Originally published on Ensia.
As the sun sets on the small Indonesian island of Sumba, Danga Beru Haba begins weaving under the glow of a single incandescent lightbulb, the only one in her home. Although she is tired from working dawn to dusk in the fields surrounding her village of Kampung Kalihi, the sarong she is weaving to sell locally will provide extra income for her family.
Being able to weave at night is still a novelty for Haba. Her village has had electricity for two years, thanks to a small wind farm on a hill overlooking the village. Access to electricity means women can now weave and children can study long after the sun goes down.
"I started weaving after we got electricity. Before that I couldn’t do it," Haba says through a translator. "Now I can weave until midnight." She has saved close to $200 as a result, which she says she’ll spend on her children’s education.
Sumba is a largely rural, sparsely populated island, one of thousands in the archipelagic nation of Indonesia. Due to rugged, hilly terrain and scattered villages, only 25 percent of its inhabitants had access to electricity before 2010. Nevertheless, this island of around 650,000 people, accounting for just 0.2 percent of the country’s population, is aiming to set an energy example for all of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country and Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
Through an initiative known as the Iconic Island Sumba project, international donors working with the local government plan to bring electricity to all of the island’s residents using only renewable sources in the next 10 years.
It’s an ambitious goal, one that is especially timely in light of the recent climate change talks in Paris, where renewable energy was on display as a potential strategy for combating climate change and as a development tool that may allow poorer nations to leapfrog prior roads to wealth dependent on dirty energy sources. Africa has announced plans to provide universal electricity access across the continent, aiming to produce 300 gigawatts of electricity by 2030 using only renewable sources, and France has pledged $2 billion to the cause.
A report published by the International Renewable Energy Agency says that increasing renewable energy’s share of the global energy mix to 36 percent by 2030 — double what it was in 2010 — would boost global GDP by 1.1 percent and global human welfare — defined by such factors as health, education, and environmental quality — by 3.7 percent.
A blessed island
Sumba, like much of Indonesia, is blessed with an abundance of natural wind, solar, and flowing water. In 2009 the Dutch nongovernmental organization Hivos realized the potential these resources offered and conceived of a plan to fully electrify the island using only renewable sources by 2025. Hivos helped launch the Iconic Island Sumba project to "show that access to renewable energy can alleviate poverty even in remote and isolated areas."
In the years since the project began, Sumba has managed to electrify more than half of the island. In addition to Hivos, the Indonesian NGO IBEKA, the Asian Development Bank, and the Norwegian Embassy in Jakarta have all become involved in the project, along with local and national Indonesian governments.
"Now in East Sumba we have every form of renewable energy. We have solar, wind, water, and biogas," says Daniel Lalupanda, chief of the local governmental Energy and Mining Division in East Sumba, through a translator.
Despite being a short two-hour flight from the popular tourist destination Bali, Sumba has remained largely untouched by tourism. Residents of the island, who live in mostly tin-roof cinderblock structures and raised wooden shacks, are scattered, usually in small, rural villages dependent on farming that lack the infrastructure to transport electricity. Those who could afford it have historically relied on kerosene, a dirty and dangerous fuel, for cooking and lighting.
But "wind, hydro, and biogas resources are found throughout the country," according to research done in 2010 by Hivos and Winrock International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing stable communities worldwide that assessed Sumba. After considering "candidate islands" and performing an in-depth analysis on Sumba and one other island, Hivos and Winrock determined that "Sumba seems to have the upper hand being the island with the best technical and institutional potential for the implementation of the ‘iconic island concept.’"
It didn’t take long for the international community to get on board with Hivos’s idea. In late 2012, the Asian Development Bank, which works to alleviate poverty and encourage sustainable growth in Asia and the Pacific, pledged $1 million toward technical assistance aimed at scaling up access to renewable energy, including electricity, on Sumba. And the Norwegian Embassy in Jakarta pledged close to $1 million to increase access to renewable energy in southeastern Indonesia, with Sumba as the primary focus.
"We have much potential for renewable energy, especially solar," says Lalupanda, and he says support from such outside agencies is crucial.
The Iconic Island Sumba project has been strengthened by the support of IBEKA, which has provided funding and technical assistance for the construction of micro-hydropower plants on Sumba. IBEKA also has provided training for Sumbanese citizens to use the technology with the hope that locals will be able to manage the power plants and therefore get directly involved in the project and invested in its success.
