As we go about our high-tech, modern lives – it’s easy to forget that many remote regions of the world are still without reliable electricity. Some of the 17,500+ islands that make up Indonesia are a perfect example. But how does one create a single connected national grid to bring power to those in need? It’s simply not possible. A logical solution must be found for each specific area, and lucky for the island of Sumba – a dedicated NGO and team of Master’s in Sustainable Energy Systems students are working hard to find theirs. The EIT InnoEnergy students’ IPoY (Integrated Project of the Year) could demonstrate how decentralised renewables can successfully be used to electrify remote areas – and have far-reaching implications to make an impact around the globe!
The students joined forces with international NGO Hivos, who were already involved with developing renewable energy projects on Sumba (Sumba Iconic Island). They had spent 8+ years dealing with red tape and lots of resources installing PV solar charging stations so that locals could charge useful solar lanterns and other electrical devices. A great idea since light is the very first service to bring to remote areas; allowing children to study after sunset, extending small businesses’ operating hours and reducing criminality. Unfortunately, they had run into a few obstacles and the team were inspired to jump in and help out. As the team explains, “We saw potential to contribute our expertise to their young energy service company, in hopes that our ideas could have a real, positive impact. So, our IPoY was born!”
The team was assembled, and had some insights into the group dynamics to share: “As a team of 12 soon-to-be engineers from 7 different nationalities, currently studying in 3 different locations, it is hardly surprising that diversity would be the first term to come to mind when describing our team. For instance, some of us were more inclined toward the technical aspects of electrifying rural areas while others leaned towards investigating the social aspects. Diversity in ideas, attitudes, leadership styles, working approaches and skillsets gradually became the ‘means to’, instead of the ‘barriers against’ working effectively as a team.” Their first year of the Master’s in Sustainable Energy Systems programme prepared them for this challenge by teaching them how to successfully work in diverse groups – and as they add, “The innovation and business-focused mindset we developed at EIT InnoEnergy Master’s School has helped us to think outside the box, but also to think practically about the business case of the project.”
Hivos started installing PV solar system “kiosks” in 2016, but two major issues presented themselves, the first one being maintenance. Therefore, Hivos created a small maintenance company called RESCO (Renewable Energy Service Company). The kiosks were installed in grocery shops and schools, with the owner/principal as the agent to run the kiosk. The agent would rent out the solar lanterns for a monthly fee, and in turn pay a monthly fee to RESCO for the service. This created the second issue, ensuring efficient operations. After a field visit in February, it was discovered that the villagers weren’t paying for the service because they didn’t understand who RESCO was and assumed it must be a government programme; therefore, the kiosks will continue to run whether they pay late or not at all. If the agents are not receiving payments from their customers, then obviously they aren’t paying RESCO either. If this situation continues, the whole system (45 villages and 15 schools) will fail within two years, plunging the villagers into the dark again. This is where the Master’s in Sustainable Energy Systems team comes in to help solve this payment problem!
To begin addressing the payment issue, the team started to help RESCO streamline their operations. Their field visit allowed them to identify both the technical and civil matters at hand and put together a plan of action. First, they created a business intelligence tool for RESCO field technicians to help them track their work and easily generate reports. This allows them to quickly spot glitches and late payments. The next solution was a system to prevent “free-riding” the kiosks, where a technological barrier will stop villagers from charging at the station if they have not paid. The first prototypes of this ingenious solution are up and running, ready for field testing! The team adds, “One major lesson learned in the project is that the problems are not always straight forward or technical in a project dealing with sustainable development. There are so many components that must come together to make the project successful. Especially in a developing country, unexpected issues are likely to pop up that require creative solutions. Local context is so crucial and must carefully be considered in project planning.”
With the IPoY officially finished, some members of the team want to continue working on this project. Funds and potential technical partners are needed to continue their work, field testing and further fine-tuning. Creating meaningful solutions to address the problems faced on Sumba have far-reaching potential for many other areas of the world without reliable electricity – and is work to be proud of. As one of the Indonesian team members, Zerlin Azalia Sanjaya, says: “I want to express my gratitude as one of the few Indonesians who are able to pursue a higher education in Europe. My dedication to advance the country’s development, especially in the field of energy, is undeniable. I want to thank the IPoY program that really bridged my interest in actualising valuable knowledge, not just in the theoretical field or university scope, but also touching the development of real community welfare.”
Projects like these are an excellent way for EIT InnoEnergy students to make a positive impact, to create profit for the local business owners and schools, and to help philanthropic companies such as RESCO fulfil their goals. Sumba could become a research hub for the implementation of renewables in many other developing countries, so we hope they can continue their valuable work!
If you wish to get in touch with the team, you could do so by email here.