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Community Energy Cooperatives in Indonesia

I have been a few times asked why I decided to go all the way to Indonesia to study community renewable energy. I'm not sure why, I guess I had long been inspired by this one presentation years ago and wanted to find out if the project was really as good as the presentation suggested. In retrospect, I'm so glad I did. And yes the projects are really that good. We should all be learning from the work Indonesian communities are doing.

The fact that these communities produce and manage their own renewable energy project is, in this case, beside the point. What I find fascinating is people’s commitment to a place or what that place represents. There is something inspiring about people putting all their differences aside and working through problems to get to a better place, together. It may be a romanticized vision of communities as they are not flawless (and romance is never simple), but I believe that they are our best hope to solve some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges.

Indonesians call it Gotong Royong, which means something like working together for a common purpose. It is the foundation of natural resource management and collaborative work in the rice fields among farmers. It can be argued that it is the historical driver of cooperatives. And despite having been hijacked by successive governments and used for political maneuvering, it hasn't lost its meaning and people in rural Indonesia still say those words with pride. I have no doubt that it is that key ingredient that makes Ibeka’s approach to rural development and electrification work so well, as it has for over 20 years.

This is not a post about renewable energy, electricity access or agriculture, it is a blog about how things can change from where you least expect it, from isolated rural communities, from groups of individuals in packed cities, from us, from you and me.

The interviews, the endless travel in West and Central Java and the countless conversations with Ibeka staff and the villagers, suggest hat the community-ownership model to RE implementation (mostly micro hydro plants) followed by this NGO delivers even more positive results that I had initially anticipated. Ibeka gives a whole new meaning to the (often worn out) notions of community participation and empowerment. Mostly comprised of engineers, the entire staff - from Directors to field assistants – have an approach to social and community development that should feature in the books of many development courses.

Technology takes up only about 30% of the project’s resources, while the remaining is allocated to work with the communities, starting from an extensive preparation prior to commissioning the project to the start of the operation - a process that can take around 2 years. By then the community has learned how to operate and maintain the power plant (which they helped to build), to establish a cooperative to develop the community, to manage the income generated from the selling of electricity (if on-grid) or the collected tariffs (when off-grid), to develop strategies and think of new productive activities. In some of the villages, the women have started businesses producing cassava chips or banana flower, thanks not only to electricity access, but especially to the soft loans provided by the cooperatives running the electricity plants. From what I see, communities stand pretty much on their own after Ibeka’s field assistants leave the communities (where they live during the implementation process) and the project is up and running. Although some villagers claim for more support, they don’t seem to be dependent on the NGO’s to manage the project (both technically and financially), which seems in itself an important achievement.