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UC students help streamline Tongan power grid

Daniela_Tongan power
Helping hands: Mubin Abd Rahman, Gavin Austin, Jarrad Raumati and Darren O’Neill examine diesel pipes in Tonga’s power station.

Tonga plans to source half of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and four students from the University of Canterbury are helping the country achieve that.

Final-year electrical engineering students Darren O’Neill, Gavin Austin, Jarrad Raumati and Mubin Abd Rahman are working with Tonga Power Limited (TPL) to analyse its power system. Currently, TPL relies on imported diesel to generate the majority of Tonga’s power, but the Tongan Government’s Energy Roadmap policy aims to reduce diesel use.

Tonga Energy Roadmap communications officer Sitiveni Finau said the country wants to gain independence from the “volatility” of the oil market and help mitigate climate change.

“Within this roadmap is an intention to use less fossil fuel,” he said. “Of course, we put out very little on a worldwide basis, we hardly move the needle.”

TPL business development engineer Nikolasi Fonua said there were many options to reduce diesel use including using biomass fuel like coconut waste, solar farms and wind turbines, but all needed further analysis to determine what was most practical.

“We just don’t have [the resources] at the moment to do those sorts of analysis,” Fonua said. “We don’t have the time to basically update our systems to do that sort of thing. We need support.”

That analytical support has been provided by the Canterbury students who looked at Tonga’s system to identify weaknesses and areas for development, and at the same time gained practical experience on an entire power grid.
O’Neil created a mathematical model of the network on Tonga’s main island Tongatapu to help TPL decide  where a project could go and what it might cost. He said the same learning opportunities were not available in New Zealand.

“In Tonga, the whole system is similar to the distribution network in New Zealand [but] it is far smaller and more manageable,” he said. “We couldn’t do this for New Zealand so it’s good to be able to do this on a complete system.”

Supervising lecturer Professor Pat Bodger said the relationship between the students and TPL was fostered through the university’s previous work installing solar panels in Tongan high schools.

“I look at it as an exchange programme that we gain a heck of a lot out of,” he said. “They (TPL) contribute to our students’ learning.”

“What we will hope to deliver is not only the reports but also the computer programmes that will allow them to do this sort of analysis themselves, so long as they’ve got the engineers,” he said.

The students also forecast Tonga’s energy needs for the coming years, examined the system for potential faults and proposed extensions for TPL’s monitoring programme. Their final analysis will be presented to TPL in September.

_Daniela Maoate-Cox for the Christchurch Mail