Renewable Energy: A Solution For Green, Safe, Reliable and Affordable Pacific Sea Transport?

[Contributor: Amelia Bola]

The Pacific Islands region’s transport issues are unique – tiny economies scattered at the ends of some of the longest transportation routes in the world with the most challenging network to maintain per capita and per sea mile with the available resources to support it. The priority for Pacific shipping lies on the domestic front of around 20 Pacific states which are archipelagoes. There are an estimated 2,100 domestic ships servicing the Pacific.


Providing adequate, efficient, and reliable domestic shipping is one of the most difficult challenges for Pacific Islands. Coastal and inter-island shipping is generally provided by governments or small, independent shipping companies. Many routes are commercially marginal, many are simply unviable. Governments generally subsidize or provide for these, with ever increasing costs.

The ships used are sometimes unsuitable, often old and in poor condition. Finance markets become increasingly cautious of such investments. Many vessels do not meet recognised safety standards, and should be banned from service, but because they provide essential services to remote communities this is rarely done. Shipping disasters directly attributable to substandard ships are regular. Despite crippling effects and being the region’s single largest user of imported fuel, sea transport has not improved.

Fuel comprises approximately 40-60 per cent of domestic fleet operating costs, and this is projected to increase over time. The Pacific is the most dependent on imported fossil fuels in the world with Pacific Islands importing more than 95 per cent.

Sustainable sea transport development barriers

Sea transport is generally considered a private investment issue with public or donor investment restricted exclusively to shore infrastructure (ports), policy and regulation. Financing for shipping assets is notoriously difficult to access. Old ships being replaced with old ships or reliance on donated and often inappropriate vessels is the established norm in most Pacific states.

Cultural barriers exist where larger, faster engines and ships are seen as markers of increasing development, while use of technologies such as sails are viewed as stepping away from progress. There is also popular fallacy that renewable energy technology will be slower and less efficient than fossil fuelled counterparts.

Transport is a priority area for Pacific Forum Leaders under the Pacific Plan and its importance as a facilitator of economic growth is recognized. However, sustainable shipping is not mentioned in any Pacific national, regional or development agency energy, transport, or climate change strategy to date.

Such barriers have also been found to be true at a global level where a lack of policies and incentive schemes promoting wind propulsion, lack of financial resources, insufficient collaboration, and conservative and risk-averse attitudes are prevalent.

Practical demonstrations are either in development or have only been adopted on a very small scale. Current regulations, infrastructure, user practices, and maintenance networks are aligned with the existing technology, which means that new technologies often face a mismatch with the established socio-institutional framework.

Looking back to the last oil crisis, there is nothing new to what is a rational approach to a central issue of high strategic importance to most Pacific Island states. The current situation is largely a rerun of events of more than 30 years ago. Despite the multiplying sustainable development issues since the 1980s, domestic shipping has not been improved. Technological advance, regional and international dialogue on sustainable transportation, and renewable energy conquests make immediate actions to produce tangible improvements in this sector timely.

Renewable Energy Options

Most initiatives into new technology solutions have focused on large-scale shipping. There is little being done on smaller vessels which service most of the developing world and contribute about 26 per cent of all global shipping emissions whilst carrying only about 4 per cent of global cargo load.

Primary attention is on alternative fuels such as biofuels or biogas, wind and solar. In Pacific island states, bio-fuels/gases from local crop production or by-products offer possibilities. Ultimately, economics of production of such fuels versus the cost of import of fossil fuels will determine rate of sustainable development.

Solar energy has the potential as an auxiliary to other fuels but is not sufficiently advanced to provide primary propulsion. Wind energy has strong potential in a variety of deployments. Hybrid vessels, combining more than one type of energy source, offer a ‘best of both worlds’ approach.

Japanese-based non-governmental organizations, Greenheart, offer strong potential for extremely cost effective 220 ton, 100 per cent renewable energy powered freighters conservatively displacing around one and a half ton of fuel per day. A pilot vessel is under construction in Bangladesh. Work has been on-going into the use of small scale (4-10dwt) cargo/passenger catamarans for more than three decades in different Pacific locations.

Renewable energy vessels have strong potential for enabling regional shipping trade. Currently, Pacific state exporters must transship via Sydney or Auckland making many sub-regional trade opportunities uneconomic with increasing dependency on imports from these developed states. Vessels such as the Greenheart design are capable of direct container shipping of small consignments reliably and regularly, with far lower overheads than the current large container ships.

Windward to the Future

The 1st international Sustainable Sea-Transport Talanoa 2012 (held in Suva, Fiji – November 2012) and Fiji-centered research led by the University of the South Pacific’s Sustainable Sea-Transport research programme suggest renewable energy shipping offers benefits across multiple well-beings: economic, environment, social, and cultural. It offers a potential future where fleets of smaller but sustainable new ships can replace current single aged large vessel operations. There is potential to revitalize all aspects of the domestic Pacific industry from ship construction to transport operations to maintenance and end re-cycling – a cradle to cradle approach.

The 2nd International Sustainable Sea Transport in the Pacific Talanoa to be held 14-18 July 2014, in Suva, Fiji Islands will bring together key stakeholders with an interest in heritage, culture, seafaring, science, vessel design, economics, policy, regulation, and industry to celebrate the Pacific seafaring heritage and progress planning towards a sustainable seafaring future. For more information on upcoming conference, visit:

Amelia Bola, Masters student at the University of the South Pacific.

Amelia Bola, Masters student at the University of the South Pacific.

About the contributor: Amelia Bola is a Masters student at the University of the South Pacific (USP). She is based at the ‘Oceania Centre for Sustainable Transport’ which was set up in 2013 by USP in collaboration with IUCN Oceania Regional Office.

Amelia is also a member of the proactive Wantok Moana, a marine students association of USP. The Pacific-based oceans-related activities of Wantok Moana are supported by a wide network of agencies including IUCN and the United Nations – Nippon Foundation (UNNF) Alumni. The Wantok Moana were welcomed by the network at the UNNF Pacific Regional Alumni meeting held in Suva, Fiji Islands from 14-18 October 2013.

Edited by Joytishna Jit