Off-Grid Solar Brings Hope To Remote Villages

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Electricity is a convenience that is often taken for granted, since it is all around us. It can be found everywhere in our everyday lives, our homes, vehicles, phones, our work. Almost every part of our daily routine involves electricity in some form or another.

But what would life be like without electricity to power our favorite things, like appliances, cell phones, or even the lights we read by at night? Just think, without electricity, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy your daily CleanTechnica articles! What a terrible thought! But don’t worry, electricity does exist and it allows us to enjoy our daily lives in so many ways.

But in some remote places around the world, the availability of electricity hasn’t reached them yet. Globally, hundreds of millions of people live in communities without regular access to electricity. According to the International Energy Agency, almost 775 million people didn’t have access to electricity in 2022. Some of the largest populations without access to electricity are in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

According to a 2021 report from the U.N. and World Bank, not having access to electricity at home keeps people in poverty and makes it challenging for really poor people to obtain power. It’s also challenging for those without it to engage in the modern economy.

In places like Indonesia, an effort has been put forth to supply electricity to millions of people in recent years. Between 2005 and 2020, Indonesia went from 85% to nearly 97% coverage. However, there are still more than 500,000 individuals in Indonesia who live beyond the grid. A recent story in AP News illustrates how off-grid solar is changing lives in remote villages there.

To help the villagers that are without access to the grid, Sumba Sustainable Solutions, a grassroots organization which has been based in eastern Sumba since 2019, decided that off-grid solar programs could be offered to the remote villagers. The imported home solar systems, which can power light bulbs and charge cellphones, can be obtained for monthly payments equal to $3.50 over three years, and the organization has been working with international donors to help reduce the cost.

One of the areas they have been able to help is the village of Laindeha, on the island of Sumba in eastern Indonesia. The organization offers solar-powered equipment including solar-powered rice mills, corn mills, coconut graters, coffee grinders, cassava graters, water pumps, water filters, and ice makers depending on local conditions to the villagers. So far more than 3,000 houses have reportedly benefited from the distribution of 62 mills and over 3,020 solar light installations around the island.

In some of the world’s most remote places, off-grid solar systems are bringing villages like Laindeha more hours in the day and a chance to earn more money, instead of the day ending when the sun goes down. Before electricity came to the village a bit less than two years ago, they would set aside the mats they were weaving or coffee they were sorting to sell at the market as the light faded. This has changed since Laindeha and other nearby communities on the island received tiny, individual solar panel systems.

Years before electrical grids can reach these areas, off-grid solar systems like this are providing people with limited access to electricity. Although there are still obstacles, experts claim that off-grid solar systems on the island may be repeated throughout the large archipelago nation, delivering sustainable energy to isolated areas.

“Off-grid solar there plays an important role in that it will deliver clean electricity directly to those who are unelectrified,” said Daniel Kurniawan, a solar policy analyst at the Institute for Essential Services Reform.

Now, villagers frequently gather in the evening to continue the day’s work, and children do homework in light bright enough to read.

“I couldn’t really study at night before,” said Antonius Pekambani, a 17-year-old student in Ndapaymi village, east Sumba. “But now I can.”

Imelda Pindi Mbitu, a 46-year-old Walatungga resident and mother of five, recalled spending entire days grinding coffee beans and corn kernels between two rocks before the village’s community solar-powered mill. “With manual milling, if I start in the morning I can only finish in the afternoon. I can’t do anything else,” she said, “If you use the machine, it’s faster. So now I can do other things.”

In Indonesia, regulations don’t allow households to sell solar power back to the grid, which hampers the adoption of home solar systems. Selling the extra solar power produced back to the grid helps offset the costs. The country has targeted solar as a part of its climate goals, but it needs to adjust some of its regulations to encourage solar installations.

While the small off-grid solar systems can’t replace hooking up to the grid, they do help those who are waiting for the power grid to reach them.

“Off-grid solar projects face hurdles too,” said Jetty Arlenda, an engineer with Sumba Sustainable Solutions. “The organization’s scheme is heavily reliant upon donors to subsidize the cost of solar equipment, which many rural residents would be unable to afford at their market cost.”

While Sumba Sustainable Solutions seeks further funding, villagers without off-grid solar panels are placed on waiting lists. They are counting on Indonesia’s $20 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership agreement, which is being negotiated by several industrialized countries and international financial organizations, to provide help.

“It is like a dream come true for us. Kerosene lamps and battery-operated flashlights were the only sources of light after dusk earlier. The village looked like a ghostly place at night. Now children can study at night, and villagers can work after the daylight has faded. Our life has changed,” a village farmer, said.

These little off-grid solar systems provide the potential to eliminate energy poverty and provide Indian regions with affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy. It would be nice to see larger solar systems established in these remote villages so the whole village can benefit. But for now, just having a light bulb and a few solar-powered mills is an overall improvement to their well-being and daily lives.

“I’m grateful for this lamp,” one of the villagers said, “It will be bright all night.”

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