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These Indonesian villages are powered by locally sourced sustainable energy

  • An estimated 1.6 million poor households in Indonesia are not connected to the electricity grid.
  • Indonesia’s national energy plan, which targets 35,000 megawatts of new generating capacity, relies primarily on coal and other fossil fuels.
  • In rural, off-grid areas, the government has shown more support for renewable energy generation, but progress remains slow.
  • In the meantime, villages like Reno on Flores Island have built their own small-scale renewable energy sources.

In a country where much of the rural population lives off the grid, villages on the Indonesian island of Flores boast their own renewable energy sources — all built by local communities.

Reno village on Flores hosts only 134 homes. The local economy revolves around weaving, raising chickens and selling snacks. Now, a micro-hydroelectric generator is powering the village.

Rural electrification is a persistent and evolving challenge for Indonesia, especially for remote communities on the fringes and uplands of the vast archipelago. By the end of 2015, Indonesia’s electrification ratio stood at 88.3 percent, behind Southeast Asian neighbors like Singapore and Thailand. An estimated 1.6 million poor households are not connected to a grid.

Indonesia is currently planning to add 35,000 megawatts to the national power grid, but it is projected to continue to overwhelmingly depend on fossil fuels, with plans to build 117 new coal-fired plants as part of the expansion policy.

Catholic Pastor Marselus Hasan had a different idea for Reno village.

Father Marselus, as he is known in the village, said he was concerned by how people suffered daily from unreliable electricity. “Almost every day we were busy fixing the generator,” Marselus told Mongabay-Indonesia during a visit to Jakarta. One day, Marselus remembered reading about hydropower and decided he would try it out in the village. He took to the internet and tracked down technical experts.

Accompanied by Budi Wuyono, a technician, Marselus brought the idea to the local church leadership, who supported the initiative. They discussed it with the local community and the parochial council. “At first, some were doubtful. But after we showed a video of how the project succeeded in other areas, the community agreed,” he said.

A tank supplies water for the Mbakuhau micro-hydro plant, which yields 30 kilowatts of electricity to power 334 homes. Photo by Eko Rusdianto.

In July 2012, construction on the small-scale generator began. The villagers were asked to contribute 2 million rupiah (around $150) per family to purchase materials for the water tank and pipelines. The church, meanwhile, was in charge of the generators and finding experts and technical support.

To help with the initial upstart costs, the church took out a loan from the local cooperative. Marselus added that they received funding from UNDP and Bank NTT.

“We completed it in four months,” Marselus said.

Today, the Wae Rina Micro-Hydro Power Plant provides electricity for the village’s homes, one community health center, a market and a church.

But it didn’t stop there. Marselus and the team wanted to bring independent, renewable electricity to other villages on the island. In the last four years, the team has helped build four systems. One of them, the Wae Mese Wangkar plant in Sambi Rampas subdistrict, is powering 400 families, a Muslim prayer room (musholla), a health center and a traditional community building (rumah adat). Another, the Wae Laban Elar plant, is enjoyed by 316 families, a church and a musholla, a school, and the local government office. Finally, the Wae Lenger plant in Elar Poco Ranaka subdistrict now powers 264 families, three schools, and three traditional community buildings.

Marselus noted that there were early hurdles — not least convincing families to pay for the new technology. As rising fuel prices increased the cost of basic goods all over the archipelago, raising the needed funds became even harder. “For the first generator, each family pitched in 2 million rupiah. But now the price of oil has risen so the cost is 2,750,000 rupiah per family. This is quite difficult for the villagers,” he said.

Once the families could see the benefits, however, they began paying monthly contributions, roughly calculated based on how many light bulbs are used in each household.

The four micro-hydropower plants have a combined capacity of 160 kilowatts, using cross-flow turbines. Since their advent, Marselus said, villagers who normally relied on kerosene are saving some 230,000 rupiah per month. Those who previously used diesel generators are saving up to 860,000 rupiah a month.

Having more reliable electricity has also improved the village’s economy.

“Socially and culturally, the community is brought closer together and there is a stronger spirit to work together. There is a solidarity because the villagers built it together,” Marselus said.

Marselus is already planning the next installations. And he’s looking beyond hyrdoelectricity toward biogas and solar power, too.

“The most important outcome from this hydropower project is changing the society’s mindset toward a building mentality. The community feels ownership and they want to participate in building, maintaining and managing it well,” he said.

Villagers work together to build Wae Rina Micro-Hydro Power Plant in Flores, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Father Marselus Hasan.

Bamboo Biomass

On the other side of the archipelago, in West Sumatra province’s Siberut Island, three villages are also enjoying local, renewable energy. Their source is even more peculiar: bamboo.

Lying in the Indian Ocean off the western coast of Sumatra, the island is part of the Mentawai chain, home to some 80,000 inhabitants. There, local communities built biomass power plants in the villages of Madobak, Matotonan, and Saliguma.

Aided by a grant from Indonesia’s Millenium Challenge Account (MCA), Jakarta-based company Clean Power Indonesia brought the technology to convert bamboo into biomass to the three villages.

“We went in to introduce and build a power plant using renewable resources,” said CPI’s CEO Jaya Wahono.

Wahono founded the company in 2002, specializing in community-based electrification using bamboo. The idea has a unique potential as bamboo is a common but underutilized plant found across Indonesia.

