Waingapu, Sumba. Five years ago, Dorkas Manuhuluk, a Sumbanese headmistress, would ask her staff to ride a bike for 45 minutes to a neighboring village just to make copies of question sheets for her students.
“It’d be free if we used our own motorcycle, but we don’t own one. We’d call an ojek [motorcycle taxi] which costs Rp 50,000 ($3.80) for one trip,” said Dorkas, who currently heads Praimarada Elementary School in Umamanu village, one-and -a-half hours’ drive southwest of Waingapu — the biggest city in East Sumba district, East Nusa Tenggara.
Markus Karepi Muama, a teacher at Praimarada, said sixth graders would light kerosene lamps as they stayed overnight at the school, studying for an upcoming national examination.
“For a whole month ahead of national exam, we teach and repeat as much material as possible with the students every evening,” said Markus.
Meanwhile, farmers in East Sumba district’s two neighboring villages — Rakawatu and Kondamara, located some 70 kilometers west of Waingapu — would often stop growing and harvesting paddies during an unusually long dry season on the island.
“During the dry season, we would pump the water from a nearby spring,” said Made Raspita, one of the farmers.
“For a long while, we would use diesel as fuel for the water pump generator, regardless its skyhigh price,” he added.
Affected by the hot, dry air from the deserts of Northern Australia, Sumba — one of the southernmost islands in the archipelago — does not receive nearly as much rainfall as the islands to the north.
November to March is the rainy season for Sumba, while the sun shines on the island during the rest of the year. This means farmers consume massive amount of diesel to run the water pump generator to help the irrigation system.
In 2010, researchers from two international nongovernmental organizations, Hivos and Winrock, released a study that found less than 25 percent of Sumba’s 686,000 residents have access to electricity at home.
Researchers also discovered the electricity used by the locals in Sumba was heavily sourced from non-renewable energy, such as diesel and kerosene, which is shipped in from outside the island, resulting in higher operational costs.
State electric utility PLN has cited Sumba’s relatively sparse population as the reason the firm remains reluctant to install a more robust electrical grid to electrify the island’s remote villages.
“It costs about Rp 300 million per kilometer of electrical extension grid.”
“It’s too costly for us considering the small amount of people that will use the electricity,” Khairullah, area manager of PLN in Sumba, told The Jakarta Globe on Tuesday.
When the Jakarta Globe visited Praimarada Elementary School on Monday, the nearest electricity pole to the school was some five kilometers away — one that also looked questionably functional.
Meanwhile, the last standing electricity pole on the road leading to Rakawatu and Kondamara was about 40 minutes away from the two villages.
Since March 2011, PLN has instead provided remote villages across the archipelago with energy-saving lamps, known locally as Sehen, which are sources of artificial light that reduce the amount of electricity drawn from the local grid, since they are connected to a solar panel.
These lamps can stay lit for about six hours.
The light at the end of the tunnel
Joint research from the two NGOs found that Sumba is rich in renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, water and biomass.
Hivos and Winrock then chose Sumba as the island to launch it’s ambitious project — for the island’s entire population to gain access to electricity generated from renewable energy by 2025.
The project called “Sumba Iconic Island” was launched in 2010 with the full support of Indonesia’s Energy Ministry and the PLN in Sumba.
Drawing global attention. In May 2013, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) committed $1 million to support the technical side of the project.
The Norwegian Embassy in Indonesia then joined in October 2013, funding 600,000 euros ($644,000) for the program.
“This program strives for humanity sovereignty. And energy is important for people,” Stig Traavik, Norway’s ambassador to Indonesia, told the Jakarta Globe when asked why the embassy decided to partake in the project.
“Norway as a nation that cares about the environment, clean energy and resources of the future, this is a program where it all comes together — including poverty reduction. This is an illustration of what we would like to continue doing,” he added.
Fruitful and promising result
Four years after the program was launched, some areas of Sumba have experienced the same, abundant benefits from power plants that operate on renewable energy.
In April last year, a 1.5 kilowatt-hour (kWh) solar panel was installed at Praimarada Elementary School, providing full electricity for the school’s administrative and teaching activities.
“If we want to make copies of something, we can just print it out now with our own printer. We’re spending much less money this way,” said Dorkas.
