These Indonesian villages are powered by locally sourced sustainable energy

Mongabay
February 7th, 2017
By: Della Syahni

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.

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.

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.

Read more at Mongabay.