Fiji’s geothermal future at a glance

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About half of Fiji's electricity comes from rainfall. Most of the other half is produced by generators powered by diesel engines. In 2006, diesel fuel cost the Fiji Electricity Authority almost $100 million. The cost of fuel is a major factor limiting growth in Fiji.

The conclusion is simple: Fiji needs more capacity to generate electricity if the nation's economy is to develop strongly, but also needs to reduce the amount of diesel fuel used.

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Fortunately, Fiji is on the "Ring of Fire" -- a zone around the Pacific Ocean that contains about two-thirds of the world's active volcanoes. Although Fiji does not have volcanoes, the earth's inner heat is close to the surface on Vanua Levu and Viti Levu. Hot water and steam from beneath the earth can be used to generate electricity.

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Producing geothermal electricity

Electricity can be generated if there is enough flow of water and it is hot enough. The process of geothermal power generation is as follows:

>   Deep holes are drilled to gain access to hot water underground.

>   The heat in the water is extracted to generate steam, which rotates a turbine at very high speed.

>   The turbine drives an electrical generator.

>   The water, which is now cooler, is pumped back into the ground, not far from where it was pumped out.

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Five main advantages

1.  Geothermal electricity is almost constant -- all day and night, every single day, 365 days a year, irrespective of the weather.

2.  Many millions of dollars that presently have to be sent overseas each year to pay for fuel oil are saved.

3.  The energy supply is secure.

4.  Only very small amounts of greenhouse gases are emitted; geothermal is very “environmentally friendly”.

5.  Geothermal electricity generation is mature technology and very reliable. In 21 countries world-wide, it supplies electricity to about 60 million people.

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Significance of other forms of renewable energy

The Monasavu Dam is the most important element in the Fiji Government's strategy to supply all the nation's electrical energy through renewable resources. It usually satisfies about half of national demand. The Fiji Electricity Authority has taken several other renewable energy initiatives in recent years, which will further increase the already impressively high proportion of renewable energy in the Fiji Electricity Authority's generation profile.

Hydro can supply base load electricity -- large amounts of electricity at a constant output -- all day and night, every single day, 365 days a year. Other than geothermal, it is the only renewable energy technology that has that hugely important capability.

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The one serious limitation of hydro is that during drought, there may not be enough water to drive the electricity generators throughout the whole year. Diesel fuel then has to be purchased to generate electricity to make up the shortfall. Ten years ago, the cost of Fiji's fuel imports (including fuel required to produce electricity) was less than 20% of the nation's domestic export earnings. In 2008 it was more than 80%.

Wind generators typically operate no more than 25 per cent of the time. Although they are useful to supplement Fiji's electricity generating capacity and to reduce spending on diesel fuel, wind generators cannot produce base load electricity. Solar power has drawbacks similar to those of wind turbines and cannot produce base load electricity.

Geothermal is able to meet high demand for base load electricity at an almost constant output, regardless of climatic conditions. That makes it unique among renewable technologies.

If Fiji's geothermal resources are large enough to supply low-cost electricity on a major industrial scale, the nation can be internationally competitive in attracting industries that would not otherwise be possible.

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The reason geothermal hasn’t come to Fiji already

Before the proponents of a geothermal power project can be at all confident that drilling for hot water may be successful, complex and expensive geological studies are also needed.

The first stages of a geothermal project are extremely expensive and have a high risk of commercial failure: drilling for geothermal hot water can cost about FJ$19 million (US$11 million) per hole and drill holes may not strike sufficient hot water to generate electricity.

These costs and risks are too high for governments to undertake this work. However, some non-government investors are prepared to bear the high risk of financing it. Although they may lose all their investment, if drilling is successful the financial return from a large geothermal power station is good.

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Geothermal’s environmental profile

Geothermal power plants are very environmentally friendly. They emit very small amounts of "greenhouse gases" -- 1/6000 the emissions of carbon dioxide, the main global warming pollutant, emitted from conventional power stations. If geothermal replaced Fiji's present diesel-powered electricity generators, about 300,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases and toxic emissions less would be released into the atmosphere every year.

Other emissions are very low, or zero.

When geothermal water is pumped back into the earth, the underground geothermal reservoir retains the same amount of water. Therefore, the power station never runs out of water and any other places that use hot water (such as hot springs resorts and cooking places) continue to receive exactly the same quantity as they always have. In a binary geothermal system, only heat is permanently removed, not water.

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The first project: Savu Savu

Geothermal Electric Limited has been granted a licence to drill for geothermal resources at Savu Savu, Fiji's most promising geothermal site. If the drilling program is successful, a small electricity generating station will be built. Further holes will then be drilled. If they yield water of sufficient temperature and flow, a larger plant will be installed, allowing more electricity to be generated.

Although output from Savu Savu may be as little as only double what local demand is now, the target is between 4 and 8 times the nation's present total continuous demand. The unknown temperature and volumes of hot water and steam that may be found thousands of feet below the surface explain the large difference between these upper and lower limits.

The second project: Labasa-Tabia

Again subject to successful drilling, Geothermal Electric Limited plans to develop the geothermal resources of the Labasa-Tabia region. Some of the output is planned to provide power for nearby industry, including ethanol and bio-diesel fuels, and mining projects.

More electricity -- to power industry and reduce cost

Geothermal Electric Limited's projects at Savu Savu and Labasa-Tabia, and similar projects that may be built on Viti Levu, will reduce the nation's reliance on diesel fuel. If geothermal supplies electricity to the present market only, it could supply 50% of total electricity on Viti Levu and 100% on Vanua Levu.

The really exciting potential, however, lies in further directions -- geothermal's ability to stimulate the establishment of large-scale industries by supplying large amounts of continuous power all day, every day. If that occurs, it will bring unprecedented wealth to Fiji and transform the nation's economy.

If large industries are supplied, it should then be possible to lower the cost of electricity for household, commercial and non-industrial users. This will make it easier for businesses to operate and cheaper for families to run electrical appliances and lighting.

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About Geothermal Electric Limited

Geothermal Electric Limited is a public limited company incorporated in Suva. It is dedicated to exploring and developing Fiji's most promising geothermal resources at low cost, providing good returns on investment to the company's shareholders, making an effective contribution to developing Fiji's economy, and helping to fight climate change. Until recently, as a private limited company, Geothermal Electric Limited was a wholly owned subsidiary of Asia Pacific Resources Limited, which is a world leader in low-cost mining development, enabling it to profitably develop mineral deposits that are normally considered to be too small to be developed by companies with a conventional high-cost structure. Geothermal Electric Limited is following similar practices. This includes having very substantial specialist capabilities in relevant fields within the company.

 

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Geothermal will drive Fiji’s future prosperity

The mining and minerals processing industry has huge potential to build wealth in Fiji. It spends large amounts of money in local economies, stimulates wide-ranging support industries and generates opportunities for highly skilled employment. But the lack of reliable, moderately priced energy is currently a huge barrier to developing this industry in Fiji and much of the Pacific.

If sufficient geothermal resources can be discovered soon to provide the electricity required by mining and minerals processing, Fiji can become a highly competitive location for this industry -- competitive enough to attract industries despite the long distance, much as Iceland is using its geothermal resources to process minerals from as far away as South America.

Geothermal energy will not therefore "simply produce more electricity" to reduce our reliance on imported fuel -- it will go much further than that. It will be the key to Fiji's ability to transform its economy and greatly increase the wealth of its people.

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