Christian Rihimeha manages a micro-hydropower plant in the village of Kamanggih. He says the rest of his village worked on the project by digging out a hillside during construction, which took 10 months. The plant now produces 37,000 watts of electricity, enough to power 326 homes in the village. Much of the demand for the plant’s power comes at night. In fact, only the school uses electricity during the day, for things such as computers. But at night, most villagers turn on a light for weaving or for children to study.
"Now that we have access to sustainable electricity all the time, I can keep my shop open a little bit into the night," says Umbu Windi Ndapangadung, the elected chief of Kamanggih, through a translator. "My wife can use a blender to make cakes and the children can help her."
Indonesia’s state-owned power utility buys the electricity generated by Kamanggih’s plant and sells it back to the villagers at a predetermined cost. A local co-op, Corporasi Peduli Kasih, handles the sale of the plant’s electricity, reinvesting the profits from the electricity back into the community. This money has funded programs for clean water and for producing organic fertilizer from local livestock manure, which can also be sold.
"Before we had electricity, it was difficult to empower the people in this community," says Ndapangadung. "But now that we have electric power they have become more willing to get involved in community programs."
So far the hydropower plant in Kamanggih has worked well, and Rihimeha claims if he needs maintenance support the government will send an expert to help him. But on the outskirts of Kamanggih, located on a plain overlooking a lush valley, is a micro-wind plant composed of four small wind turbines. All four spin freely in the wind — but power nothing, says Petrus Lamba Awang, a local representative of IBEKA. Some of the system’s components have broken, he says, and the locals don’t know how to fix them — an example of the challenges of maintaining technologies in a place like Sumba, where there are very few direct routes anywhere. Many of the villages are isolated, miles from anything or anyone else, and connected only by steep, uneven, and unmaintained roads.
Michael Kristensen, an energy advisor and project manager on renewable energy at the Energy Academy on the Danish island Samsø — which produces all of its electricity via wind turbines — says that such challenges are to be expected. Kristensen is not involved in the Sumba project, but he helped develop the renewable energy project on Samsø. "It’s a long process, and you will learn as you go along," he says. "In some cases you have to get outside help. When we make projects [in Denmark] we always put money aside for expert counseling."
The Indonesian minister of energy and mineral resources, Sudirman Said, has publicly supported the Iconic Island Sumba project, but some Indonesians working on Sumba feel Said, and the national government he represents, is not contributing enough to the initiative. The minister has been outspoken but has not taken enough action, locals claim. They want more money and more trained personnel coming to Sumba to work toward accomplishing the island’s goal.
"The government has not put a lot of effort into making this possible," says Ndapangadung. "If the government supports us, we can accomplish our goal by 2025. But I’m concerned about the government at the top."
Because of the island’s terrain and isolated villages, the Indonesian national power utility estimates the cost of installing power lines to get electricity to all residents is $22,000 per kilometer (0.6 miles) — too expensive for the agency to have considered installing a central power utility on Sumba. However, the decentralized nature of small-scale renewable projects may surmount this problem, with lines only being installed in localized areas.
"When you don’t have an electrical infrastructure already in place, then there will be difficulties, and it will not go that quickly. The grid will expand at its own pace, but of course it’s expensive and it’s a very difficult process to make it happen," says Kristensen.
Sumba could follow the example of other small islands that are looking to renewable energy, including Samsø. In the US, the island state of Hawaii is aiming to produce all electricity by 2045 using only renewable sources. However, these islands differ from Sumba in important ways, including financial resources from the government and local citizens. The renewable energy push on Samsø was led by a few local citizens, and locals own many of the island’s wind turbines. Everyone is involved in the decision-making processes, according to Kristensen. Hawaii has passed a law that mandates its renewable energy goal.
Without sufficient resources or strong support, many, including Kristensen, think the Sumba island project will struggle to meet its goal on deadline. "It will be very difficult to reach the goal," he says.
Those involved in the project are keeping their hopes up, though. Nothing like the Iconic Island Sumba project has ever been done in Indonesia, so there is no recipe for the government to follow, no budget to consult. No one is sure just how much money or effort it will take to get electricity to everyone on Sumba, especially to those located in the most isolated areas. Nevertheless, the project continues on Sumba, and if this remote island can achieve its goal, it could be a model for the rest of the world.
This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which is reclaiming international news. Cleo Warner and Ninik Yuniati contributed reporting.