THE development of renewable energy systems to provide power to rural Fiji households was described by Denise Chand, physics lecturer in the College of Engineering, Science and Technology at the Fiji National University during a recent international conference in Indonesia.
Mr Chand delivered his paper on promoting sustainability of renewable energy technologies and renewable energy service companies in Fiji at the International Conference on Sustainable Energy Engineering and Application.
He concluded that the model that best fits the Fiji situation is that of Kiribati, where government provides the capital for the systems and then turns them over completely to a commercial enterprise for operation and maintenance.
Most successful long-term projects were ones where operation and maintenance were provided commercially with no government input of either subsidies or direct staff support, he said.
The difficulty the Fijian private sector had to access capital needed for investment in photovoltaic systems and considering the standard of service needed by rural customers, the self-financed renewable energy service companies scheme operating in some countries was not practical for Fiji.
The Fiji Department of Energy has had more than 10 years' experience with small scale renewable energy service companies operating solar home system electrification, and considers the trials a success.
The Energy Department estimates between 12,000 and 16,000 households in Fiji are potential recipients of rural electrification programs.
A proposed project to add up to 5000 homes to the present renewable energy service companies program in the first full scale implementation will be considered a "proof of concept".
Mr Chand's paper studied various electrification schemes and highlighted some serious weaknesses at all levels, including lack of reinforcement of technical and human resources required to properly manage large numbers of solar systems.
He said most project difficulties resulted from institutional issues, not technical failures, and the collection of fees strongly correlated with system reliability, customer service and disconnection policy for non-payment.
Policies were useless unless they were enforced. Sufficient institutional will to carry out policies and adequate resources for enforcement had to accompany policy decisions, while fees needed to be regularly reviewed and adjusted to meet changing conditions.
Financial operations for projects should be controlled externally and needed to be transparent so users know how their money is being used.
"External supervision of local technicians is necessary for quality maintenance, as well an adequate local spare parts stock ," Mr Chand said.
The more complex the system, the lower its overall reliability and the higher the maintenance cost.
Locally manufactured electronic components (lights, controllers and DC/DC converters) can provide high reliability service if the design is attuned to local conditions and quality control is maintained.
While his studies showed the current renewable energy service companies concept has to be significantly improved to suit a large-scale program, Mr Chand said it was clear renewable energy services companies concept was one that could work well and can allow solar energy to be successfully used for large-scale rural electrification.
He said his study was conceived with the foremost objective of providing all potentially interested parties enough information to plan the development of renewable energy service companies-based rural electrification that could provide sustainable electrical services to rural households.
* Denise Chand is physics lecturer in the College of Engineering, Science and Technology at the Fiji National University. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.