Australian solar startup wins Honnold Foundation support to seed solar in the South Pacific


A small culture-rich, idyllic island at the frontline of climate change has become the focus of Dr Matt Edwards, CEO of Australian solar startup BlueVolt, and Alex Honnold, prodigious rock climber, star of the Oscar-winning movie Free Solo and founder of the Honnold Foundation which is dedicated to alleviating global energy poverty through the considered application of solar PV.

BlueVolt has been awarded one of eight 2020 Honnold Foundation grants — out of a pool of 700 global applicants — which will support BlueVolt’s project to power a small tourist centre, The Sunset Lodge, on Savo one of the Solomon Islands, thereby freeing it from the tyranny of diesel generation.

It may sound dramatic, but the lodge currently pays some US$12,000 a year for diesel to run its generator, which only powers lighting and ceiling fans. “Every week, the owner still has to get in his boat and travel 45 minutes to the mainland to pick up fuel and ice for his refrigerator,” says Edwards, who visited Savo late last year to a warm reception from tourism operators all over the island.

His first intention is to apply BlueVolt technology to power the lodge: to encourage stays at the property, expanding its capacity for hosting overnight guests, and to employ more local people in tourism operations … and solar maintenance.

Future phases of the project will see portable battery systems for the surrounding community charged by The Sunset Lodge solar setup, and replication of the installation to other Solomon Islands sites.

“BlueVolt,  and the Savo community have a well-developed plan for maintenance, repair and scalability moving forward,” says the Honnold Foundation report on what’s become known as the Savo Solar Initiative.

Beaming solar generation into as yet unserved niches

Edwards, who is also PV research scientist and Technology Transfer Manager at the University of New South Wales’ renowned School of Photovoltaic Renewable Energy Engineering, says, “BlueVolt’s broad vision is to spread solar more evenly throughout society, and we’re looking at market niches that are not well served at the moment — one is climate frontlines, parts of the world that are currently only served by diesel generation.”

BlueVolt and the Honnold Foundation were connected by Edward Cavanough, Manager of Policy at Australia’s McKell Institute, whose 2019 research on energy in the Pacific highlighted Savo’s challenges.

“This project is a real-word case study in how Australian innovators can work alongside Pacific partners to deliver a cleaner, more equitable future for our region,” said Cavanough when the grant was announced.

The pilot will see am 8 kW cyclone-proof solar array and a 20 KWh battery storage system installed at The Sunset Lodge, which will power not only lighting and cooling fans, but reliable refrigeration for storing community essentials including medicine.

“We’ll run the system with telemetry and it will be tied into the BlueVolt network. As a demonstration project it will be publicly monitored, and people will be able to read about the history of Savo and the story of the village,” says Edwards.

Protecting the nature of a tropical paradise

The opportunities for reframing tourism as ecotourism on Savo are many. The island’s attractions include a dolphin breeding ground, an active volcano and a rare species of megapode bird which lays its eggs in the sand of the island’s beaches. Savo is also located at the centre of Iron Bottom Sound, so-called because its waters are littered with American and Japanese fighter jets and frigates sunk during World War II, making it a diver’s paradise.

“Expanding environmentally friendly tourism in the right locations could do a lot for the economies of some of these small villages,” says Edwards, who hopes the rugged battery packs BlueVolt has developed for the project’s second round will enable emissions-free lighting and charging of devices that could then also support education for the island’s youth.

Diesel generation, he says, extracts a terrible toll on island communities which live and sleep amidst its noise and fumes; and disproportionately suffer the effects of fossil-fuel-fed climate change, with up to three times the global average of sea-level rise (7-10 millimetres a year since 1993), and increasingly violent tropical storms such as Cyclone Harold, which ripped through the Solomon Islands in April with devastating effects.

Dunking dirty diesel 

BlueVolt’s secondary goal after helping to alleviate global energy poverty is to disrupt diesel supply lines by substituting standalone solar systems for diesel.

The Sunset Lodge system alone will displace 40 tonnes of CO2 over five years of operation.

“The idea is that we will replicate this model in a large number of locations,” says Edwards, citing Fiji, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands as nations in need of clean distributed energy, and leading eventually also to revolutionising power generation in the diesel-dependent Indonesian archipelago.

The Honnold Foundation grant will seed BlueVolt’s efforts, with BlueVolt and local beneficiaries also contributing to the costs of installation and maintenance. 

Transforming the relationship between people and power 

The idea is that solar-enabled properties will pay a fraction of their diesel expenditure for renewable, quiet, emissions-free energy and that the systems ultimately generate profit for BlueVolt and for solar owners.

“We hope to learn a lot from this project, getting feedback on what works well for all parties,” says the solar scientist. “Once we have success with one or two of these sites, the intention is that we become less and less reliant on grants to fund the initial outlays.”

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Edwards and the Honnold Foundation intend to progress the Savo Solar Initiative, and have the pilot system in place by year end.

On the foundation website Honnold writes, “In the coming months and years communities will be tested in new and challenging ways… Solar energy access is a powerful way to boost resilience— it creates jobs, reduces environmental impact, and increases self-sufficiency and self-determination for marginalised communities.” He adds that, “while it can be hard to look past our current crisis, energy access remains essential”.

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