Turning on the lights in eastern Indonesia
As a city dweller in Indonesia, I am blessed with an abundance of privilege. I have 24/7 access to the most updated information, thanks to an internet that is powered by a constant electricity supply. Yet, for a large number of the Indonesian population, this is not the case. Looking at a nighttime satellite photograph of the entire Indonesia archipelago, there are absolutely no lights switched on throughout almost all of Eastern Indonesia, as if it were unpopulated. But we know people are living there.
So, how can we expect those ‘have-nots’ to aid in the development of their communities, without something as basic as electricity? This issue extends to other matters of systematic inequality within Indonesia. The poverty-energy trap is where the poorest members of society are least likely to have access to power, and without any access to power, they are more likely to remain in poverty. In Indonesia, 63 percent of of those living below the poverty line are in rural areas, where electricity access is few and far between.
In the search for effective and sustainable supplies of renewable energy, bamboo as biomass has been recognised for its high production in the Indian state of Mizoram. With India being the world’s second largest producer of bamboo behind China, and Indonesia following in third place, it is yet to achieve the attention it deserves as the next green gasoline (bioenergy) material.
Especially as- like in all farming- high yields are the golden goal, with its key to success being inseparably related to its management. It is then that the potential of bamboo outperforming other plants starts to emerge. To start, common belief that the felling of bamboo stands does more damage than good, has now been overturned by tests that showed vigorous regrowth is actually spurred on by felling. For bamboo farmers, this translates to a yield increase year on year.
Bamboo doesn’t share some of the biggest disadvantages of typical biomass energy materials. Wood- one of the biggest sources of biomass energy- can seldom match replanting efforts with that of felling rates. Inevitably this then requires more land to cultivate on, and often leads to deforestation. Some species of bamboo however can mature at a rapid rate, growing over a meter a day.
People of rural Indonesia are already well versed in bamboo as a wonder material. It is the source material for products that are sold at market or used at home- a versatile collection of food, medicine, textiles and construction- and it is planted along riverbanks to prevent floods, along steep slopes to prevent erosion, and along roads to provide shade. Though its benefits are plentiful, it asks for minimum effort, requiring little water, fertiliser and maintenance.
Bamboo can be a tool for large-scale carbon storage too, with well-managed bamboo forests able to sequester carbon at a higher rate than many tree species.
What’s more, bamboo grows natively in some of the poorest rural communities in Indonesia.
Using bamboo as an energy source in Indonesia will therefore fulfil goals that are twofold: the first is to proliferate the use of renewable energy, limiting Indonesia’s dependency on imported diesel fuel and contributing in the fight against global warming. The second is to provide the most remote places of Indonesia with additional income through the sales of bamboo as biomass feedstock, in order to alleviate the income disparity.
With the impacts of a warming planet already upon us, coupled with the rapid and unequal economic growth of Indonesia, we are now at a crossroads.
The hardships experienced by Indonesia’s rural communities, from malnutrition to lack of education and healthcare, are literally thousands of kilometers far from the bubble that I live in, in the capital city of Jakarta. Climate change will exacerbate these hardships, inundating coastal communities through sea level rises and increasing the spread of wildfires into Indonesia’s peatlands and tropical forests.
As a developing nation, Pancasila’s fifth principle should not be forgotten: social justice for all Indonesians. Developing our cities will no longer get us to where we need to go, which is why we need to power and empower the whole archipelago. Technological breakthroughs have brought this dream within reach.
Indonesia can change, and it has to. In fact, the government is already aiming for universal access to electricity across the entire archipelago, increasing electricity consumption by 300 percent, with hopes of generating this electricity using mostly renewable resources. A step in the right direction – but we need more than just small steps.
The opportunities that come with a renewable energy transition cannot afford to be ignored – to combat climate change, to bring electricity to its most deprived communities, to provide income streams through ‘green jobs’ and ‘green growth.’ Indonesia must take a leap towards a greater future. Not only do we need to secure the future for our children, it might be our only chance to ensure the future generation’s survival.
Jaya Wahono is the founder and CEO of Clean Power Indonesia, Indonesia’s first bamboo – energy power plant. This power plant is located in Siberut island, Mentawai Islands Regency, West Sumatra Province, Indonesia.
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