Samoa's solar supply under question

Despite generating more than seven megawatts of power and being hailed as an answer to blackouts, Samoa's solar power plants are unable to steer the country through its electrical state of emergency.

The Electric Power Corporation (E.P.C.) Chief Executive Officer (C.E.O.), Tologata Tile Tuimaleali’ifano, did not respond to questions asking what role the solar panels could play in the current state of emergency.

Tologata did not make reference to the solar plants' capacity during an emergency press conference on Wednesday last week following the disabling of generators at the Fiaga diesel plant, an event attributed to an electrical storm the previous Sunday.

Despite being initially hailed as a solution to ongoing blackouts and even allowing the nation's main diesel plant to run at less than half of its capacity when Tesla batteries were first launched in 2018, they do not seem to figure in the nation's response to the current electricity crisis. 

The two Tesla Powerpacks, which came at a cost US$8.844 million (T$22.7 million) are also not proving useful as a means of addressing the shortfall, as they are intended to make up for fluctuations in the grid, rather than consistently provide power on their own, experts have told the Samoa Observer. 

Last week the E.P.C. announced lightning had struck two of the four diesel generators at Fiaga Power Station leading to a nationwide electricity state of emergency.

Tologata said the Fiaga Power Station would need a new surge protection system designed to withstand the electrical burst that caused the damage to its generators.

That's despite an October 2018 E.P.C. document saying that a US$100 million Power Sector Expansion Project (P.S.E.P.) programme overseen by the Asian Development Bank had been used to "rehabilitate" switchgears (or surge protections) at its diesel plant, enable remote monitoring of equipment and improve the "reliability of power supply".

The Fiaga plant was built as part of the P.S.E.P., which had been running since 2007. 

A further US$30 million was simultaneously dedicated to a project by the Bank devoted to renewable energy development and power sector rehabilitation.

Consumers were this weekend been warned to reduce their power consumption or be faced with the possibility that supplies of electricity could be rationed. 

Speaking to the nation last week Tologata said an ‘Act of God’ had struck the power station and now, without enough rain to power the nation's hydroelectricity plants, people needed to cut back on  their power usage.

“If we don’t have enough rain or water to generate electricity from hydro and with only two Fiaga generators running, then there is a possibility that we may have to cut off some [electricity supplied to] some parts of the country for some time,”  he said.

The power strife comes as the Office of the Regulator approved cheaper electricity prices from February 1, down to $0.65 per unit for 1-100 kilowatts and $0.79 per unit for 101 kilowatts and over, a savings of $0.02 sene from the month before. 

Tologata said that without the two generators said to be damaged in the storm, there are just two generators and seven hydropower plants providing electricity to the nation's grid, leaving it in a precarious position. 

But in addition to the hydro and diesel generated electricity, Samoa has solar power generated in several locations: at Faleolo International Airport, the Faleata Racetrack, Fiaga Power Station, and the E.P.C. compound at Tanugamanono, and in Vaitele.

Together they generate around 7.32 megawatts of power, and are supported by two Tesla Powerpacks which can store 13.6 MW installed in Faleolo. 

Under the P.S.E.P., the Government of Japan, through the Japan International Cooperative Agency (J.I.C.A), Government of Australia and the Government of Samoa, invested at least US$11 million (T$29.3 million) in solar power alone.

US$3 million (T$8 million) was spent on expanding the Sun Pacific Energy Ltd site at Faleolo, and US $8,844 million (T$22.7 million) on two Tesla Powerpacks.

The batteries regulate solar power, which is notorious for fluctuating along with weather conditions. 

The batteries can smooth out interruptions to the power supply, or kick in when the sun is obscured.  

In 2018, a Tesla spokesman, J.B. Straubel, said the installation of the powerpacks would allow Samoa's considerable solar reserves to automatically be activated when needed, ending the country's problems with blackouts. 

“It had gotten to the point where just the solar, combined, could provide over half of the entire peak demand for the island, but they were having quite a few challenges managing that efficiently,” he said.

"We can [mow] control the battery to make up the difference so we don’t have to start a generator immediately, and we don’t have to keep a generator running".

Solar has been touted as a feather in Samoa’s cap, as it races to reach a 100 per cent reliance on renewable energy alone by 2025. 

At the launch of the Tesla batteries in 2018, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi said the batteries would help Samoa reduce reliance on diesel, in particular at off-peak hours.

“On least cost operation, [the] E.P.C. [can] reduce the use of diesel generators from four to two and sometimes limited to one generator during off-peak times,” Tuilaepa said.

In April 2019, the A.D.B. approved a US$100 million facility to finance more renewable energy projects in the Pacific, called the Pacific Renewable Energy Programme.

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