The debate rages on about how we can make a transition towards renewable energy.

In New Zealand we are comparatively good on the scale of renewable energy that we use - around three quarters of our energy comes from renewable sources (hydro, geothermal, wind and biomass) - and huge opportunities abound for us to generate revenue by exporting our increasing expertise in clean technologies gained through experience in our challenging conditions.

Our unique resources including geothermal and blustery winds give us opportunities to generate electricity without having to fill giant smoke stacks or build nuclear power plants.

As technology improves and clean-tech investment grows, we should be able to do even better with renewables in the future.


But not all nations have the water, wind and smelly steam that open these opportunities up for New Zealand.

Our neighbouring Pacific Island nations are heavily reliant on diesel-fuelled generators to switch on the lights. This is both hard to sustain and incredibly expensive, putting their fragile economies at the mercy of often-wild oil price fluctuations.

The Friendly Islands given a renewable kick start

The friendly islands of Tonga (a place I grew to love after volunteering full-time for eight months to organise a huge coastal clean-up there in 2009) are on the verge of switching on a major solar plant, which has been constructed by experts from Meridian Energy with $7.9 million funding from New Zealand Aid.

The Maama Mai Solar Farm has been described by our acting High Commissioner as the largest single project that New Zealand has ever invested in Tonga and the benefits speak for themselves: it is a super high-tech system that harnesses the powerful Pacific sun to generate up to 1.32 megawatts of electricity (about 4 percent of the island's demand) and will aim to reduce imported diesel use by about 470,000 litres per year.

The space-age looking panels have drawn much interest from locals (especially when their electricity prices dropped on the day of the launch) and because the construction employed locals, demanded full noise politically correct health and safety standards (oh the Kiwiana!) and is being run in partnership with Tonga Power: essential skills have been developed to build further renewable energy facilities in the islands in the future.

In less than five years, the project will have generated more power than was required to produce the components and build the system, which was completed on time and under budget - a very rare feat in construction.

So is this the way forward for effective and sustainable overseas development assistance that also delivers environmental benefits?


Aiding clean power

The impending privatisation of our state-owned enterprises is designed to make them more efficient, but it will be interesting to see whether it affects their ability to deliver aid projects like the Maama Mai Solar Farm down the track.

There is an arguable case that renewable energy investment will end up paying off in the long run, not just in the Friendly Islands, but also in New Zealand itself through economic benefits that are not immediately obvious.

The 2006 census showed that over 50,000 Tongan people live in New Zealand. Many bear the burden of sending cash abroad to support relatives in the form of remittances, which accounted for 24% of Tonga's GDP in 2010.

Perhaps if the cost of core services, like electricity, in the Pacific Islands was to drop with more renewable systems, our New Zealand-based Pacific population (whose median income is consistently below the national average) could save more of their hard-earned money.

So this clean-tech investment in Tonga, implemented by renewable experts Meridian Energy, could help develop a healthier Pacific environment and wealthier people.

One thing we all know from the tourism brochures about the islands is that they are sunny - the lessons learned from Tonga could be a stepping stone towards far greater investment in solar power in the Oceania region.

Only time will tell whether the to-be shareholders of our energy companies will see the benefits of investing in such projects and make the renewable opportunities a reality that will change the lives of our friendly neighbours.