Vanuatu is one of the few countries in the world to have been spared the COVID-19 pandemic so far, with zero case recorded. But the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 are spreading even further than the virus itself. The fall in global travel is set to hit the island-nation hard, where travel and tourism are estimated to have contributed 45 percent of the GDP in 2018.
Vanuatu is among the poorest nations in the world, which is compounded by its high vulnerability to climate change. However, the Government of Vanuatu is determined to turn this vulnerability into a strength through its climate action ambition.
Vanuatu’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement includes a goal of 100 percent renewable energy for electricity—a vast undertaking in an archipelago where only four out of 83 islands are on the national grid. The residents of the 79 other islands have to make-do with polluting diesel generators, or solar home systems with limited capacity and a short life cycle, to provide them with unreliable and expensive electricity.
To meet its ambitious renewables target, the Ministry of Climate Change and Natural Disaster developed a detailed NDC Implementation Roadmap in 2019 which lays out its plan to boost clean energy access in the country.
Now, amid the global economic crisis triggered by COVID-19, Vanuatu’s energy transition could also contribute to powering a green recovery by creating new jobs and supporting livelihoods while reducing the country’s dependence on expensive and polluting fossil fuels.
Pioneering new energy solutions
The country’s clean energy programme includes a pioneering energy access pilot project on the small island of Lelepa, implemented by the Ministry of Climate Change and Natural Disaster with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and funding from the Government of Germany. The project consists of setting up a swarm grid to provide clean, affordable and reliable electricity to the island’s 120 households, and showcase the viability of an innovative business model which can be replicated across the archipelago.
A swarm grid is an energy solution that uses power cubes that are interconnected with each other. Each cube has a power rating of 200 Watts. The primary benefit of this system is that it optimizes energy use and prevents full system outages—a previously big issue for the people of Lelepa. A failure of one cube will immediately be compensated for by other units in the system.
It is an energy solution that’s a particularly good fit for many communities in Vanuatu. On Lelepa island, it will enable the community to phase out generators, and provide a more efficient solution than the current solar home systems, which were often not enough to charge a mobile phone. The maintenance of a swarm grid is straight-forward, and the system is flexible: more cubes can be added when and as more power is needed.
The technology behind this new energy solution is supplied by Power-Blox AG, an award-winning Swiss company providing automated and decentralized electricity.
“Our challenge is to electrify communities where households are far from each other. It seems that the Power Blox system can be a solution to this, and we are waiting to see if we can scale this innovative solar power approach across other islands of Vanuatu,” says Antony Garae Liu, Director of the Department of Energy at the Ministry of Climate Change and Natural Disaster.
The installation of the grid started at the end of October 2019. Three power cubes now supply 600 watts, enough for the church and four community buildings.
For Reuben Natamatewia, the Paramount Village Chief, this project will be truly transformative for Lelepa.
“This is the first step into a great future,” he explained. “Once our village is fully electrified, we will be able to refrigerate our daily fish catch. An electric water pump will provide drinking water to villagers. At the school, teachers and students will be able to use the copy machine and printer. Thanks to sewing machines, women producers will be able to increase their handicrafts production.”
The project will expand the grid to connect all the households on the island, set up a basic lighting system and a pay-as-you-go business model.
Building on Lelepa island’s pilot project, the government is planning to embark on a comprehensive energy transition programme which will electrify most inhabited islands in Vanuatu. UNDP, leveraging the Climate Investment Platform's partnership, is exploring options to support Vanuatu in accessing the funding it needs to make its transition to 100% renewables a reality.
 Asian Development Bank, Asian Development Outlook 2019 Strengthening Disaster Resilience, Vanuatu Chapter.
The Climate Investment Platform is a joint initiative by UNDP, IRENA, SEforALL and the GCF that aims to declutter the climate finance space and facilitate investments in renewable energy. You can find more information on the Climate Investment Platform website.