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A secure, green energy future for Vanuatu’s rural communities and tourism industry

An archipelago of 83 volcanic islands, 65 of which are inhabited, Vanuatu is one of the most culturally rich places on Earth: over 100 indigenous languages are still spoken across the islands. With a population of approximately 290,000, 75% of people live predominantly in rural areas and depend on the abundant natural resources and surrounding environment for their livelihoods. However, given its geographic distance from major markets, lack of infrastructure, and vulnerability to climate impacts, Vanuatu faces a number of unique development challenges.

Supported by the traditional agriculture and fishing sectors, and, increasingly, the rapidly growing tourism industry, Vanuatu’s economy has experienced strong growth in recent years. However, a significant challenge affecting several aspects of the country’s development is energy insecurity. Vanuatu is still highly dependent on imported fossil fuels, and, in combination with high electricity costs and low access to electricity in many rural areas, the need to create stable, secure, and sustainable energy systems for Vanuatu’s islands remains a major concern. Specifically, a significant gap exists in electricity access between urban and rural areas across the islands. An estimated 30% of households and public institutions have access to electricity via connections to a grid network, yet only four islands benefit from the grid. In off-grid rural areas, only 54% of public institutions and 9% of households have access to electricity.

To tackle this challenge and bring energy security to all of Vanuatu’s communities, the Government of Vanuatu (GoV) is working closely with the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) to create new plans for green, inclusive and resilient energy. In collaboration with the World Bank, GGGI has helped the Department of Energy (DoE) to update the National Energy Road Map (NERM), which was endorsed by the government in June 2016. The NERM highlights Vanuatu’s vision for 100% electricity access and 100% renewable energy by 2030, and includes new energy efficiency targets and a new priority area: green growth. By adopting a green growth approach, the NERM explicitly links Vanuatu’s economic growth with opportunities in the energy sector. As Antony Garae, Director of the Department of Energy, notes, “We are mainstreaming energy with other factors in the economy. GGGI has the same holistic approach as us, and sees clean energy as a catalyst for economic growth.”

Specifically, GGGI is helping the GoV create systems that enable the 100% electricity access and 100% renewable energy targets to be reached by 2030, including assisting with the development and implementation of the new National Green Energy Fund (NGEF). At the same time, GGGI is focusing on how clean energy can help the rural tourism industry contribute directly to green growth and poverty reduction.

A National Green Energy Fund to spark renewable energy investment

In addition to supporting the GoV to put in place robust policies to catalyse renewable energy growth, GGGI is also helping to make capital more readily available for household electrification and productive uses through the NGEF. This finance mechanism will allow local people and organisations to invest in clean energy that suits their economic needs. Ultimately, the fund will improve access to clean energy, promote renewable energy, and improve energy efficiency while, at the same time, creating transformative opportunities for rural communities. By working directly with other ministries and, importantly, across sectors such as fisheries, tourism, agriculture and water, GGGI is supporting the GoV to develop the framework and mechanisms to operationalise the NGEF by the end of 2017.

Lighting Vanuatu’s rural communities with green energy

A predominant focus in the government’s energy plan is to bring energy security to Vanuatu’s rural areas, while also providing economic, environmental and community benefits.  For example, in partnership with the government, GGGI is building on the work of other donors, such as the World Bank’s ‘Plug and Play’ small-scale remote solar systems. Responding to the demand for bigger solar systems (i.e. more than 5-35w per household) to power fridges, solar water pumps, and other equipment, GGGI is exploring mechanisms that will enable local businesses, such as shops and microenterprises, to sell more solar systems. These systems have economic multiplier effects and provide direct benefits to local people. As Paul Kaun, Green Growth Specialist at GGGI, notes, “with a solar water pump, for example, women who struggle to get water from the river and carry it back would be able to use a tap to get water instead. This is a life changing service, and I’m proud to be part of this transformation.”

At the same time, solar electricity would allow farmers to store, package, and sell their food in new markets. While rural areas provide most of Vanuatu’s food production, due to low electricity access, keeping perishables fresh when distant from market centers is difficult. This has an especially important impact for women, as  Leias Colwick, CEO of the Vanuatu National Council of Women highlights, “the men come and go, but the bulk of the hard work is done by women in the communities. This clean energy can help lower their burden. With a 150w solar system, they can have a vacuum sealing bag machine, which preserves the food they grow, and improves their opportunities. This is the starting point for unburdening women.”

