Pelena Energy's Vanuatu project

Dorrigo’s Peter Lynch, managing director of Pelena Energy, has returned from an eventful month in Vanuatu that featured three cyclones, one volcanic eruption and 20 days of rain.

It’s hardly surprising that his work on Stage Two of the Talise Hydroelectric Project on the island of Maewo didn’t quite go according to plan.

Stage One in 2014 involved the construction of the 75-kilowatt generation plant, a run-of-river micro hydro system that Pelena Energy designed.

The goal for Stage Two was to lay 6km of high voltage cable underground from the generator at the Talise River valley to the coast, bringing power to four villages: Tam, Talise, Narovorovo and Nasawa.

Each of the villages will have a step-down transformer that takes the voltage from 11,000 volts to the standard 240 volts supplied to houses, schools, clinics, businesses, and churches.

However, drenching rain, fierce winds, high seas and falling ash meant they only got 1.5km done, despite having 200 members of the community lending their labour to unload equipment from boats, dig long trenches by hand, and haul cable through the jungle.

The volcano that erupted on March 24 is on the island of Ambae, famous as the inspiration for James Michener’s paradise Bali Hai.

Standing on the beach at Maewo, 17km across the water, Peter watched as the lava shot a kilometre above the top of the mountain. 

No one was injured by the eruption but major devastation is occurring where ash and acid rain are falling on Ambae and other islands, with plants that the villagers and their animals rely on for sustenance being destroyed, water supplies contaminated and tracts of formerly green jungle turning monochromatic grey.

Peter received a message on April 12 from a friend at Talise, where the turbine is installed, saying the wind had shifted and the ash fall was now “exceptionally heavy on the western side of Maewo”.

“The concern for the hydro system is that the erosive and corrosive ash could be sucked into the alternator and electrical equipment and cause damage,” Peter said.

Technical officers charged with taking care of the hydro system have been dispatched to check on it.

Peter said these young locals were carefully selected and trained for the role of technical officer.

“We don’t target highly formally educated people,” he said. “We target people who have demonstrated a willingness and enthusiasm to stay living in their rural area, in their village. These are the types of people where we’ve really been able to blossom both their careers and our business.”

Peter plans to return to Vanuatu in June, when the wet season is over.

As well as finishing the cable laying, Pelena and its community taskforce will be putting lights and power points in two boarding schools and a medical clinic as part of Stage Two.

The Vanuatu government is seeking funding for Stage Three of the project, which will supply electricity to houses in the villages.

Vanuatu is one of the most remote, dispersed nations in the world, and in 2014, when its rural electrification project launched, three-quarters of its population was living without access to electricity.

The government has set a target of 90 per cent access by 2020, with 65 per cent power generation from renewable energy.