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Disappointed with solar option, Whipps eyes nuclear energy for Palau


Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. was the keynote speaker at the 15th Conference on Island Sustainability held April 11 at the Hyatt Regency Guam. Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan


While setting a goal to have 100 percent renewable capacity by 2032, Palau must embrace nuclear energy to supplement the country's existing power sources, President Surangel Whipps Jr. said.


"If there are safe, small nuclear reactors that are in the development stage, it's something we have to consider because solar panels and batteries are not the only solution," Whipps said.


“We shouldn't be closed to (the nuclear) option, not as a weapon, but as a power source," the president said, keynoting the 15th Conference on Island Sustainability hosted by the University of Guam at Hyatt Regency Guam on April 11.


Last year, Palau commissioned its first large-scale solar-plus-storage project developed by Solar Pacific Energy Corp., a renewable energy developer based in the Philippines and part of the Alternergy group.


The hybrid system was touted to meet around 20 percent of the Pacific country’s energy demand, delivering up to 23,000-megawatt hours per year to the grid network through a long-term power purchase agreement with Palau Public Utilities Corp.


Palau's solar plant opened in June 2023. Photo courtesy of Australian Financing Falicity for the Pacific

Whipps, however, was let down by the much-ballyhooed solar option, saying it did not live up to its promise of lowering the electricity cost for ratepayers.

 

Last week, our utility company put out in the paper that they're going to raise power rates by four cents because of the new solar plant,” the Palau leader said.


The Island Times, a Palau publication, reported last week that the contract between PPUC and the independent power producer sets the purchase price of solar energy at 14.25 cents/kWh, higher than the current fuel cost. “This translates to a $4 increase for a typical household consuming 100 kWh monthly, with their bill rising from $34 to $38,” Island Times reported.


“That doesn't sound so good, does it? So every person is quite upset that we have to raise the rate, especially when we told them that the cost of solar was going to be cheaper,” Whipps said.


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Besides the disappointing rates, Whipps is concerned with the environmental impact of solar plant production and eventual retirement.


"First of all, it costs a lot to produce them. They require rare earth minerals.

And then the batteries-- how do you dispose of them?" he asked. “Hopefully, we're going to get that worked out.”

 

He said Palau has learned that it has miscalculated the value of the solar power alternative. The cost reduction estimates “aren't quite where they were supposed to be,” Whipps said. “So there's a lot of waste because the next thing is, just kill the solar plants. Set them on fire. We don't need them anymore because this is just causing pain to us, right?”

 

He stressed the need for Palau to explore solutions.


“How do we optimize the uses of those plants so that we can continue to drive down costs?” Whipps said. “If we want to get to 100 percent renewal by 2032, we need a stable, reliable energy source that's cost-effective and zero carbon. And nuclear is one of them."


The Palau president expressed disappointment with Japan's move to resort to coal after shutting down the 50-year-old earthquake-damaged Fukushima power plant.

 

“One thing that I saw in Japan when I was out there was these ports that have piles of coal on them,” he said.  “One of the things I said was, ‘Please turn on your nuclear power plants, and do the right thing and stop burning coal. You have the engineers, you have the technology. Our islands are going under because of that coal.”



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