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Solar power to the people: how Tesla is lighting up the island of Ta’u

  • Written by  Sophie Hughes
  • Published in Energy
The microgrid was implemented within just one year from start to finish The microgrid was implemented within just one year from start to finish SolarCity
02 Dec
Over the last year, Tesla, the American automaker and energy storage company, has partnered with SolarCity, the largest American provider of solar energy services, to fully power the American Samoan island in a sustainable fashion

There are significant challenges associated with living on a remote island. While food shortages and destructive weather constitute some of the larger obstacles, the lack of affordable, reliable power arguably tops the list. The island of Ta’u in American Samoa, located more than 4,000 miles from the west coast of the United States, is no stranger to these issues.

Ta’u, like many other island communities, relies on burning fossil fuels in order to maintain an electrical grid. Inevitably, the use of a fuel that must be imported at considerable cost and from a great distance poses numerous problems, and leads to frequent, temporary blackouts. Keith Ahsoon, a local resident whose family owns one of the food stores on the island, told solar energy company SolarCity that residents relied on boat deliveries for almost everything. He said he remembered a time when ‘they weren’t able to get the boat out here for two months,’ leading to profound diesel shortages. ‘Water systems here also use pumps, everyone in the village uses and depends on that,’ Ahsoon added, recalling using candlelight while growing up.

The situation is changing thanks to a partnership between Tesla, famed for its electric cars and sustainable energy systems, and SolarCity, the largest solar energy services provider in the US. Ta’u now hosts a solar power and battery storage-enabled microgrid that can supply nearly 100 per cent of the island’s power needs from renewable energy, providing a cost-saving alternative to diesel and removing the hazards of power intermittency. The Ta’u solar power grid project involved creating a SolarCity panel array made up of over 5,300 panels capable of generating 1.4 megawatts of solar capacity, combined with a Tesla Powerpack commercial battery storage facility with six megawatt hours of reserve capability across 60 Powerpacks. The resulting micro grid can provide three full days of power for the island’s 600 residents at maximum capacity, and recharges fully after just seven hours of solid sunlight exposure, making good use of the island’s sunny climate. The battery system also allows Ta’u to use stored solar energy at night, meaning that renewable energy is consistently available.

The project was funded by the American Samoa Economic Development Authority, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Interior, and is expected to allow the island to save significantly on energy costs, with estimates that it will offset the use of more than 109,500 gallons of diesel per year. Furthermore, the project has transcended a typical issue associated with solar power. In most scenarios, the cost of implementing solar panels is recouped over a long period of time. However, in Ta’u’s case, the financial benefits should accrue much more quickly given that fuel was being shipped in as the sole source of energy. The solar and storage systems should eliminate expenses and issues associated with shipping diesel and provide stable power costs, unlike fluctuating fossil fuel prices, to equip Ta’u with a sustainable, efficient source of energy for decades.

tau2Tesla’s Powerpack storage units mean energy is available around the clock (Image: SolarCity)

The benefits are undoubtedly life-changing for the residents of Ta’u. The local hospital, high school and elementary schools, fire and police stations and local businesses no longer need to worry about outages or rationing. This should enable the island to develop its economy whilst staying environmentally green, thus contributing to a higher standard of living for the local people. ‘This is part of making history,’ said Keith Ahsoon. ‘This project will help lessen the carbon footprint of the world. Living on an island, you experience global warming firsthand. Beach erosions and other noticeable changes are a part of life here. It’s a serious problem, and this project will hopefully set a good example for everyone else to follow.’

The question that remains is whether other nation states can successfully implement a solar grid in a way similar to Ta’u. Islands that have traditionally relied on fossil fuels can easily transition to microgrids powered by solar and storage in the near future. However, larger, more populous countries may struggle to supply their power purely from solar energy simply due to the high demand for energy that a solar power plant cannot supply alone. Despite this, the principal is applicable to all countries around the world. Renewable energy is an economical, practical solution for a growing number of locations, and any transition towards supplying power through using a higher percentage of these renewable sources makes a difference. As Peter Rive from SolarCity has said, ‘Ta’u is not a postcard from the future, it’s a snapshot of what is possible right now.’

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