Ra’iatea, Thursday 30th of July 2009
This morning I cycled to Uturoa on my own (Raphael wasn’t feeling well) to meet Dominique (the energy-person) at 8:00 but he didn’t turn up so I went inside the shop in front of which we were supposed to meet and talked to his wife (?) who called him on his mobile – he was in a meeting with some minister so he couldn’t come. She wrote down our number and promised he’d call us back. I must admit I found his behavior slightly impolite – I’m a big fan of reliability on the other hand I wake up early anyway and it was good to get some exercise.
Raphael stayed in bed and slept pretty much all day and I read a bit (about plant oil and biodiesel – I started up the Renewable Energy Society at my university in Dundee and we had actually been planning on making our own biodiesel from all the old chip fat which we could get for free from our student’s Union (should I now mention that Scotland is number one for heart attacks in the world – this might be thanks to a very healthy diet which includes deep fried Mars-bars) but now that I think about it – we should really try to adapt the motor and fuel lines to use the waste oil directly instead of sticking in a lot of energy to heat it up, add chemicals and brew biodiesel… I wonder why Elsbett engines aren’t extremely popular – they have an efficiency of 40% (which is significantly higher than conventional diesel engines) and run smoothly on SVO – straight vegetable oil).
In the evening I pestered the family with my questionnaire which encouraged a debate about habits, consumerism and politics… all in all a very quiet and passive day.
Final thought of the day: I hope the fever goes down and Raphael feels better tomorrow – he’ll probably go and see a doctor, if not.
Ra’iatea, Friday 31st of July 2009
Luckily Raphael is on his feet again today – the fever has gone down!
In the morning we went to work with Nelson (he had some electrical maintenance job to finish at the school next to the power plant where Maurice works). He stopped at the harbor on the way and announced that there are two places on a boat leaving for Tahiti – today! I wondered where they suddenly came from (could there have been money involved) and if this was a subtle hint to let us know that he wanted us to leave…
Raphael and I both thought leaving at 13:30 would be quite sudden and I asked whether it would also be possible to leave tomorrow since some of Tefa’s friends would be dancing at the Heiva festival in the evening (and I had forgotten my camera the last time we went so I didn’t get a chance to take any decent pictures/exploit the culture (the ones in Pape’ete didn’t turn out too well and I was caught by a member of the security staff who prevented me from taking any more – here in Uturoa one doesn’t have to pay to get in and taking pictures is totally legitimate).
Raphael called Dominique but apparently he was sick – seems like he’s a dead-end-contact… at least we got to meet Maurice again.
Maurice gave us a lot more data/studies/presentations (we had forgotten to bring a USB-stick last time – we’re such an organized team!) some of which certain EDT officials most likely would not have shared with us and we talked for about four hours (Maurice seems to be in a position where he can afford to “waste” time on a couple of students)!
When Maurice still worked for Marama Nui they did all the maintenance work on the hydropower plants themselves – nowadays EDT either sends people over to France for work placements (to come back with limited know-how) or they bring in private companies (which are obviously more expensive). It seems like things ran a bit more smoothly with Marama Nui – they decided and immediately suit the action to the word. EDT seems to have slightly more… internal friction.
We also learnt that the “quiet” power plant (it is the only one out in the islands (not in Tahiti) that has sound insulation!) which burns about 6000 liters of gasoline per day (24 hours) and has no kind of filters (happy lung cancer from all the particulate matter in the air?!?) is running at a loss. Meaning EDT is selling the electricity for less than what it costs to produce! I was quite astonished when I heard this – Has the good old corporation which is only interested in making profits died out? What’s wrong with EDT – they’re being so generous?! The question marks formed by the wrinkles on my forehead vanished just seconds later when Maurice explained that all the power plants out on the islands and atolls are running at a loss but there is a fixed price for everyone in French Polynesia so the population in Tahiti is practically subsidizing the electricity sold elsewhere by paying a lot more than the production cost. This was a deal made with EDT by the (/some) government: they only got Tahiti if they agreed to take all the rest of French Polynesia as well – the piece of sugar only comes with a drop of sour medicine!
Otherwise no company would voluntarily take up the challenge of providing all the other little atolls and islands with electricity. Shipping the gasoline for the power plants there is quite difficult – especially because there are no regular boats (heading for the less densely populated regions) or landing stages where they could unload their freight. So in some cases the barrels are simply thrown into the up to 7 meter high waves somewhere off the coast and the islanders wait for them to drift ashore (this reminded me a bit of Raisin Bombers). Some of the barrels break, some get lost…
Some power stations run only from the morning until the afternoon in order to save fuel yet other atolls don’t even any means for electricity generation at all – I find this very difficult to grasp!
