WAINGAPU — In a remote western village on the Indonesian island of Sumba, 37-year-old Rambu Cinta sits on the porch of her thatched roof house chewing beetle nut. 

For most of her life she has lived without electricity. “Before at night we didn’t have anything to do. So after we had eaten dinner we just went to sleep,” she says with a laugh.

Now her family is one of 100 households that are getting electricity from a nearby micro-hydro power plant.

Umbu Hanggar says it has changed the home economics for his family, and extended family. “With electricity, the women can weave floor mats at night and we can get extra income from that," he said. "And the children can now study and read books very well at night.”

Some 60% of the people in Sumba are now connected to electricity, and of those, 20% are now using renewable energy. The aim is to bring that number to 100% by 2025.

A plan, driven by the Dutch NGO HIVOS, wants to turn Sumba into an iconic island of renewable energy. The project was formalized three years ago with the signing of an agreement between the Dutch NGO, the Indonesian state energy company and the central and local government.

Adi Lagur, the Sumba Iconic Island field co-coordinator from HIVOS, said this remote island has a unique opportunity.

Abundant supply

“The reason why we are tapping into environmentally friendly energy is because in Sumba there are so many renewable energy resources. We can use solar, wind, water, and energy from animal waste.”  

Last year a Sumba Iconic Island taskforce was set-up that includes a steering committee, working groups and a national secretariat. And early this year the project received $1 million from the Asian Development Bank to further develop renewable energy in this part of Indonesia. 

Adi Lagur says it’s as much about economics as it is about environment. “At the moment the Indonesian government heavily subsidies diesel and there will be a time when they will stop doing that. We don’t want this community to suffer because they can no longer afford diesel energy without the subsidies. So that’s why we need to start thinking now about using energy sources that are already here.”

We have climbed up from the micro-hydro project to around 600 meters above sea level, where a very different and abundant source of energy: wind.

“This area is not connected to the state electricity that uses diesel generators. But here the wind is strong and good for wind energy so why not tap into that?” 

Amelia, a graduate from Indonesia’s top technology institute in Bandung, works with two of her colleagues from a local renewable energy NGO to try and address the uneven development between western and eastern Indonesia. 

“In Java we waste electricity. There are lights everywhere and they are left on," she explains. "Here they don't have electricity at all. At night they don’t even have a light to turn on to study. So I want to do something about it. It's not fair. In one place we are very high class, and then here it's very sad, even though we are one nation.” The project that Amelia is working on will provide two lights for 22 households. 

One local is looking forward to charging is mobile phone at home. "For now, I must walk to the nearest place that has electricity; that’s seven kilometers away — I wait till the mobile phone is charged and then I walk the seven kilometers back home again.”

Informed citizens

Another readily available source of energy, animal waste, is being used to make biogas. Heinrich Dengi runs a popular local radio station in the island's biggest city Waingapu, and like most Sumbanese, has pigs in this backyard.  

“With chemical reaction from the bacteria of the pigs, waste turns into biogas," he explains. "And the biogas is connected to the kitchen with a pipe, just like a water pipe. Then we can go into the kitchen and turn on this gas just like turning on a water tap, and light the stove.” 

Sulaiman from the Indonesian electricity company is vowing that East Sumba will be using 100% renewable energy by the end of this year. “My target is that by the end of 2013, East Sumba will be not be using diesel energy anymore,” he says. 

When solar-generated was installed last year, local children were able to watch television for the first time. But aside from entertainment, it’s also an important link to what is happening in the capital Jakarta 2,000 kilometers away, says Yunus, one of the villagers. 

It's particularly important to get direct reports in the lead up to next year's presidential election. "Before we just voted based on gossip," says Yunus. "But now we know what is going on, and we can make an informed choice.”