Cutting through the glassy water of a mangrove-fringed inlet on the east coast of Indonesia’s Siberut island, Mateus Sabojiat and Anjelina Sadodolu arrived home by canoe to Saliguma village.
Back in their house, Sadodolu lit a wood fire to boil water before her husband left for work at the local government office.
“The electric power is on only when it is time to sleep,” said Sadodolu.
The couple in their forties, who have six children, live just a few hundred metres from Indonesia’s first power plant designed to be fuelled by bamboo, one of three such facilities built to bring electricity to isolated villages in Siberut.
But almost three years after construction was completed, the Saliguma biomass power plant supplies electricity to some of the village’s 3,780 residents only between 6pm and midnight - and is currently not using bamboo as originally intended.
Because of problems with the plant’s battery and other key equipment since September, it instead ran on diesel - which provides more stable but dirtier power - until early April.
Ongoing repairs mean it is still using a combination of diesel and wood.
Rural communities in Indonesia have harvested bamboo for food, fuel and shelter for centuries.
Forestry scientists say bamboo’s attributes — including the ability to grow rapidly even in barren soil — could bring economic breakthroughs in isolated areas while also curbing planet-warming emissions and providing power.
“It’s a beautiful kind of vegetation,” said Marcel Silvius, Indonesia head at the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), an intergovernmental organisation that helps developing countries implement climate action.
“It has significant root mass, and brings carbon and water back into the ground,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A 2018 paper published in the journal Sustainability showed bamboo has high energy value and can sequester as much, or more, carbon than many other fast-growing tree species.
Forestry scientists and environmentalists envisage a green circular economy where communities plant bamboo seedlings on unproductive land, then receive both income and affordable, clean energy from the biomass they sell to local power plants.
Such a system, they say, could help restore Indonesia’s 24 million hectares (59.3 million acres) of degraded land, reduce reliance on expensive diesel generators and trim energy imports.
It could also contribute to Indonesia’s target of cutting its climate-heating emissions 29 per cent from business-as-usual levels by 2030.
“We are not going to be able to connect all the islands of Indonesia with a single cable on a single grid like in Europe,” said Jaya Wahono, founder of Clean Power Indonesia and a pioneer of bamboo energy in the country.
Clean Power Indonesia first planned a pilot bamboo power plant in Bali province in 2013, but it stalled after state grid PLN offered only half the payment of 15 cents per kilowatt hour needed to make the project viable, according to Wahono.
In 2017, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US aid agency, began distributing a $12-million grant for Clean Power Indonesia to construct three biomass plants on Siberut island, with a combined generation capacity of 700 kilowatts.
Families living nearby each received 100 bamboo seedlings, but the trees take several years to mature.
Saliguma residents said other available stocks were growing too far away to make the plant’s offered price of 700 rupiah ($0.05) per kilo worth the effort of gathering it.
“If I sell 10 kilos then that is 7,000 rupiah and I still cannot smoke,” said Leo, 46, a local indigenous man who goes by one name, holding up a pack of cigarettes costing more than 20 kilos of bamboo.
He switched to selling firewood to the plant, but that trade also stopped last September when the plant’s battery - needed to help regulate power produced from burning biomass - broke.
The other two plants on Siberut are still using bamboo but only produce six hours of power a day, due to a perceived lack of demand, officials said.
Clean Power’s Wahono attributed the problems partly to the 2019 transfer of the foreign aid-funded project’s assets, under a rule on state ownership, to the Mentawai regional government, which has no experience of running a power plant.
“That plant should be operating 24 hours a day,” he said.
The Mentawai government did not respond to requests for comment on why the Saliguma plant was under-performing.
Hari Kristijo, who oversaw development of the bamboo projects at Indonesia’s planning ministry, said the decision was made to supply power only in the evening because this was the period of peak demand, meaning lower production costs.
Many inhabitants of Saliguma expressed disappointment that the plant had not yet provided the day-time power they need to save money on fuel and start businesses to spark the economy.
“Nature is beautiful,” said Sabojiat. “But what does it matter if you don’t have any money?”
The biomass plant was intended to help replace the burning of fuels inside homes with electric power from a central source.
Sadodolu and Sabojiat have a fire lit for about four hours a day to cook food and boil water.
“Sometimes his nose is black,” said Sadodolu, pointing to her 10-year-old son.
In 2018, more than 19,000 children under the age of five died of preventable pneumonia in Indonesia, according to the UN children’s agency UNICEF, which attributes a large share of such deaths to indoor pollution from burning solid fuels.
Living without electricity also brings more immediate risks at night, as families resort to homemade candles using a fabric wick dipped in a tin of kerosene, known locally as an alito.
Cats, rats and roaming toddlers can easily topple an alito, said Sabojiat, igniting a small fuel bomb in homes built of timber and sago.
Five years ago, an alito sparked a deadly house fire near the Santo Petrus Catholic church.
Its occupant Aloisuis, in his mid-forties, escaped with major burns, but was unable to save his two-week-old daughter. He has since separated from his wife and is unable to work.
Village residents say near-misses and anxiety are common.
Energy ministry data shows Indonesia’s electrification rate rose from 67 per cent in 2010 to 99 per cent a decade later, as isolated communities like Saliguma received power for the first time.
But in remote areas, that can simply mean village centres have electricity while outlying settlements remain in the dark, said Putra Adhiguna, a Jakarta-based energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
Gulu-guluk, one of Saliguma’s 11 hamlets, is a 30-minute motorcycle ride along a slippery trail from the biomass plant, and its 240 residents have yet to receive electric power.
“If we don’t have electricity, our economy is going nowhere,” said Gulu-Guluk head Daniel Sabailatti, 50, as children swam in the river and young men played sepak takraw, a sport using a rattan ball.
Due to the dangers of the alito, families spend about 20,000 rupiah a week on batteries for hand-held torches, more than double what a grid-connected household pays for electricity six hours a day. Most are in debt, said Sabailatti.
GGGI’s Silvius said bamboo biomass was an “under-utilised” opportunity, adding that teething problems were not unexpected.
In February, two Indonesian universities published a roadmap to convert 500MW of the country’s diesel generators to bamboo.
Wahono, who is now working on a new 5MW bamboo plant with the GGGI in eastern Indonesia, said bamboo could be used widely as a feedstock, as the government seeks to replace about 2,000MW of polluting diesel generators over the next four years.
“This is in the interests of the global community,” he said. “We need to find a model that works for the people and the natural environment.”
This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.
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