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Indo-Pacific partners boost Papua New Guinea’s power grid

Marc Jacob Prosser

Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United States are collaborating with Papua New Guinea (PNG) to provide 70% of the Pacific Island Country’s population with reliable, grid-connected electricity by 2030.

Many of the projects tie in with the U.S. $1.7 billion Papua New Guinea Electrification Partnership (PEP), established in 2018 to encourage private-public collaboration. The partnership aims to be “transparent, nondiscriminatory and environmentally responsible and … meet the genuine needs of the people of Papua New Guinea and avoid unsustainable debt burdens,” then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at the time.

The PEP also counterbalances the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) increased activity in PNG.

“Japan provides aid and collaborates with Pacific region countries with strategic priorities including supporting democracy, building markets and access to resources — all of which are influenced by China’s increasing activity in the region,” Hideyuki Shiozawa, team leader of the Pacific Island Nations Program at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation think tank, told FORUM.

Although PNG has increasing access to electricity, with World Bank data showing more than 60% of the population connected as of 2020, the grid has frequent outages. Connectivity is among the largest constraints for businesses in PNG and only 13% of the population has reliable access to electricity, according to the World Bank. The PEP aims to improve the situation through sustainable and transformative change, including:

  • Connecting more than 145,000 households to the grid
  • Generating 45 megawatts of new and recovered energy
  • Installing 800 kilometers of new or upgraded transmission and distribution lines
  • Connecting 220,000 households to off-grid electricity

Japan is a core supporter of the PEP and consistently among the top three aid providers to PNG. Tokyo’s electrification support there includes the Ramu Transmission System Reinforcement Project, which increases access to reliable electricity for the industrial hub of Lae.

The Japan-led Asian Development Bank recently announced financial backing for the U.S. $305 million Power Sector Development Project to install and upgrade transmission lines and substations and build minigrids across PNG. (Pictured: Electricity transmission lines are installed in Kimbe in Papua New Guinea’s West New Britain province.)

Although the PRC is also heavily involved in the PNG energy sector, including constructing the U.S. $800 million Ramu 2 hydropower plant that could increase the island nation’s electricity output by one-third, critics note that many Chinese-backed projects lead to unsustainable debts. PNG’s budget shortfalls, partly due to loans, have already seen Australia provide loans that effectively go to cover debts and interest payments to the PRC, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Chinese companies also have been pushing the sale of low-cost solar panels in PNG for electricity generation.

Indo-Pacific partners including Japan have focused their PEP projects on grid connection but also provide funding for microgrids and solar projects.

Japan’s projects in PNG illustrate its priorities in the Pacific region as well as the PRC’s increasing influence, Dr. Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo, told FORUM.

“Japan works to create strong ties with partner nations through infrastructure development that can be leveraged in many different contexts,” Nagy said. “In comparison, China’s approach tends to prioritize large injections of funds through loans and major development projects, which can lead to asymmetrical power relationships.”

Marc Jacob Prosser is a FORUM contributor reporting from Tokyo, Japan.



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