Benefits for rural electrification go beyond economics and include health (for example, improving maternal health by providing services within the village) and education (for example, powering laptops, providing access to the Internet and information, and online courses). “Access and effective and productive use of energy increases income and, therefore, people can afford to pay for their connection to electricity and information,” adds  Kaun. This establishes a positive feedback cycle; people experience better energy access, and, so, can create better incomes with better information, and can then afford to buy more power. Clean energy becomes the catalyst for sustainable economic development and poverty reduction.

Despite the barriers that exist, such as accessing the money to fund electrification, and the operations and maintenance required to ensure sustainability of the systems, GGGI and the government are confident that a green growth approach to development will provide the pathway to 100% electricity access through renewable energy. By adopting this approach, systems will be in place to both effectively support community development and enable a thriving economy. “We see inclusive green growth as a game changer”, says Garae. “It will change the lives of the people, children will have access to education, and women in the villages will have more choices for their livelihoods.”

Rural electrification for clean, green and inclusive tourism

In line with delivering inclusive green energy, GGGI’s work with the GoV is also exploring renewable energy as a catalyst for growth in other sectors such as tourism. With the tourism industry contributing approximately 50% of Vanuatu’s economy, the country is highly appealing to tourists seeking cultural richness and stunning landscapes. However, drawing vacationers and the economic benefits they provide to Vanuatu’s remote areas remains a challenge. With basic services such as reliable electricity unavailable in many places, it is difficult to encourage tourists, and their dollars, to travel off the beaten path.
According to the Vanuatu Statistic Office,  only 29% of visitors arriving by air in June 2016 visited the outer islands. A significant issue is the lack of secure energy and other basic tourism services such as Internet access and transport. Many of the remote islands’ tourism bungalows rely on petrol generation sets, which only provide a few hours of electricity each day. Without a steady electricity supply, tourism operators cannot provide the comforts that international tourists demand, or even complete the simple task of securing bookings, and are missing out on the opportunity to improve their livelihoods.

However, with the support of GGGI, the GoV is developing a new plan to provide clean and secure energy to the more remote, family-run tourist bungalows, bringing long-awaited benefits to distant islands. GGGI is working in close collaboration with the Department of Energy and Department of Tourism to develop a partnership that will provide renewable energy to grassroots tourism operators. This initiative also aligns with the government’s NERM, which seeks to improve affordability and access to energy for tourism businesses. Under the roadmap, 25% of rural tourism bungalows will use renewable forms of electricity by 2020, and 65% by 2030.  

Through an in-depth study, GGGI is exploring how solar energy and energy efficiency technologies could support small-scale rural tourism operators under an eco-tourism framework, creating economic, social and environmental benefits. The initiative would improve tourism services and revenues, and provide local employment opportunities, while also helping to develop the sector in a sustainable way.

In addition to reducing greenhouse gases, the plan will assist small operators in minimising their reliance on imported fuel, creating more stable energy costs, a reliable supply, and supporting business planning into the future. Yet, improving Vanuatu’s tourism opportunities is not only about energy security; effective marketing to highlight this clean, green approach is needed to fully capitalise on the investments. Jerry Spooner, Principal Accreditation Officer at the Department of Tourism is working to get accreditation from Eco-Tourism Australia for the remote bungalows to raise the islands’ profile and open up Vanuatu’s eco-tourism credentials to the world. “Working with GGGI has given confidence to Eco-Tourism Australia that these clean energy systems are being developed. With the support from GGGI experts, we can look at achieving more eco-certification by 2017,” says Spooner.   

Green growth cooperation leads multi-sector growth

As a result of this collaborative approach, the goal of bringing clean energy to remote small tourism operators in Vanuatu while growing the economy is now within reach.Thomas Nielsen, Policy and Strategy Advisor at GGGI, highlights that working between sectors can lead to greater impact; “this is the whole point of green growth. We’re not just approaching it from an energy angle, we’re looking at it from a development and growth perspective. We know there is an issue attracting tourists to Vanuatu, so we start with this angle to then develop actual green growth across all sectors.”

Achieving 100% renewable energy by 2030 may seem far off, but providing clean electricity to 65% of remote bungalows by then requires a clear pathway and dedicated, collaborative efforts. The partnership between the GoV and GGGI is the first step on the pathway to building thriving local economies, and showing the world Vanuatu’s true, sustainable and remote beauty.

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