Another aspect that I found very interesting is that the price per kWh depends on how much you use. There are four (?) different tariff groups which should really encourage people to use less and it also makes it a bit easier for poor people to pay their bills! All in all this seems like a fairly social system – if now the external costs (environmental destruction, impact on future generations like rising sea levels, malnutrition due to desertification, wars over clean drinking water, and so on) were also included in the price – I’d be pretty happy (since renewables would look “damn good” beside those old fossils – financially speaking) – and the population would probably be rioting on the streets and stop paying the bills 😉
We also talked about the potential of copra oil. Maurice guesstimates (?!?) that two thirds of the potential are already being exploited. A big problem is that copra oil is still about four times as expensive as gasoline. The other problem is that it takes quite a bit of energy (still not nearly as much as what is used to drill for, refine and transport petrol) and big machinery to produce the oil. In his opinion not every island/atoll could be self-sufficient/cater for its own copra oil needs… Apparently Bora Bora used to have a thermal power plant running on coconut husk – but it was shut down (probably because gasoline was cheaper (?))… 20 odd years ago it seems they were a lot more advanced – making use of renewable energy sources (sun, rivers, biomass) – than Europe!
Maurice said that there is not much happening at the moment because there is a constant quarrel going on between EDT and the “territoire” (I think he means the government). Apparently they keep changing contracts after they have been signed or only make offers that don’t last longer than 10 years so, if for example the cost amortization period for new turbines is about 20 years EDT simply won’t take the risk to invest. He thinks it’s the government’s responsibility to encourage the people to use renewables.
He plans to install photovoltaic panels on the roof of his house (like Nelson just a few more – 8 kW) and with the tax exemption and feed-in tariff he has calculated the cost to amortize within less than 9 years. Maurice also made plans to replace one of the 6 generator units of the gasoline power plant by installing photovoltaic panels on its roof, the school next door and the lawn (of the power plant property) – they would take up an area of about 4000 square meters.
When I drew a picture with a grid consisting of a wind farm, a group of photovoltaic panels/solar array, a biogas plant, a hydropower plant with pumped hydroelectric storage, a wave and an ocean current power plant interconnected through a control room where meteorological data/whether forecast is used to predict the energy output (a project like this (“virtual power plant”) has been done near Kassel, Germany (without using wave and ocean currents) and it works – it always produces exactly the output needed) he said this might be a solution in Europe but not on an island. I shrugged and had to admit that the storage problem really is quite a tricky one – especially on atolls where you can’t simply pump water back up the hill in order to store excess electricity fed into the grid by wind or solar energy… batteries are big, don’t last long and aren’t great from an environmental aspect and I don’t think compressed air energy storage would work with the ground here – those were all the storage possibilities I could think of (apart from hydrogen but I’m pretty sure that’s not the way to go – the process is so energy intensive). I should really get my nose stuck in that energy storage book I bought before we left (to be more quick-witted next time)!
CAUTION: the next paragraph is quite technical (not sure if I’ve quite understood it myself – didn’t have lectures on this topic yet):
If there is a short circuit somewhere on the island one would need to quadruple the output to compensate for the voltage drop. They only have the capacity to double the output – until the part of the grid with the problem can be disconnected (in order to be fixed). So called flying wheels which can be integrated into hydropower plants, function as a buffer (storage capacity) to double the output for a short moment they can also prevent a voltage drop if another turbine fails. Maurice says it would be difficult to use more than 30% renewables since there is no such short-term storage for wind and solar installations (yet). He thinks it’s a nightmare to control different energy sources which quickly fluctuate – he prefers to have one thermal power plant that can quickly respond to changes in electricity demand.
Towards the end of our conversation (which I found very educating – it was good to talk to someone who has hands-on experience and knows about all the technical details – a refreshing change after talking to politicians/people working for the government) Maurice got a bit philosophical and said that he was pretty sure mankind would kill itself – trying to make nature adapt to technology instead of working the other way around. If we really wanted to survive we would have to stop building and live outside like animals again. I think I wouldn’t go quite that far but he is right in saying that whenever we build something we destroy something as well (as an example he took hydropower – when everything that collects behind the dams is dredged out and dumped somewhere, won’t exactly earn us a thank-you-card from mother nature) – this makes me doubt my “career” path again… I just want to have a positive impact!