The approach has several benefits, he said. First, the society is seen as not only consumers but producers. Second, bamboo is a reliable resource as it has a fast regeneration rate and is environmentally friendly. Siberut Island, for example, gets consistent rain throughout the year. “That means we can plant and harvest all year,” he said.

“For the Siberut generator, we were asked by the MCA to conduct an ecological assessment to see if this plant would adversely impact other plants, and what the safeguard mechanism is,” Wahono added.

Yoyok, a Mentawai resident who works for CPI, said converting bamboo into electricity isn’t difficult. Every family in the three villages collects bamboo stems according to the communally-agreed share. The stems are then cut into smaller pieces, between 4-10 cm (1.6-4 inches), then dried for three days.

Then, the pieces are fed into the power plant that converts them into electricity that can be used from six in the morning until midnight.

“Because people have to collect the bamboo themselves, this project is a communal project. It can be applied not only in Mentawai but other areas too,” Wahono added.

“Bright Indonesia Program”

In February 2016, the Indonesian government launched the “Bright Indonesia Program,” an initiative to bring electricity to 10,300 villages in eastern Indonesia by 2019. According to the energy ministry, there are 12,659 villages without reliable access to electricity — 2,519 of which are completely in the dark.

“We need to discuss the best way to accelerate the Bright Indonesia Program,” Rida Muluaya, director-general of renewable energy and energy conservation at the ministry, said at a workshop in Jakarta last November.

This plan is part of the bigger 35,000-megawatt expansion, he added. The program aims to start with six of Indonesia’s easternmost provinces: Papua, West Papua, Maluku, North Maluku, East Nusa Tenggara and West Nusa Tenggara.

Some villages, Rida said, are more isolated than others. That requires an approach that is tailored to each region.“We are currently collecting data — updating and cross-checking all data and potentials. Each region needs its own approach. There are some that are profit-oriented, some are not. It all depends on each village’s conditions,” Rida said.

A solar installation by environment NGO Walhi in Bangka Belitung provides power 24 hours a day. Photo courtesy of Walhi.

To accelerate the program, the renewable energy directorate is partnering with the National Team for the Acceleration of Poverty Reduction (TNP2K). The TNP2K has a program to provide free solar panels for impoverished households in off-grid areas.

The TNP2K’s Ruddi Gobel said electrification is especially important for impoverished communities. Lack of electricity, he said, is one of the factors exacerbating poverty along with lack of health care, education, and other basic infrastructure such as clean water and sanitation.

“There will always be areas which for technical reasons — for example, expensive infrastructure — are still left behind. Those areas are off-grid. The Bright Indonesia Program focuses on those areas,” Rudi said.

Sudirman Said, who was minister of energy at the time of the program’s launch, told reporters that renewables will be at the crux of the initiative. “Eastern Indonesia mostly consists of islands. Rather than installing cables from one island to another, we can use local sources such as renewable energy,” he was quoted as saying at the program’s launch last year.

Yet renewable energy is still seen by many as unreliable, forever portrayed only as “alternative” energy. In Indonesia, renewable energy generators generally function only for five years, if not less.

Amalia Suryani from Energising Development (EnDev) Indonesia, which partners with the energy ministry in construction projects, explains that renewables are thus far short-lived primarily due to technical flaws, including poor planning and design, construction that uses low-quality tools and materials, as well as unprofessional management and maintenance.

There is also a lack of local experts. When things break, spare parts have to be shipped from Jakarta or Bandung.

This is compounded by the fact that the villages’ income tends to be seasonal and unstable, and villagers often have no access to commercial funding to support local energy initiatives.

Windmills, combined with solar panels, provide clean energy to homes in Pantai Baru in Java’s Bantul District. Photo by Tommy Apriando.

According to EnDev, about 97 percent of rural electricity is managed by community organizations or the Village Electricity Management Team (TPLD).

“This model sees high turnover of management that are appointed by the governor or district chiefs, so it is vulnerable to conflicts and that affects funding access,” she said.

The remaining 3 percent is managed by cooperatives and regional state enterprises (BUMD). This framework, Amalia said, has a better potential to develop and it has regular funding from routine community contributions.

Others, like the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, argue that off-grid electrification needs a business approach.

“It can be community-based because the community is the consumer, but the management and development has to be professional. Of course it has to be for-profit, it can’t be non-profit,” said the CPI’s Wahono, who is also part of the chamber of commerce’s bioenergy and hydropower sub-unit.

If the project profits, that can be used to expand to other villages, he said, citing electrification projects in India helmed by the private sector rather than the government or non-profits.

Wahono also suggested Indonesia could request climate change mitigation funding from developed nations.

“Every year at the COP, there’s a discussion between developed countries and developing countries on how to channel that funding to prevent climate change from getting worse,” he said.

The government’s plan to expand the national grid is off to a sluggish start, with development contracts still stalled almost a year since it was launched. Meanwhile, it remains unclear when the “Bright Indonesia Program” will commence in earnest. For now, independent, local initiatives may be the only viable solution for rural areas.

“Who will replicate the project, from three villages to one island? The government? It can’t be the government,” Wahono said. “Take Siberut Island for example. It wasn’t included in the Bright Indonesia Program because it is considered electrified. Who’s electrified? Just the village chief’s house.”

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on Nov. 11, 2016.

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