The micro hydro power plant at Kasepuhan Ciptagelar village near Sukabumi, West Java. (Photo courtesy of Micro Hydro for Indonesia)

Schoolboy Brings Electricity to Rural Areas With Micro Hydro


OCTOBER 10, 2017

Jakarta. Two years ago, fifteen-year-old tenth grader Gamma Abdurrahman Thohir started an ambitious project called "Micro Hydro for Indonesia" to help supply electricity to residents of Kasepuhan Ciptagelar village near Sukabumi, West Java.

"I aimed the project to improve access to electricity in the area and reduce power supply gap between urban and rural areas. I felt it was my calling and took it upon myself to undertake the project for the village, which is not that far from the city but had barely enough electricity," Gamma said on Thursday (05/10) at the @America cultural center inside the Pacific Place Mall in South Jakarta.

Gamma came up with the idea for the project when his school Global Jaya assigned students to do a personal project based on their passion. Gamma has always been interested in energy as his father works in coal mining, but he wanted to figure out how to improve access to electricity in the village using a more environmentally friendly approach.

His concern was not without foundation. According to the 2017 British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy, global primary energy consumption in the last decade had been increasing by 1.8 percent per year, but most of the energy supplied was still produced using non-renewable resources.

Renewable energy consumption in Indonesia grew 7.1 percent in 2016. Its average rate of growth in the last decade is 4.7 percent.

According to Energy and Mineral Resources Deputy Minister Arcandra Tahar, his ministry expects 23 percent of supplied energy in Indonesia comes from renewable sources by 2025.

"We have less than 10 percent now, so we have a long road ahead of us to get that 23 percent target," said Arcandra, who praised Gamma for his initiative.

Micro hydro is a technology that allows us to turn water into electricity for small-scale use. It is not a new invention, but still not an easy task, especially for a teenager.

"I was astonished that a fifteen-year-old wanted to do the project. Usually it's university students that take it up, and they don’t always do it right," said Okty Damayanti, Adaro Bangun Negeri Foundation's director and Gamma’s project mentor.

The foundation is a non-profit arm of local coal producer Adaro Group. Gamma asked Okti to become his mentor and connect him to sponsors and experts in micro hydro design and construction.

Together they also promoted the project heavily on social media and set up a crowdfunding page on online platform Kitabisa.

The foundation also took Gamma to the Kasepuhan Ciptagelar village, eight hours away from Jakarta. There were other potential locations but the residents were not as welcoming to Gamma’s idea.

"They weren't enthusiastic about new technology. They were content to wait for the State Electricity Company (PLN) to connect their village to the power grid," Gamma said.

Luckily, Kasepuhan Ciptagelar has a forward-thinking community leader, Ugi Sugriwa Rakasiwi, who is open to new ideas and innovations.

According to Upat, a local who is now in charge of micro hydro operations in the village, his community had already been introduced to the new technology back in 1997, but due to lack of technical expertise and financing, this first project had failed.

Gamma and residents of Kasepuhan Ciptagelar started working on an entirely new facility in mid-2016. The design was not the brainchild of Gamma alone, but a result of extensive consultation with experts.

The first thing they did was constructing a weir to isolate water from the Cicemet River. Then they built a waterway to channel the water to a forebay. After that they built a penstock to convert water into kinetic energy.

By the end of 2016, they were ready to build a power house, complete with a turbine and a generator, to produce electrical energy.

"Our 40-kilowatt plant now powers 75 homes," Gamma said.

Upat said each household in the village only has to pay Rp 5,000-Rp 8,000 (30-60 cents) per month to get electricity, but those who cannot afford it can get it for free.

The money from the electricity subscription is used for maintenance and service of the plant, and to fund a cooperative called "Koperasi Komet."

Gamma Thohir, third from right, with residents of Kasepuhan Ciptagelar village at the @America cultural center in Pacific Place Mall, South Jakarta, on Thursday (05/10). (Photo courtesy of @America)

Beyond Electricity

Gamma’s work in Kasepuhan Ciptagelar did not stop there. He said the facility still needs improvement.

"We'll keep improving what we've been doing," he said.

The high school student has also started contributing to community empowerment in the village. He teaches younger students and his peers photography, how to make videos and editing at a recently built learning center called Pojok Belajar, that has computers and a library.

The young students use their video skills to create content for the village's community television.

Upat said eighty percent of the programs on the village's community TV are filled with content about local culture, which the residents surprisingly seem to enjoy.

A stable electricity supply has also had some flow-on effects. One of them is enabling residents to boost local coffee production. Gamma said the village now produces 30 kilograms of processed, roasted coffee beans per month and is expected to ramp up production soon.

The work done for the micro hydro facility, when everyone in the village did their part, has also allowed a lot of knowledge transfer. Now, some Kasepuhan Ciptagelar residents have been invited to use or teach their skills somewhere else.

"We're more than ready to give technical assistance for this kind of project anywhere. Some forty of us have already been sent by a foundation to two rural subdistricts in Sumba [East Nusa Tenggara] to construct micro hydro generators," Upat said.