Living without electricity is a reality for almost 60 million people in Indonesia – particularly in remote areas, where extension of the country’s national grid is held back by excessive costs. Many are forced to harvest firewood instead, depleting the country’s already fragile forest resources, or purchase kerosene, which represents a significant financial burden on most households.
Fortunately, communities have a largely untapped renewable source of energy on their doorsteps. That resource is bamboo. With a calorific value similar to wood, the plant is now being used to power small-scale generators, part of an initiative funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent development agency established by the US Government.
Bamboo makes both economic and environmental sense, offering a sustainable source of energy for the estimated 100 million Indonesians who use biomass as their primary energy source. The plant is highly renewable, can grow up to one meter per day, and is harvested for use in only 3-6 years. In comparison, many tree species take much longer to become established.
It also produces fewer pollutants than either wood or petroleum, and its production helps reduce pressure on existing forests. This has a dual benefit: reducing deforestation and preventing the release of previously sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Production would bring enormous benefits to Indonesia, where in 2012 alone, over 840,000 hectares of forest were cleared.
Serving ‘off-grid’ communities
The man behind the initiative, Jaya Wahono of Clean Power Indonesia, initiated a pilot project to electrify three villages on Siberut, an island 150 km off the coast of Sumatra. The small villages – Madobag, Matotonan, and Saliguma – are located in Siberut Biosphere Reserve and can only be reached by a four-hour boat ride.
Electricity here is produced through gasification – a process that involves burning biomass in special units that power an electricity-generating turbine. The initiative plans to generate approximately 14-50 kilowatts (kW) in small hamlets, and up to 100-300 kW in medium-sized villages. Feasibility studies show that two bamboo poles – each weighing approximately ten kilograms – can provide enough energy for a single family over a 24-hour period. To maximize impacts, the by-product – charcoal – will also be used for cooking and fertilizing soil.
Securing a reliable supply of bamboo
During the start-up phase the small-scale generators are supplied by harvesting wild bamboo. But, large-scale use of this rural technology will require a stable and reliable supply of quality bamboo. The solution: properly managed bamboo plantations that provide a year-round supply of biomass energy.
The initiative encourages communities to grow bamboo themselves, supplying bamboo cuttings to small-scale power generators in exchange for electricity – a concept Wahono has called “Listrik Gotong Royong,” or ‘working together for electricity.’ (See image below).
In the project, Bambu Nusa Verde (BNV), a global supplier of tropical bamboo plants has sent seedlings to the area. Each family received 100 bamboo culms, which producers will harvest and supply after a period of 3-4 years.
Achieving long-term sustainability
BNV also provide training on effective management techniques – including planting, maintenance, and harvesting. “It is not enough to simply supply bamboo” says Marc Peeters, BNV Director. “Otherwise, we’d see many plants not being treated well and dying. The plants should be monitored closely during the first few years, fertilizer should be used, and the culms should not be harvested before they are two years old.”
Peeters predicts that the biomass supply from this scheme will be exceeded in five years, and then the communities will have a choice –additional gasification units and even more electricity, or use the excess bamboo to make high-end products like emergency housing, ply-bamboo, or bamboo pellets for export.
Long-term sustainability of small-scale bamboo electivity approaches is also dependent on communities taking responsibility for the generators – requiring additional training in maintenance and repair. Clean Power Indonesia will provide support for a ten-year period before handing it over completely to the communities involved.
Scaling-up small scale power generation
The initiative holds significant potential as a form of ‘off-grid’ power generation for remote communities elsewhere. In Indonesia alone, Peeters estimates there may be as many as 10,000 villages and hamlets without access to electricity. Worldwide, some 1.3 billion people currently live without electricity.
But, the potential also has to be communicated effectively. One obstacle is the plant’s perception among many Indonesians who perceive bamboo only in terms of its traditional role as a raw material for handicrafts – neglecting its wider applications, including energy generation. Success in Siberut, however, might convince them otherwise.