In A Remote Corner Of Indonesia, A Model Of Clean Energy Use

Bringing electricity - among other things - to Sumba
Bringing electricity - among other things - to Sumba
Rebecca Henschke

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.”

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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