Europe should take greater account of the huge potential of the pacific islands

As part of the SMILEGOV Project, which addresses barriers to multi-governance in the implementation of sustainable energy action plans in EU islands, Mr Tearii Alpha, French Polynesian Minister for Marine Resources, Mining And Research with responsibility for pearling and fishing, aquaculture and institutional relations, describes the energy profile of the French Polynesian islands, a European territory with considerable assets in the field of renewable energies, a potential that is still largely unknown to European decision-makers.


1 - What are the specific features of your region that are influencing its energy policy?


French Polynesia consists of 118 islands scattered over an area of the sea equivalent in size to Europe. With an EEZ of 5.5 million sq. km, our country, which counts 999 thousandths of ocean for one thousandth of land, is naturally oriented towards the sea. Nearly 69% of the population lives on the island of Tahiti, and a majority (about 130,000 people) are concentrated in the urban area of Papeete. Tahiti alone accounts for 80% of the overall electricity consumption. Population densities are therefore quite variable, with a high density in Papeete (1300 people per sq. km) to very low density in some islands (less than 10 inhabitants per sq. km).

Moreover, the Polynesian EEZ represents nearly half of the maritime area of France, and nearly a quarter of that of Europe. It is therefore logical that today the country is affirming its intention to turn to marine renewable energy.


2 - Do you have a strategic plan for the energy sector?


French Polynesia is aware of the global energy and climate challenges, and is therefore striving to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Since 2009, the country has set itself the target to have 50% of its electricity production from renewable energy sources by 2020. A first master plan was drawn up in 2009 for the island of Tahiti and was updated in 2012, taking into account economic developments and technological progress, and was extended to the other French Polynesian islands. Many projects are currently being studied to develop hydropower. On the island of Tahiti, hydrological studies have been carried out in five major valleys.

Solar energy (photovoltaic or solar thermal power) is a virtually limitless resource in view of the needs of French Polynesia. To produce more, we would just need to add more photovoltaic panels. The only limits to developing this technology are related mainly to the impact on real estate and to grid integration. For the time being, six atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago benefit from hybrid solar-diesel power stations. In Tahiti at the end of 2011, more than 8 MW of intermittent PV roof panels had been installed. Larger installations are possible provided that a control system is added. A scheme for photovoltaic production in remote sites was developed in Polynesia starting back in 1997. It aimed to provide access to electricity for remote households or groups. The facility is a stand-alone production system consisting of solar panels, batteries and inverters for connecting equipment to 220V. The first installed panels had a power of 600Wc. This was quickly increased to 1800Wc. In total, between 1997 and 2010, approximately 1,500 systems have been installed on 29 islands with a total capacity of 1.8 MW. In 2011, an audit carried out by a consulting firm made a very positive assessment: 97% of audited photovoltaic generators were operational and 99 % of users were satisfied with the service provided. With regard to wind power, several studies (modelling and wind measuring towers) have been initiated by the country to determine wind patterns on the island of Tahiti, as well as on other islands. Finally, to complete the picture, two projects are currently in the study phase. First, a biomethanation and composting plant is currently being studied for the island of Tahiti. The estimated potential is about 15,000 tonnes of recoverable organic waste per year enabling the production of 5,200 MWh of electricity per year for an installed capacity of 500 kW. The second is a project to exploit forest resources in the Marquesas Islands. This involves setting up a dendrothermal energy plant that would exploit the pine plantations in the Caribbean.


3 – Are there any clean transport schemes planned in French Polynesia?


Regarding transport, it so happens that the conditions in Polynesia are conducive to the use of electric vehicles because we have short distances, road networks organised around one main ring road around the island and frequent congestion problems leading vehicles to constantly accelerate and decelerate. However, at present, the fleet of electric vehicles is negligible. For example, in 2011, out of 3500 new vehicle registrations per year, 600 were electric vehicles. An incentive policy led by the country could however push up this figure.


4 - What are the main marine energy programmes?


I would especially like to mention here the types of marine energy for which French Polynesia has considerable potential.

We know that marine renewables are a strategic challenge for Europe. Today, many countries, particularly in the Asian Pacific Rim, are developing systems and solutions to exploit various aspects of marine energy. French Polynesia is destined to become, for Europe, a huge application area in the field of marine energy innovation. While in the 80s, France abandoned studies on marine thermal energy, Japan, the United States and China were making considerable progress. I believe that the European research and industry sectors should be more pragmatic and focus more on the potential of their Pacific islands. In 2011, Polynesia led the way in Sea Water Air Conditioning (SWAC), with the world’s only two commercially designed deep ocean systems, one at the Intercontinental Thalasso and Spa on the island of Bora Bora, installed in 2006, and the other at “The Brando” Hotel, located on the atoll of Tetiaroa 53 km north of Tahiti, the only resort of its kind in the world, 100% self-sufficient in renewable energy, and which will be operational in June 2014. A third project is also well under way. This is the SWAC in Tahiti Hospital which should significantly reduce its operating expenses. In addition, a wave energy project is currently in the development stage. Other projects are in progress on tidal power with water turbines which are particularly well suited to small villages with less than 200 inhabitants located in the remote atolls. Many Polynesian towns and villages now rely on marine energy, and their natural assets are perfectly adapted to installing these systems.


5 - How is governance on energy organised at the regional level and with which other partners?


French Polynesia has an autonomous status within the French Republic. We are French and Europeans, but our local government covers many remits and in particular is responsible for energy. Our main partner is of course France, but we would like the EU to become aware of the potential of our ocean, especially with regard to innovative marine technologies. The European Union has the ability to take global leadership in these areas, but it still seems to be unaware of this huge European sea area in the Pacific. French Polynesia is currently hoping to develop by drawing on its natural potential. For this reason, we have sought a custom development partnership between French Polynesia, France and the EU on strategic maritime issues for the future, including of course energy. French Polynesia wishes to become the base for a scientific research and innovation hub bringing together European excellence in ocean-based activities, especially the most innovative projects on marine renewable energy. China, which is very active in the Pacific region, is very interested in the potential of French Polynesia. It would be damaging for everyone if Europe failed to react in time and left the door open to other more proactive nations to exploit our 5.5 million sq. km of ocean, which in actual fact belong to Europe. Today; the European Union should be urged to set aside the legal status of its overseas territories (OMRs and OCTs), which is proving to be a hindrance to development, and give priority to the growth potential of its remote communities.


6 - What possible resources can foster the implementation of projects and programmes in French Polynesia?


The custom development partnership between French Polynesia, France and the EU is, in my opinion, the solution to boost the energy sector in our region. We need to mobilise the European business community. The objective is to position French Polynesia as a skills platform on topics specific to its geostrategic situation that are of interest to the European Union, by developing niches of excellence that could become the territory’s trademark. This partnership should lead to: the development of a strategy and implementation of actions meeting the needs of companies interested in the economic sector of renewable energies; networking and partnerships between businesses working in the sector and research organisations to lead projects on market development, research and innovation; easy access to expertise, support services and strategic information; and access to a skilled workforce through management training programmes for young Polynesians related to developing sectors.

We would also like the European Union to systematically include Pacific territories when designing its calls for proposals on research programmes, especial those concerning marine energy, for example by setting as a prerequisite for project approval that the test sites are located in the EEZs of the European Pacific territories. Horizon 2020, and EU funds in general, should take greater account of the huge potential of the Pacific Islands.