“If we receive study books late from the distributor, we can ask for the softcopy and print them out.”
“When we’re doing the preparation activity ahead of the national exam, students can now learn under sufficient lighting and we’ve stopped using kerosene lamps,” Markus added.
Across the island
Residents at other villages also said they have had a great results since power plants run with renewable energy sources were built and began operating at their villages a couple of years ago.
“The power generator can provide electricity for the whole village,” said Umbu Tamu, leader of a small management team for a biomass power plant at Rakawatu, which has capacity of 50 kilovolt-amperes.
“We’ve stopped using diesel since the water pump generator is now running on solar energy.”
“The generator can water our paddy and vegetable field,” Made said, referring to a solar panel installation set up two years ago for supplement the village’s water pump generator. It can supply up to 80,000 liters of water.
During a visit to several project sites in East Sumba district earlier this week, Energy Minister Sudirman Said and Norwegian Ambassador Stig praised the successes of the villages.
“One of Jokowi’s management programs is how to reach energy sovereignty. I think this is one of the ways that can and will expedite energy sovereignty in the country,” Sudirman told the Jakarta Globe.
“I see a great potential in Sumba. I think it would be inspiring, not only for the population here but also for Indonesia if Sumba is able to reach this goal of becoming 100 percent on renewable energy,” said Stig.
Modern technology needs proper and periodical maintenance, which can require a massive amount of budget.
These power plants, however, are considered an off-grid electricity system, meaning it is not part of any electrical grids that are operated and monitored by the PLN.
“The PLN can only do maintenance for the on-grid system. But, we would be more than happy if there’s a regulation that lets us do maintenance for the off-grid as well,” said Khairullah.
As of now, the villages and school appoint one person from a small committee to do regular monitoring of the power plants.
The electricity has become a source of income for the villages as it is sold off to the public.
For instance, Praimarada Elementary School charges anyone from neighboring villages who wishes to use electricity for personal purposes, Rp 1,000 per use.
“People mostly come to charge their mobile phone,” Markus said.
“The money that we collect is entered into a book, and when the equipment needs service, we can use the bulk that we have.”
Praimarada’s solar panel operates on six batteries that can last for up to five years at a cost of Rp 2 million each, according to Sandra Winarsa, program officer for sustainable energy at Hivos Regional Office Southeast Asia.
A similar fee-collecting system has also been adopted in the village of Rakawatu, where households that own television sets are charged Rp 50,000 per month and those who only use the electricity for lighting pay Rp 35,000 monthly, Tamu said.
“The monthly fee is not that much. But, that’s how much we can contribute from our income,” Tamu added.
“We don’t receive any funding from outside to help operational expenses. If the government could help us with the maintenance cost, then that would be great.”
Sudirman said the people could request funds from the regional government should they need to fix or replace parts of the power plants.
“If the residents need a huge amount of funds for maintenance, they can ask the regional government through the DAK [specific allocation fund] program.”
“It is permitted by the ministry to use the funds to substitute old units,” the energy minister told the Jakarta Globe.
Sudirman added that he would evaluate the energy subsidy in the state budget to also help people who generate electricity from renewable-energy based power plants.
“It is our homework and this is something that needs to be reviewed so that energy subsidy can be fair and even for everyone,” he said.
“The subsidy could be also by providing seed funds to help set up the power plants.”
Where’s next after Sumba?
Sudirman said he would form a special committee to help the ministry frame a nationwide blueprint for power plants that operate on renewable energy.
“The committee will also help push [Sumba] to expedite its target — if possible by 2020 — in becoming an example of an island in Indonesia that completely uses renewable energy,” Sudirman said.
“There is not yet a developed industry [in Indonesia] for renewable energy.”
“It will be soon enough we require more equipment [to support renewable energy].”
“It is then important to educate the people that renewable energy is our future,” he added.
Sudirman also believed Sumba could be a living example for other areas across the country, saying that the next government must put forward the interest of renewable energy in the country above all else.
“Do not mix politics with energy development. Political interests do not last forever, but energy development does and it takes a long time. It also requires a technical approach,” he said.
“There are many other areas in the country similar to Sumba. Should the renewable energy goal be achieved, it will be an easy example to duplicate in other areas.”