Rarotonga Airport's solar farm nears completion as island nation balances tourism and climate change challenges
Rarotonga International Airport (photo: Air Rarotonga)
Wed 24 Sept 2014 – Construction of a large solar energy system at Rarotonga International Airport in the Cook Islands is due to be completed next month. The ‘Te Mana O Te Ra’ – meaning the power of the sun – solar project involves the installation of 3,051 photovoltaic panels capable of producing up to 960 kilowatts, or about five per cent of Rarotonga’s energy needs. Costing in the region of NZ$3.3 million (US$2.7m) and supported with funding from the New Zealand government, the project’s main contractor is Auckland-based Infratec Renewables. The modules have been supplied by Chinese solar power manufacturer JA Solar. The solar farm will be connected to the local electricity grid and the Cook Islands government estimates this will lead to a reduction of around 400,000 litres of diesel fuel imports per year.
To reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuel imports, the government has set an ambitious target of relying totally on renewable energy by 2020 for its electricity coverage.
With shrinking agricultural production, falling exports and a greatly diminished subsistence economy, the Cook Islands have become increasingly dependent on international tourism, which now contributes over 50% of its GDP. Hit hard by the economic downturn following the global financial crisis, the government has been forced to underwrite a weekly non-stop Air New Zealand flight to both Sydney and Los Angeles. The cost makes up more than 10% of the government’s total annual operating budget appropriation.
As a Small Island Developing State in the South Pacific, the Cook Islands are also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The government has said improvements to airports will include disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation measures.
Rarotonga International Airport is the islands’ main gateway and handles around 120,000 passengers a year. It is currently being upgraded under the Cook Islands National Sustainable Development Plan, which includes improvements to the airport’s infrastructure and the work enabling it to use solar energy.