This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2009.
Her early enthusiasm for hydropower led Arieta Gonelevu, an IEEE member, to an island-hopping job in renewable energy.
Dream Jobs 2009
Arieta Gonelevu’s latest challenge is to light up the only school on the South Pacific island of Tongariki using solar power. It won’t be easy. Tongariki, which is home to about 500 people in five villages, doesn’t have roads or airports. Even cargo boats don’t stop at this island in the Vanuatu archipelago, about 1800 kilometers off the coast of Australia.
It’s just the kind of assignment Gonelevu likes: a nice, old-fashioned engineering challenge—how to provide power in a robust and cost-effective way—that will also have a huge impact on people’s lives. ”The happiest, most satisfying thing about my work is that what I do makes a difference,” she says.
She figures that a 100-watt solar panel will let Tongariki’s students take night classes and also let the school do double duty as a community center, where women could gather at night to do their weaving. A hundred watts is a paltry amount of electricity—a decent blender uses six or seven times as much—but it makes a big difference in the jungle, Gonelevu says.
In a typical rural community in the South Pacific, a cluster of 50 houses uses about 25 to 30 kilowatts of power and consumes around 235 liters of diesel a week, which powers a generator for about 3 hours a day. Her mission is to increase the villagers’ access to renewable energy and reduce their use of fossil fuels. Ultimately, she’d like to connect the homes to solar-panel arrays and microhydroelectric stations and encourage the villagers to produce their own biofuel from coconut oil.
Gonelevu, in a pinstriped pantsuit and fuzzy red scarf, holds forth from her corner of the bright, wood-paneled office she shares with eight colleagues at the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission, in Fiji’s capital of Suva. In the trees by her window, a cluster of mynahs emit startling squawks, but the native Fijian barely seems to notice. The commission’s offices sit on wooden planks around an open courtyard filled with lush, broad-leaved plants. Built into the side of a hill, away from the road and the sputtering of the city’s ubiquitous taxis, the complex feels like a big tree house.
Gonelevu, 33, has spent the last eight years implementing renewable energy systems in remote communities all over the Pacific. But she talks like a veteran power engineer who has been in the business for decades. In a way, she has. Her father, Viliame Gonelevu, is one of Fiji’s first electrical engineers. Back in the 1960s, he had answered the call of the local government to study electrical engineering. The newly formed Fiji Electricity Authority needed qualified people to oversee the country’s first public power plant, which began modestly with a 65-kW diesel generator.