Equipment is scheduled to arrive in Pukapuka via the Tiare Moana from New Zealand in the next two weeks.
Seven workers from PowerSmart’s contracting team, the foreign company that won the contract, are also set to arrive.
The entire project is set for completion within three months.
Some controversy lingers regarding the use of foreign companies in such large-scale development projects, what office of the prime minister economist Petero Okotai termed ‘boomerang aid’ where the donor aid country receives most of the benefits in terms of contracts and labour.
This is an ongoing issue for all development projects in the Cook Islands and large-scale infrastructure contracts have tended to go to New Zealand, Australia and China.
The solar project had concerns in terms of different funding streams, foreign contracts attached to funding and local contractors losing out.
In the end, PowerSmart Solar won the final contract.
For Pukapuka, PowerSmart plans to use at least three local on-island workers to train them in the solar energy system and additional local laborers.
The catering costs of housing and feeding workers will also provide some needed income for the island.
Loto Village is faring the best based on selling the land for the solar project.
The village has all sorts of interesting plans to start community-village businesses with the start up money.
The duration of the project will provide a short-injection of work and perhaps more community village-run businesses in Pukapuka.
Long term maintenance, education and training, and the disposal of lead batteries from the French solar project remain concerns.
A visitor from Australia recently on the island shared, “I am really concerned about all these batteries lying around. It’s dangerous for my son.”
Education and training components as well as dealing with the lead batteries are not yet clearly outlined parts of the plan.
“We will just have to see what the solar division of the Cook Islands government and PowerSmart does,” shared an unnamed government worker.
Adapting the project to the unique environmental needs of the atoll, listening to community feedback, and making the development project work for the community long-term remain at the forefront.
Unlike Penrhyn and Manihiki, Pukapuka and Nassau have not had 24-hour power and so the solar project not only changes the source of fuel from diesel to sun – the project changes life on the atoll.
“Let’s just wait and see” seemed to be the general sentiment in Pukapuka when asked for thoughts about the upcoming solar project.
Everyone who shared their thoughts asked not to be named.
One local government official shared, “I think the biggest question is going to be the cost to the homeowners.
“Right now people complain about paying $20 a month to run their freezers at the Island Administration and so people in Pukapuka used to a free life and with very little disposable income may not be able to afford the power.
“24/7 power may become available but if it’s expensive, no one will use it.”
The cost of solar power will determine its usage and longevity.
When asked what people would use 24-hour power for, more than a few villagers laughed and said “watching television.”
A former worker with the SKY television shared, “that’s the problem, when we had SKY TV everyone just watched garbage all day and with 24 hour power people will just stay home and watch television all day and all night. It will change life here, and I am not sure if it is for the better.”
Television has become a main stay in Pukapuka in the last ten years and this will likely increase with 24-hour power.
Another villager shared, “we will be part of the modern world. This will modernize Pukapuka. If they can afford it people will have television and fridges and even microwaves in their home.”
Another villager shared, “there will probably be more computers and more students for computer courses too.”
24-hour power will mean more electronics and more gadgets for those that can afford them.
Twenty-four hour power will also affect food and food sharing.
“We won’t be fishing everyday,” said a fisherman, “maybe we will fish once a week because of the freezers. Don’t know, we will wait and see.”
Television, refrigerators, computers already in Pukapuka may be even in more use and the subsistence-based lifestyle may or may not change radically.
“Freezers meant the end of the commune,” said one of the chiefs of the island, “people no longer had to share out their large catch of fish that would go bad, they could save it for themselves, but now everyone comes to the freezers at the island admin and looks into each other’s freezers and asks for fish. If the freezers are in the homes I am not sure what will happen.”
Do private refrigerators mean the death of the Polynesian commune and the food-sharing resource based lifestyle in Pukapuka?
Likely, it will simply mean adaptation and changes, with food sharing continuing for feasts and communal activities and more food refrigerated for individual families.
One of the biggest beneficiaries will be to the government departments, particularly Island Administration, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education.
“We won’t have to keep importing diesel and relying on red petrol,” shared the principal, “and we can use our school budget for more important things than importing fuel.”
The Island Administration and Ministry of Health will also be able to save money and to be able to run the government offices and the hospital on a more regular schedule.
“It will also help with health,” shared a health official, “right now the freezers are only on 12 hours a day, which isn’t actually good for the food, so keeping the freezers on 24-hours a day increases food preservation and overall health.” Twenty-four hour power may have the greatest economic and social impact on the health, education, and government sectors in Pukapuka.
For the youth almost all of whom spent some time in New Zealand and Australia and Rarotonga, there is an important psychological impact.
“It makes us part of the modern world and less backwards,” said one of the young men. “There will be street lights on the road even,” said one student.
“Pukapuka will be just like those big countries,” said another student.
The young people in particular find the idea of regular electricity and solar power “cool.” “We can have our phones charged and play candy crush all night,” said another youth. Some of the more sentimental, myself among them, lament the dwindling coconut shell fires, sitting around telling stories and star gazing with no street lamps. There is an equating of darkness with the dark ages and 24-hour power with modernity and materialism.
“There will be some good things and some bad things about having solar powered 24-hour electricity,” said another government official.
“I think its opening Pandora‘s Box, but everyone wants it” said another. Again, the biggest sentiment is “we will wait and see.”
Solar power coming to Pukapuka is a rare opportunity to see a large-scale development project in action and the social and economic impacts of 24-hour electricity on a small atoll community.