I visited the Solomon Islands for the first time in December, 1994. It was at the initiative of Dr. Hermann Oberli, an orthopedic surgeon from Switzerland who, together with his wife Elisabeth, had traveled to the Solomon Islands to head up the orthopedic section of the central hospital in the capital city of Honiara. As director of the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization that promotes photovoltaic rural electrification in the developing world, I was thrilled to initiate a solar power project in the south seas and had my bags packed in about ten minutes.
Aside from the citizens of Honiara on Guadalcanal, where electricity is supplied by a diesel-powered grid, 90% of the country's population lives in small, isolated villages in which the only source of lighting is that produced by a smoky kerosene lamp.
Dr. Oberli discussed the idea of doing a solar project with one of his younger colleagues, Dr. Silent Tovosia, a native of the Solomon Islands who had received medical training in New Zealand and who was being groomed to eventually head up the orthopedic section of the central hospital. Silent suggested that his childhood village of Sukiki, on the southeast coast of Guadalcanal, would be a good place in which to implement a pilot project.
As a next step, Drs. Oberli and Tovosia then proceeded to register a local NGO, the Guadalcanal Rural Electrification Agency (GREA), to serve as an in-country partner to SELF. In addition, they arranged for the Premier of Guadalcanal Province to send a formal letter to SELF requesting its support for a pilot solar rural electrification project.
So, with an invitation in hand, I journeyed to the Solomon Islands shortly before Christmas in 1994. Dr. Tovosia accompanied me to Sukiki, accessible only by a two-hour outboard canoe ride from the nearest landing strip. I spoke with most of the 50 families who comprise the village and gathered information regarding their average monthly expenditures on kerosene and dry cell batteries. The principle of solar electricity was demonstrated using a PV lantern which I had brought with me. By the time I left Sukiki, there was a consensus among the villagers that they could afford to purchase solar home systems if three-to-four-year financing were made available. Indeed, from that point onwards, the people of Sukiki were anxiously awaiting the day when their homes would be illuminated with solar lighting.
Now came the hard part: raising funds for the project. As a non-profit organization, SELF has relied principally upon grants from private foundations to support its activities in the developing world. Funding has also been provided by the U.S. Department of Energy for several projects. After a prolonged search, support for the project was finally obtained from the Council of State Governments and U.S. Asia Environmental Partnership, whose State Environmental Initiative grant program was designed to facilitate the export of U.S. environmental goods and services to countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Additional support for the project was provided by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development and the Maryland Energy Administration.
In April 1997, a total of 50 solar home systems were installed in Sukiki, each consisting of a 40 Wp Solarex PV module and mounting bracket, a Momingstar 6A charge controller, a BP Solar 75 AH lead-acid battery, three 11-watt compact fluorescent lights, and associated wiring and switches. In addition, a 93 Wp PV system was installed in the village church. The systems were designed to provide several hours of lighting and radio each evening. (At present, there is no broadcast television in the Solomons.)
Prior to the installation of solar home systems, SELF carried out a one-week photovoltaic training course, led by Johnny Weiss of Solar Energy International (SEI), in Carbondale, Colorado. Village technicians as well as other students from the College of Higher Education, the Ministry of Energy, Mines & Minerals, and the Solomon Islands Electricity Authority (SEIA) were trained in basic PV design, installation, and maintenance in order to provide ongoing technical support for the project.
The credit scheme set up for the project called for a $50 down payment by the participating families, followed by monthly installments of $15 over four years. Money repaid into the credit fund will be used to provide financing for additional families who wish to purchase solar home systems. In the year since this project was launched, there has been no record of payment default.
Fifty families in Sukiki now enjoy the benefits of electric lighting. Household incomes will rise as productive activities extend into the evening hours. Children will have more time to read and study. No longer will people in the village have to inhale smoky kerosene fumes on a daily basis, nor will they be vulnerable to injuries or deaths that are caused by kerosene-related accidents. At a ceremony to celebrate the launching of the project, the Premier of Guadalcanal Province declared Sukiki to be the first solar-electric village in the Solomon Islands, and expressed hope that this model of solar electrification could be replicated in villages throughout the country.
Indeed, as this article goes to press, another 50 solar home systems are about to be installed in a nearby village on Guadalcanal, thanks to a grant from the United Nations. SELF and GREA are hopeful that these initial efforts will lead to an expanded program of photovoltaic rural electrification in the Solomon Islands.
When I talk to people in the United States about this PV project in the Solomon Islands or in other developing countries in which SELF has worked, the response is often something like, "Hey, that's really cool, but what about here? When will solar energy become viable for folks in this country?"
That is not an easy question to answer, although it is encouraging to learn about the growing number of U.S. families who are harnessing photovoltaic power for their off-grid energy needs. In the meantime, approximately 400,000 families in the developing world have installed solar home systems, and the number keeps growing. And yet, the surface has barely been scratched in terms of PV's potential for improving the quality of rural life in the third world.
As a low-lying archipelago in the South Pacific, the Solomon Islands is faced with the real possibility that a sizable portion of its territory will he submerged underwater in the next 50 to 100 years if global warming raises ocean levels as projected by climate scientists. It is not surprising, therefore, that the government and the people of the Solomon Islands are delighted with the success of Sukiki and hope that the continued use of photovoltaics for rural electrification will serve as a beacon of hope, not just for the Solomons but for the rest of the world as well.