Here comes a gleam of hope: Maurice told us that some atolls in French Polynesia don’t have any shops so people still trade their produce – money doesn’t matter and no one worries about how much time and effort went into growing something, they just swap without any ulterior motives – heartwarming – or am I romanticizing again?
After hitchhiking home with a couple who came over from Bora Bora to attend the wedding of a family member (we learnt that they went to secondary school (lycée) here for two years – apparently there is always a central island – in this case Ra’iatea where the people from the surrounding islands go for more specialized things (goods and (governmental) services). We stopped at the market in Uturoa on the way to buy some fruit (out of which we want to build an animal to say thank you to Suzie and Nelson for putting up with us for a whole week). On our way home I saw a man husking and chopping open coconuts Maurice told us that one can’t make a lot of money selling the copra but quite a few unemployed people here do it (there doesn’t seem to be a proper social welfare system here – meaning no unemployment pay).
In the evening I typed up the conversation with Maurice (hope it wasn’t too difficult to digest) while Raphael sent updates to a few of our contacts. It turned out that Tefa’s friends weren’t dancing tonight which meant he didn’t go so I couldn’t any pictures – hope I’ll survive without them!
Final thoughts of the day:
I am a bit sad to leave the peace and quiet of Ra’iatea and Nelson’s family but we will probably move into Taina’s son’s apartment in Pape’ete (he’s off to Hawaii making a film) – which is not exactly quiet but a bit more accessible (I shall get plenty of questionnaires done) and I think we’ll also be more productive once we’re back (we really didn’t do much in Ra’iatea – talking to Maurice and visiting the gasoline power plant was the only really “useful” thing we did here – apart from speaking with Nelson) and I’m looking forward to meeting Nuihau (again), Eric’s friends Annabella and Fréderic, Pierre Blanchard (the RE specialist), Mizaël Faucon (who maintains a website/blog about renewables in French Polynesia) and some more people from EDT (who will hopefully give us the data we need). I’m also curious to meet Rudolf again to hear his thoughts about the book (I’m sure he has read it by now).
I’ve been sitting here writing for a while and just noticed a few dead mosquitoes on the floor around me – wonder if that has anything to do with our insect repellant (the bottle looks like it’s from the 70’s – it was found in my grandfather’s supplies and has a logo of one of my favourite pharmaceutical corporations on it… not sure if I want to know about its composition/all the chemicals that I just dumped onto my skin…).
Writing about “pests”: Nelson killed two cockroaches – well not quite… he left them there to suffer and die really slowly. I had to overcome my inhibitions and step on them which really made quite the unpleasant cracking sound. Should one feel compassion with animals that only have ganglia/neural networks – no “proper” brains? How much/what do they feel? How are pests defined? Isn’t mankind a pest for the planet? Am I being too negative? I don’t intend to be – I really love life and I’m glad to be part of such an enormously stupid… I mean magnificent species which is capable of feelings like compassion* making music or just enjoying nature and life!
*I don’t think we’re the only species capable of this: some researchers did experiments with monkeys – taught them to pull a cord in order to get food, but then tortured another monkey when the cord was pulled; some monkeys almost starved themselves to death (waited ten days) before pulling the cord and thereby making another monkey suffer…
Ra’iatea, Saturday 1st of August 2009
Today we went downtown with Suzie since Raphael probably has pinkeye (conjunctivitis). The chemist didn’t know what to give him so he went to see a GP (I waited with him but I was getting on his nerves with my monologues** about ethics so he suggested I go for a walk which I did). The GP prescribed him four different drugs (the doctors here seem to be a little too free with prescribing antibiotics – like in the US). We went to a pharmacy and bought two things from the list of prescriptions. Back home we had lunch and finished packing. Nelson called the Taporo (ship) but they still don’t have space for us today so we’ll have to stay here until Tuesday – we really should have left yesterday… I just talked to Suzie and she said it’s totally fine that we didn’t leave.
*there was a woman with a tiny baby in the waiting room and I wondered if I would ever have kids (quite the important decision in life – if not the most). I love children they are so honest and light-hearted … I thought about there being 9 billion people on our planet by 2050, greed and wars over resources (especially water) and wondered if it would be a wise idea to place a new life into such an uncertain future – will mankind adapt and start leading a more Spartan life in harmony with nature or will we kill each other?
Raphael pointed out that there are already wars over resources – but they don’t take place in front of our eyes – we are living in two different worlds… Can I make a difference living in the rich part, where it’s easy to forget what is happening in the other part?
Was this paragraph too lugubrious and morally intense?