Interview: Lesieli Taviri
Is a lack of energy affecting the socio-economic development of Papua New Guinea?
LESIELI TAVIRI: Recent studies by the UN have highlighted the negative effects of the energy shortage on vital sectors such as health and education, and the biggest challenge for PNG is to improve the country’s rural electrification standards, which remain well below the regional average. PNG Power currently reaches approximately 12% of the country’s households and only around 15% of its schools.
It is unrealistic to expect our people to be involved in meaningful activities when they are denied these basic services. Electricity is used not only for lighting and household purposes; it also has the potential to allow mechanisation of farming operations, so the benefits are many. There are different ways to provide these basic needs, but considering the lack of infrastructure and road networks, we believe that liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) remains the best option for providing consumers with a reliable fuel alternative that is also environmentally friendly.
How has the LPG market been performing?
TAVIRI: We have seen a decrease in purchasing power among average consumers, due to the completion of the PNG liquefied natural gas project, and it has led to the introduction of smaller cylinders in the market. In fact, a segment of the market is looking for cheaper sources of fuels such as kerosene, but as it is an oil with a much higher level of toxicity – research by the UN over the years has proven that it causes respiratory problems when inhaled over a long period of time – it presents higher health risks, specifically for women in rural areas.
While LPG still accounts for a relatively small percentage of total energy consumption in PNG, it fits the three “As” that determine the sustainability of a business: affordability, availability and accessibility. Strengthening the distribution network will be key for the success of the industry vis-à-vis the future, as LPG continues to play a significant role in the country’s economic development.
What is the energy of the future in PNG?
TAVIRI: I believe that solar energy will be playing a much bigger role within the country’s energy mix for the foreseeable future, and this should not come as a surprise, considering that this is the fastest-growing energy source worldwide.
Considering PNG’s harsh terrain and the fact that villages with no more than six or eight houses are scattered throughout the territory, bringing electricity transmission lines there remains very complicated, and imagining non-solar energy solutions seems unrealistic to me. This includes hydropower. Even though PNG is extremely well-suited for hydropower, some proposed projects have been on the drawing board for years now. Launching hydropower plants requires huge capital investments and quite lengthy negotiations with both the government and landowners.
Solar, on the other hand, offers a limitless supply of clean and renewable energy for both light and power. Solar mini-grids, capable of providing 100-200 KW for rural electrification, are increasingly looking like the smart choice for PNG.
When it comes to households, we have been testing smart energy packages in villages on the outskirts of major cities, providing small LPG cylinders of 2.5 kg, coupled with a stove for cooking and a mini-solar panel that powers entry lights and mobile phone recharging ports. Surprisingly, half of the demand for this product came from consumers already connected to the power grid, who found personal smart solutions more reliable and cost effective, perhaps tired of the constant disruption in power distribution. As portable solar panels nowadays come with lithium batteries – which last for up to six years – included, bringing light and a bit of power to every village in PNG may not be a distant dream any longer.
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