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Leon Kaye headshot

Tesla and SolarCity Offer a Glimpse of the Future in American Samoa

By Leon Kaye

Life in the South Pacific is rife with challenges: isolation, volatile weather, scarce economic opportunities and expensive energy. Such factors contribute to American Samoa’s status as the country's top U.S. Army recruitment center, as many of its citizens see limited job prospects.

Climate change imposes additional long-term risks across the region. But a recently launched clean-energy microgrid, comprising solar power and battery storage, hints what the future could look like for the small island states and territories in Oceania.

According Tesla and SolarCity, the small Amerian Somoan island of Ta‘u and its 600 residents have a new lifeline, thanks to SolarCity’s 1.4-megawatt solar power station and 6 megawatt hours of battery storage made possible by 60 Tesla Powerpacks. The installation, which took just under a year to complete, will provide almost all of the island’s power requirements.

SolarCity claims the new system is enough to displace almost 110,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually. It will also help keep the lights on at local schools, businesses, the island’s hospital, and its fire and police stations.

Of course, it is important to remember that this is one small project in a territory with four other islands that are home to 55,000 people. Public money paid for much of the project, with the funds coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Interior and the American Samoa Economic Development Authority. But such an investment can pay off many dividends in the long run – especially when freeing South Pacific communities from dependence on diesel fuels, which are polluting, expensive, subject to price volatility and often consume far too much of GDP.

But the sun provides an ample and risk-free source of power. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), nearby independent Samoa already harvests more than 20 percent of its electricity needs from renewables. But that proportion could increase to 93 percent if more solar, hydropower and wind power sources are tapped.

Battery storage systems like those manufactured by Tesla can further increase energy security across the South Pacific region, as more homes and businesses could keep the lights on with renewable power during the night. The Samoan government says it is aiming to reach 100 percent renewable energy by the end of next year.

For several years, the United Nations identified the South Pacific as one of the world’s regions most susceptible to climate change risks. The U.N. says the problems are already endemic: poverty, constant threats to infrastructure, unstable food supplies and an ongoing brain-drain as younger residents seek better economic opportunities abroad.

Indeed, the threat sea-level rise poses to these island countries will not be mitigated unless the world’s largest economies take bolder action on climate change. Nevertheless, investments in clean-energy projects such as the microgrid in Ta‘u can pay economic dividends. They can also serve as laboratories for companies like Tesla, which closed its merger with SolarCity last week, as they gauge which configurations work best and can scale.

While employing local residents, these microgrids can also provide much needed relief to national budgets, as fewer funds are spent on fuel and more invested in infrastructure, education and social services. The result could be an economic lift for countries and territories such as American Samoa, as its per-capita income of $13,000 currently ranks it between South Africa and Peru.

With the South Pacific serving as the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change impacts, the global community is starting to take notice. Abu Dhabi’s Masdar, for example, invested in solar projects in Oceanic countries such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Palau.

Image credit: SolarCity

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye