Partnership builds community capacity for clean, renewable power after Cyclone Pam

Griffith University researchers have escorted a group of high school students and a teacher from Tanna Island, Vanuatu to remote villages to train them in off-grid renewable power systems with battery energy storage. 

The trip was part of a long-term project to rebuild and provide resilient infrastructure after the area was devastated by Cyclone Pam in 2015. 

As one of the hardest hit areas when the cyclone struck, the remote Enkatalie area of Tanna experienced severe damage with roofs ripped off buildings, vegetation destroyed and the community left vulnerable.  

The new huts with solar panels.

A rebuilding project aimed to enhance the community’s ability to withstand future extreme weather events.  

Brisbane-based Nev House designed and constructed 14 cyclone-proof community buildings in 2017 and 2018. The buildings were also equipped with solar energy Mini Power Systems from Gold Coast firm Green NRG Co.  

The Mini Power System is a clean, renewable energy generation and storage system enabling users to generate, store and consume their own clean, free energy.  

Griffith’s School of Engineering and Built Environment and the Griffith Climate Change Response Program have been evaluating the technical performance of the buildings and power system as well as the social impacts in the communities. 

“The aim of the project is to assist local communities in developing more resilient settlements and enhanced livelihoods in ways that leapfrog old technologies and take advantage of emerging green building design and clean energy approaches, Director of the Griffith Climate Change Response Program Professor Brendan Mackey said.

“Griffith’s role to provide independent monitoring and evaluation of the project during and post-construction, focuses on how the energy is being used and the social impact of these new facilities,” trip leader Prof Rodney Stewart said.  

The community buildings are designed to act as safe houses during cyclones, however they are now serving a number of community purposes including classrooms, meeting spaces and places for making traditional local handicrafts such as weaving mats and bags.” 

Local women weaving traditional mats in the old huts.

This is the first time electricity has been provided in these communities and locals can now access basic needs such as charging phones, lighting to conduct activities after dark, and computers that can now be used in classrooms. 

The recent visit aimed to evaluate the performance of the power systems in conjunction with training the Tafea College students in accessing and analysing the data from the systems to understand how they meet the electricity demand of the community.  

The data logging system developed by Griffith University researcher Markos Katsanevakis provides a sophisticated means of logging the solar energy production, battery storage depletion rates, and understanding the demand patterns from a range of connected devices and appliances by the community. 

“Knowledge transfer to the communities and in-country residents is a critical part of any development project. In this final phase of the project, we are co-developing learning modules with staff at Tafea College and the University of the South Pacific (USP) to build long-term capacity,” Griffith doctoral researcher Melissa Jackson said. 

“These types of projects go beyond an engineering or technology solution and allow students to experience first-hand the importance of good community engagement processes and involving local people in any infrastructure projects so that they are valued and looked after long after the contractors and researchers have left.”  

Prof Stewart explaining solar power systems to Tafea College students and staff.

Dr Krishna Kotra from USP Vanuatu campus also joined the recent knowledge transfer and training field trip.  

Dr Kotra will continue to assist engineering academics at Griffith to develop a new course module covering the planning, design, maintenance and monitoring of remote off-grid solar PV with battery energy storage systems. The new module will be included in both GU and USP undergraduate programs.  

Dr Kotra said “many people in Pacific island communities do not have access to power from a traditional electricity grid and there is a need to build local capacity in the region for the design of off-grid renewable energy systems so that more people have access to a reliable electricity supply”. 

Prof Mackey said Griffith expertise could also inform future projects aiming to work with local stakeholders – such as remote tribes and local government in Vanuatu – and highlight the array of constraints and opportunities for similar adaptation projects to include principles of climate justice.