Wind energy in Vanuatu: EIB wind farm investment

The wind power project is the first wind farm to be implemented in the Vanuatu archipelago and is designed to help meet the country’s growing energy needs. It is hoped that it will form a reference project for other Pacific island countries facing specific energy constraints typical of remote islands.

The EIB signed the finance contract for the Devil’s Point Wind Farm, which is the first wind farm project financed by the Bank in the Pacific region, in September 2009. The project, comprising ten 55-metre high de-mountable wind turbines, is fully in line with the policy of the European Union and the EIB to encourage the use of renewable energies and to address the impacts of climate change resulting from fossil fuel use. In Vanuatu, five other EU-funded projects using renewable energy are already being implemented in Port Olry, Malekuka, Ambae, Futuna and Sola.

The wind farm on the island of Efate undoubtedly marks an important first step in diversifying sources of electricity supply and reducing dependence on expensive fossil-fuel imports in the region – all the more so as it is experiencing a fast-growing population (estimated at 3.6 percent annually) and a relatively low rate of electrification (electricity is currently supplied to less than 25% of households country-wide).

The wind farm was built by a well-established French-based energy group, Unelco Vanuatu Ltd, a subsidiary of GDF-Suez Group. The latter has been the sole electricity utility in the country for more than 60 years, providing a level of service that constitutes best practice in the region in terms of reliability. This new wind farm is only one part of Unelco’s strategy to develop renewable energy production, which also includes bio-fuels and solar energy. Coconut oil has already been successfully employed at one of the promoter’s power stations and a rural electrification programme with diesel generators fuelled by coconut oil produced locally has been implemented with the financial support of the European Commission.

The wind farm was commissioned at the end of 2008 and has since supplied over 6.1 GWh to the Port Vila grid (i.e. 8% of Port Vila’s overall generated power for the same period). The wind turbines are controlled from Tagabé power station, some 10 km east of the site, via an optical fibre link. Maintenance of the wind farm is being carried out by the promoter under the supervision of the wind turbine supplier for an initial period of two years, during which time the promoter’s staff are receiving training from the supplier on site as well as on similar wind farms in New Caledonia.

Identifying the right location

In May 2005, a wind measurement station was installed on an elevated piece of land 500 m inland from the coast at Kawene, on Devil’s Point. The site is exposed to the dominant winds, which blow strongly during at least six months of the year. After encouraging results from the wind measurement campaign, a test turbine was installed in May 2007. The subsequent performance of this demonstration unit confirmed the viability of the site and a decision was taken to install a first phase of ten similar units on the site during 2008. Today, eleven identical wind turbines are operational, each with a unit capacity of 275 kWe, giving a total capacity of 3.025 MW. This is enough to provide power to over 4500 inhabitants out of a total population of some 46,000 people in the Port Vila area.

A second phase of ten additional units is in the planning phase and is expected to be implemented to extend the existing farm, the total capacity then being 4.400 MW. Another potential site is being monitored in the White Sands area (South Efate).

Cyclone-proof wind turbines: the island solution

Wind turbines that are able to operate in cyclone-prone areas are increasingly being installed on small, isolated islands that seek improved energy independence. Vanuatu experienced more cyclones than any other Pacific island country during the decade from 1990 to 2000. Turbines have thus been carefully selected based on the same model of wind turbine in operation on five wind farms in neighbouring New Caledonia. Their design has proved to be reliable under tropical conditions, including surviving Cyclone Erica in March 2003 with minimal damage.

In the event of a cyclone alert, the turbines, which are half the weight of ordinary turbines, and have two blades instead of three, are lowered and tethered to the ground in a horizontal position using a system of cables and winches. As the interconnection to the electricity grid is secured by underground cables, the risk of damage to the wind farm during a cyclone is greatly reduced.

An environmentally and socially friendly project

Apart from a change in the visual appearance of the local landscape (which is unavoidable), the environmental impact of the wind farm is relatively small. Particular attention has been taken to ensure that no environmentally protected zones or areas of cultural significance are affected by the project. In addition, a noise study was carried out by an independent expert to ensure that the acoustic impact of the wind turbines would not cause any undue nuisance to the closest human neighbours.
Wind farm

The project has been positive in terms of employment, with an estimated 12 staff-years of temporary employment created during construction and two permanent new jobs on Vanuatu, as well as periodic employment for the local labour force during the planned maintenance of the wind turbines. It has also had an overall positive effect on the environmental image of the country, which is likely to support efforts to promote the island as a tourist destination.

Last but not least, the Utilities Regulatory Agency in Vanuatu, which is an independent body established by law, has just launched an Electricity Tariff Review which will, amongst other things, explicitly address the passing-on to the consumers of the cost savings generated by the wind farm.

Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands lying between New Caledonia and Fiji in the South Pacific. Largest of the islands is Espiritu Santo (875 sq mi; 2,266 sq km); others are Efate, Malekula, Malo, Pentecost, and Tanna. Total area: 4,710 sq mi (12,200 sq km). Population (2010 est.).