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Community action for renewable energy

Paul Bryce outlines 20 years of community development through village-owned micro hydroelectric systems in the Solomon Islands.

The author is President of APACE and Associate Professor of Engineering at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.

Well over half of humanity is faced with darkness every night in their houses. As well as this, they confront limited food choices and the lack of many basic medical, educational, communication or information services. All of this through the absence of affordable electricity.

There has been much investment, and even more alleged promise, for new technologies in remote area renewable energy systems to meet this challenge, but results on the ground are generally not forthcoming.

The scale of continuing rural energy poverty in developing countries demands more effort towards successful diffusion of appropriate energy technologies.

In their 1999 report, The Challenge of Rural Energy Poverty in Developing Countries, the World Energy Council and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization emphasized three imperatives in improving on the limited progress of efforts to date in addressing rural energy poverty. The imperatives were that rural energy development must be:

  • afforded a higher priority by policy makers;
  • decentralized to place rural people at the heart of planning and implementation; and,
  • integrated with other measures dealing with agriculture, education, infrastructure and social and political factors.

A recent event in the troubled nation of the Solomon Islands illustrates the World Energy Council/Food and Agriculture Organization agenda already at work. The Solomon Star of May 1st 2000 reported that “the future for residents of Bulelavata in the Roviana lagoon looks bright following the opening of their micro hydroelectricity project.” The Bulelavata Hydro Committee Chairman, Robert Boso, said the main task of setting up the hydroelectricity system is now completed, “but it is now only the beginning of yet other developments that are linked to the system.”

This particular ceremony was one milestone in a 20-year ‘Village First’ programme of renewable energy development in the Solomon Islands, managed by the Australian-based non-governmental development organization APACE. APACE works with village communities to assess, design and build micro hydroelectric power schemes through a paradigm that integrates the renewable energy development into the central objective of endogenous development. APACE is also a registered research institution, and works closely with the University of Technology in Sydney.

The first such micro hydroelectric scheme was supported by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization as a pilot exercise in a particularly challenging technical and social context. It was commissioned in 1983 in the village of Iriri, the Solomon Islands, and since that time has been maintained, operated and expanded by that village community without external financial assistance. Iriri has benefited from the community-centred process involved in their efforts in the energy project, as well as the products from the scheme itself.

The village now has its own school, a large market garden for income generation, a small, sustainable timber processing industry and a registered copra selling point. Children from Iriri have subsidized education and lighting for home study, Transport to markets and for medical treatment is provided by the community, and permanent housing materials are available to residents.

APACE’s Village First principles of rural capacity building for development have been subsequently applied in parts of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Bougainville, Vietnam and other parts of the Solomon Islands, including the recent effort with the Bulelavata community.

It is difficult for designers and suppliers to obtain feedback from ‘clients’ in a remote situation, particularly from a developing country location. The tyranny of distance is combined with cross-cultural challenges and exotic contexts. It can be argued that, as a result, the renewable energy industry has been confronted with a reputation for costly, unreliable and unsatisfactory performance for remote area situations in developing countries. The 18-year history since the Iriri power system began operating has been somewhat different, since APACE combines a community assistance organization, committed to the developmental role that follows commissioning, and a research organization with the facilities and expertise to develop better designs. Lessons in capacity-building methods, project management and technical design have been possible through continual feedback from progressive village installations, and it has been possible to act on these lessons. In general, the principle of placing rural people at the heart of the project cycle is vital.

Bulelavata is the result of a specific and deliberate process that began in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands in 1994, when the Province’s Legislative Assembly recognized the developmental progress of communities (including Iriri) that had worked with APACE towards their goals.

The Province set up a Ministry of Rural Electrification that worked alongside APACE and, together with support from the Australian Government, a widespread resource assessment was carried out within the Province over several years. The process was controlled and implemented by Solomon Islanders, principally those with experience of the people-centred paradigm now advocated by the World Energy Council and the Food and Agriculture Organization. This assessment exercise led to agreed criteria for prioritizing implementation processes that were not centred so much on the technical and economic criteria of foreign experts, but also included the fundamental tests of viability in terms of community capacities.

Bulelavata became the first ‘cab off the rank’ from this process. Support for the implementation of this community-owned scheme has come from a range of sources, including of course the community itself. It is significant that another source is the Australian Department of Industry, Science and Resources which has supported APACE’s efforts here through the International Greenhouse Partnerships Program.

The day the lights came on: Bulelavata youth celebrate a brighter future.

Bulelavata is one of two APACE renewable energy projects that will be registered under Australia’s contribution of Activities Implemented Jointly (AIJ). There will be 100 AIJ projects undertaken throughout the world by developed nations working in support of developing nations. These will provide a selection of working models that can point the way to the monitoring and accounting methods that may be practicable under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism for controlling global warming.

However, Robert Boso’s comment needs to be kept firmly in mind. Electricity is merely a tool for the basic living needs that the lucky half of humanity enjoy every hour of every day, and the Bulelavata project is just beginning. The next phase is a link from Bulelavata to a large provincial high school on the same island in Roviana. The community will be working hard to construct the electrical transmission, and train for its maintenance and safe management, so that Bulelavata can export power as an income source. Funds from the export will provide employment and investment for a fish and vegetable storage facility.

There is also the challenge of relating greenhouse gas abatement to the context of a remote village that is hardly responsible for its emergence as a serious global issue, but will certainly be environmentally affected more than most consumers of the developed world. Faced with a plethora of educational material on the greenhouse issue that is virtually irrelevant to this context, APACE has recently developed a greenhouse effect booklet to help bridge the gap in appropriate educational resources that can help Bulelavata’s commitment to local monitoring for the international forums so remote from its experience.

While the climate change alleviation effect from Bulelavata’s efforts may be small in regional terms, it promises to last the test of time and provide some monument to the practicality of the World Energy Council and the Food and Agriculture Organization's call for a more effective way to view energy development.

Further information

Paul Bryce, APACE, PO Box 123, Broadway 2007, Sydney, Australia. Fax: +61-2-95142611. Email: Web:

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