Rural Electrification in Papua New Guinea

Grid Power for Rural Areas

The provision of grid power to vast areas of PNG would rank as some of the most difficult and expensive electrical work in the world. This is due to many factors including:

  • the rugged terrain
  • high rainfall
  • dispersed population over hundreds of islands
  • lack of finance for infrastructure
  • revenue collection problems
  • landowner and political problems
  • low demand per household

It is estimated that about 90% of PNG's population live in rural areas and about 7.5% currently have access to grid power (AESIEAP Goldbook 1997). The cost of grid extension in PNG is in the order of US$15,000/km (Chris Cheatham PEDP). The reliability of the existing grid is rather poor due to the terrain, rainfall, vandalism, poor road network etc.

There is an ongoing high maintenance cost for grid power. In Australia this is estimated to average around $600/km of line. It then follows that if the revenue collected is less than this, clearly the utility will suffer ongoing losses and require subsidies.

A World Bank study some years ago concluded that as a general principle the cost of extending the grid anywhere in the rural areas of the world was likely to be not cost effective. In other words, if the wires aren't already there then this is for a good reason - ie. it is not cost effective.

While there is some debate and conflicting data on whether the provision of electricity stimulates rural development, stems rural migration to the cities and reduces deforestation, there is no doubt that it can dramatically improve health, education and living conditions (G. Foley, 1990). The use of kerosene lanterns and stoves is a leading cause of illness and death in third world countries as a result of serious burns and poisonous fumes (WHO - EPI). The exposure of women and children to pollutants over open fires is equivalent to smoking up to twenty-nine cigarette packs per day. Non-smoking women who cook over open fires in the home have seven times more chance of contracting obstructive lung diseases than those who use other heat sources (UNESCO July 1993). The problem of smoke from cooking fires can be largely overcome through education and the improved design of cooking stoves and fireplaces.

Expanded Renewable Energy Program

The increased use of renewable energy sources, particularly micro hydro and solar, is an obvious choice for the provision of electricity to the rural areas of PNG. The main barriers to the widespread uptake of this technology are the high capital cost and maintenance problems as a result of lack of training.

man on thatched roof holding small solar panel

Due to limited funds, it is probably unrealistic to put a solar system into every village hut. For village development we usually recommend that power be initially provided to a community centre such as a school, church, clinic, community centre or aid post. Lighting can be provided to enable children and others to study and read at night. In some centres we have placed a few outdoor lights on the veranda or near the centre to encourage community outdoor activities to take place. A fridge and/or freezer can be provided for vaccines or food (not both in the same unit). In some cases a TV/VCR, radio or CD/tape player is provided; perhaps a sewing machine to enable women to make and repair clothing and handicrafts; or perhaps a few light power tools for furniture making etc. A rechargeable torch charging station is another possibility.

Such centres often have a teacher, nurse or some such person who can be easily trained to look after the system.

Community centres such as this encourage the community to come together whereas trying to provide power to individual private houses can often cause arguments and a breakdown of traditional village life.

Having a central power system which is shared and looked after can lead to a greater awareness and appreciation of renewable energy which may lead to a future expansion of this technology in the form of either an enhanced system for the centre or perhaps the acquisition of individual house systems.

A number of priority areas are suggested for the implementation of an expanded Renewable Energy program:

  1. Basic lighting and vaccine refrigeration for health clinics and hospitals.
  2. Basic lighting for schools and perhaps for TV/VCR and/or computers.
  3. Basic lighting and radio communication in other aid posts.
  4. Basic lighting for teachers' and nurses' homes. These people tend to have come from and been educated in the major Provincial cities where they are used to having power available. Retaining such staff in remote isolated areas is an important challenge to overcome. They in turn can help promote the technology and educate future prospective users.
  5. Basic lighting, small freezer and perhaps TV/VCR for other community centres. The provision of chargers for rechargeable torch and radio batteries is also an important consideration.

As mentioned at the beginning of this submission, a lack of training is the other major barrier to the successful implementation of a major Renewable Energy program.

Most forms of renewable energy are extremely reliable. Solar PV modules are about the only product in the world where one gets a twenty - twenty five year warranty. Solar modules run many critical installations around the world including satellites, communication towers, lighthouses and navigation beacons and vaccine fridges. Large scale hydro plants provide a significant amount of electrical power in the world.

However, all Renewable Energy systems have limitations. Unlike an Elcom connection, one can't start plugging electric fry-pans and kettles into a small system. They all use batteries which are dangerous, costly to replace and which require some basic but very important care and maintenance. The inadequate provision of training has been the leading cause of customer dissatisfaction and system failure.

Training Programs

Training programs are required on a number of levels for:

  • overall management of Provincial and District Programs
  • designers and installers of systems
  • end users/customers

To conclude, it is submitted that small scale Renewable Energy systems could greatly improve the health and education of rural dwellers in PNG for a reasonably modest injection of funds. This would be quicker and more cost effective to implement than extending the Elcom reticulation to most remote areas of Papua New Guinea.

Pacific Island Beach

Photo by Stefan Lins
CC License

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