ACT NOW! has welcomed the announcement of the PNG Electrification Partnership with its aim of connecting 70% of the country to affordable, reliable and clean electricity by 2030.
The Partnership is between the government of PNG and Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United States.
If carefully implemented, the program could make a very meaningful improvement to the lives of millions of people, contribute to the development of healthy and sustainable communities and enable sustainable economic and social development.
Equally though, if taken in the wrong direction, the program could have serious negative impacts. These include exacerbating existing inequalities, promoting the unsustainable use of natural resources, fuelling corruption and land grabbing, creating social tension and destroying the natural environment.
This will particularly be the case if the program focuses on large-scale electricity generation projects, large distribution networks, long-distance transmission and servicing the energy needs of the mineral and fossil fuel extraction industries.
Such large-scale infrastructure projects in Papua New Guinea have an unhappy history of feeding corruption, social and environmental destruction and leaving communities worse off than they were before. They also often suffer from a lack of proper maintenance and can end up as more of a drain on the economy than a positive stimulus.
Also we have a vastly varied and rugged geography and, sitting in the Pacific Rim of Fire, the country is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity. This is a natural environment that is eminently unsuited to any large-scale distribution network that will inevitably require high levels of ongoing investment and also be susceptible to interruptions from local rivalries and social disputes. There are also serious question about how remote rural households with very limited cash incomes can be billed and will pay for their electricity consumption in a large-scale distributed system.
Conversely, a widely dispersed population, huge ethnic diversity, strong local histories and cultures, an abundance of waterways, a tropical climate and technically adapt and skilled communities mean PNG is eminently suited to the deployment of small-scale, environmentally and socially sustainable, low-maintenance technologies such as solar and local hydro-electricity schemes.
Such schemes, can power family homes, local schools, aid posts and rural government offices with relatively modest investments and will prove sustainable in the medium and long term.
At the very crudest level, the distribution of a small solar lighting kit, now retailing for less than K2,000, to 70% of households would cost around K1.4 billion or US$425 million. With economies of scale it should be easily possible to both reduce these costs and also provide kits to all rural schools, aid posts and government offices.
This is not to suggest such kits should be the universal solution; in some cases it maybe that a community or district level mini-grid system powered by renewable energy could provide the most suitable solution.
The solar kit example does though show what could be possible at relatively low cost compared to any economically, socially, and environmentally risky investment in large-scale power generation projects and large transmission networks.
Small-scale, appropriate local solutions would also bring a range of other benefits such as empowering communities, promoting self-reliance, and boosting local knowledge and skills. They would also have relatively small lead in times and be relatively easy to organise, reducing overheads.