companies who have been in business for a while, and would like to save money on their power bills. For no capital down, we offer to take care of up to 100% of our client’s energy needs and charge them less on a per unit basis that they are currently paying for electricity. Essentially, we build them custom power plants on-site. We then give our customers the tools to monitor the energy their power plant is producing, and quantify its impact on carbon offsets, in real time via a web-based app.
Solar energy is a climate solution with a demonstrated track record of success. It is far beyond the stage of being an experimental technology. Through rolling out smart business models that remove the barriers to deployment, it can be placed firmly in the mainstream, without help from subsidies or policy concessions. It is feasible, commercially viable and it can bring economic opportunity that supports our sustainable development goals.
So what impacts can we share so far? Well, we have a policy of recruiting and training local workers, and have – since we started operations in Dec 2012 – already created more than 20 jobs across the region. Our power plants to date have produced over 1 Gigawatt hours of clean electricity. In Fiji, where we started out operations, we now account for nearly 1% of all electricity produced. Our pipeline will ensure that these numbers grow rapidly over the next few years. Already the carbon offset by our installations, to put it in perspective, is equivalent to what would be sequestered by 565 acres of forest in one year. Or looked at another way, 17,681 trees grown for 10 years.
What else? For every unit of renewable energy, there is a matching saving in fuel imports. The Pacific region as a whole is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, as it meets around 80 percent of its electricity energy needs from imported fossil fuel and countries on average spend over 10 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 25 percent of their import spend on diesel alone.
Provisional figures for 2010 saw fuel imports costing Fiji around F$1.13 billion, against a total import bill of F$3.4 billion and total export earnings of F$1.6 billion. Not only is that steep on export income, it has a huge bearing on a country’s external financial position.
Fuel security is one challenge, but another is the integrity of the grid – especially to withstand the sort of cyclonic weather that passes through the Pacific every year. Maintaining electricity grids costs billions globally every year, and even with that expense, blackouts are unavoidable in the worst weather. In Fiji, the day after we finished our first installation, the worst cyclone in over 60 years hit. Property damage in the immediate area was widespread and the grid was down for over 2 weeks in some parts of the country, but our solar remained intact with only 1 of nearly 500 panels requiring maintenance.
Self-sufficiency will be a key part of building resilience for the future, and solar can help us get there.
By Bob Lyon
Speaking notes prepared for the Climate Business Forum 2014, Panel on Future Proofing. The Forum, held in Hong Kong in October 2014, was hosted by the International Finance Corporation and organized by the Association for Sustainable and Responsible Investment in Asia, in conjunction with the Asia Investor Group on Climate Change.
Bob Lyon is Chairman of the Sunergise Group, and Chairman of the Foundation for Development Cooperation
 Figures from Island Business Magazine, 2013