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Sumba Island’s Challenge to Merge Clean Energy with Development

For years, Sumba Island in southeast Indonesia has been considered a goldmine of renewable energy potential. Water, sunlight, wind, and biogas from animals are abundantly available on the island and are considered the most significant renewable resources that can be harnessed. However, despite substantial financial investments and international support, the growth and development of renewable energy capacity on the island has continued at a much slower pace than expected. The situation on Sumba Island exemplifies the fundamental challenges faced by developing countries that strive to incorporate clean energy as part of their development plans.

Sumba Island, Indonesia ©Delphine Fant/Unsplash
Sumba Island, Indonesia. ©Delphine Fant/Unsplash

Renewable Energy Potential on Sumba Island

Sumba Island is a sparsely populated island, home to 780,000 people on roughly 4200 square miles. In 2014, the Asian Development Bank funded a study to analyze the energy resources that could be supplied to the grid as well as the overall electricity demands for Sumba. The study explored the technical potential of developing new renewable energy sources in Sumba, particularly water sources (rivers, reservoirs, and water pumps), biomass, solar energy, and wind energy.

Ultimately, the research was meant to determine the best possible combination of energy sources to meet the needs of future generations on the island. Apart from the renewable potential, Sumba heavily relies on diesel-fueled power plants for electricity.

Over the years, the local government’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources worked with organizations including Hivos (an energy development NGO), the Asian Development Bank, and the Norwegian government on what was called the Sumba Iconic Island project. The ambitious goal that the project set out to achieve was providing 100% renewable energy and 95% electrification to the island’s population by 2025. Even further, the renewable energy sources installed were meant to also boost the economy and promoted gender-equitable development.

Through the project’s investments, renewables gained a foothold in the island’s energy grid. For a population that only had an electrification rate of 37.4% by the end of 2014, 9.8% was provided by renewables.

Locals Skepticism Stems from a Lack of Visible Change

However, some locals are skeptical of the promises to bring widespread renewable energy and electricity to the island. Taking steps to overcome poverty conditions and limited physical infrastructure, such as rough and inaccessible roads, to improve quality of life even incrementally on the island is a slow and difficult process.

“The big dream to make Sumba Island an island that only uses non-fossil energy seems almost impossible. Only large-scale program implementing elites seriously discuss how Sumba will be free from fossil energy by 2025,” said Umbu Wulang Tanaamahu Paranggi.

The forty-year-old who lives in Waingapu, Sumba’s largest town, is known locally for his active humanitarian and environmental services. Paranggi, the director of the East Nusa Tenggara (regional) branch of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), is dedicated to his work of providing environmental literacy throughout Sumba.

While conducting field research in Sumba’s villages, Paranggi did not find many people using renewable energy. He observed that large-scale initiatives did not have strong local foundations to support them. Villages did not have policies in place to develop and utilize biogas resources or procure materials for solar installations.

Delayed Progress Caused by Fundamental Issues

Many Sumba islanders continue to live without electricity. ©Alessio Roversi/Unsplash
Many Sumba islanders continue to live without electricity. ©Alessio Roversi/Unsplash

The monitoring and evaluation team for the 2018 Sumba Iconic Island program, led by Dagi Consulting (a research-based management consulting company), released a report in December 2018 that discussed progress up to that point. By the end of 2018, the electrification ratio on Sumba Island had increased to 50.9% with 20.9% coming from renewable energy.

In the July 2019 report Sustainable Decentralized Renewable Energy through the RESCO Model in Indonesia, Marc Torra stated that comparing the goals of the project to its present condition, one can see that it had not been effective. The 50.9% rate of electrification is still far from the 95% target, and the 20.9% achievement is also well below the 65% targeted.

According to the International Energy Agency, Indonesia is struggling to simultaneously develop a fully electrified population while meeting its clean energy targets. To achieve its national goal of 23% renewable primary energy by 2025, Indonesia intends to take the lessons learned over the last decade and finalize a revised policy framework for renewable energy development. Mobilizing new investment capital in the sector with greater policy support is expected to be essential for improvement.

The Pathway Forward

Off-grid solar arrays can serve modest energy needs. ©KTM
Off-grid solar arrays can serve modest energy needs. ©KTM

When Sandra Winarsa, the Green Energy project manager of Sumba Iconic Island, first arrived in a remote village in southwest Sumba, she immediately saw that the community needed electricity. However, when she interviewed several households, she was surprised to hear that stable access to electricity was not their top priority. Rather, the people would much prefer access to clean water over electricity. Their explanation was that, if needed, they could still buy lighting, but clean water was much harder to secure.

“The people of Sumba have their own dream of a better life regardless of the solutions offered by anyone, whether it is the government or the private sector. So, it is necessary to look at their common goods. Maybe the priority is access to clean water first, then electricity,” said Winarsa.

Still, Winarsa points out that remote communities typically don’t understand the value or purpose of large-scale electrical grid installations or investments until they can see the direct benefits to their lives.

“Diversifying electrification planning is very vital. It should not only extend the interconnection of the electricity grid but also be followed by real solutions to reach the most marginalized people,” she said.

“Diversifying electrification planning is very vital. It should not only extend the interconnection of the electricity grid but also be followed by real solutions to reach the most marginalized people.”

“The people of Sumba are so poor which keeps electricity demand very low. If a large grid investment above 10 MW is made available while the demand from the people has not yet increased, there will still be positive effects. Access to electricity will make changes that better their lives, whether or not the people fully understand the scope of benefits beforehand,” she added.

Winarsa sees that many energy system developers are more concerned with maximizing the business model at the expense of what’s best for locals. Not all parts of islands can electrify through the main grid. Some areas may be better served through off-grid or mini-grid electricity production.

Paranggi agrees that tailoring energy solutions to local contexts is the way forward. “The future of renewable energy in Sumba is very bright but depends on whether we share the same vision,” Paranggi said. “Renewable energy programs should target smaller scales that are easier to handle, such as at the sub-district city level, where a homogeneous population with shared needs can more easily build an energy system that works for them. Don’t just take a business perspective on the issue.”


*Arpan Rachman is a journalist with fourteen years of experience based in Jakarta, Indonesia. He specializes in environmental issues with a local perspective, as well as politics, economy, sports, and investigative reporting. He has written for numerous international publications and is an author at Global Voices.


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