WR11: Energy for Off-grid Island Communities

Electricity is a crucial part of the infrastructure needed to improve the quality of life for island communities in developing nations. This report summarises the information presented at, and conclusions arising from, the workshop on issues related to island electricity access held by the Smart Villages Initiative and Kopernik. The workshop took place on the island of Bunaken, an hour’s boat ride from the city of Manado in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. It was part of an ongoing programme of engagement by the Smart Villages Initiative in Southeast Asia. It brought together a diverse group of 25 people working on energy access for off-grid villages in island contexts to review their experiences to date and to identify barriers to further progress and how they may be overcome.

The workshop was held over three days, from 3-5 November 2015. Day 1 consisted of a field trip to visit the hybrid diesel-solar photovoltaic (PV) mini-grid designed to give energy to the island residents. This was followed by a welcome by Chief Wolter Panontongan from Bunaken village, and an introduction to the Smart Villages initiative and concept. Day 2 began with a discussion of community off-grid energy initiatives and government plans for Indonesian island communities, followed by some examples of work being carried out in the Pacific region. This led into the first breakout discussion session. Additional presentations were given that included perspectives from a new business/social enterprise and from people working on water and sanitation issues on islands in the Philippines.

Day 3 continued to focus on different initiatives for achieving island rural electrification, with presentations on Indonesian youth participation for off grid energy, low carbon towns, and a final session on envisioning what would be some desirable characteristics of a “smart island”.

Key Points

Key findings and recommendations of the workshop are summarised in the following eight points:

  • Community engagement was consistently identified as vital to the success of any project. Without buy-in and the placing of value on electricity services by the community, projects are more likely to fail. Community ownership models, such as those used by the IBEKA and Kopernik organisations, were shown to be successful in off-grid island contexts. Efforts should be made to understand and reflect indigenous knowledge and existing social structures, to harness local skills, and to unlock local potential. “Change should be 70% social and 30% technological”.
  • The cost of providing electricity to islands is higher than conventional power generation on the mainland, particularly for remoter islands where transport of the diesel used in generator sets (gensets) substantially increases costs. If mainland generation costs determine the tariffs that may be charged on islands, then schemes will not be economic unless heavily subsidised (which may be an unsustainable drain on government funds) and may deter independent power producers. An appropriate balance needs to be struck between affordability to island communities and financial sustainability.
  • Solar PV can provide a cost effective alternative to diesel gensets, particularly for remoter islands, though import taxes can reduce its attractiveness. Hybridisation of existing gensets with solar PV is also proving to be an appropriate way forward on many islands, saving on operating costs while ensuring 24-7 supplies. The relative contribution of diesel and PV needs to be chosen according to local circumstances.
  • For island communities in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, there are distinctive energy demands for the types of productive energy uses required, such as providing ice for fishing, or power for copra drying facilities. Electricity for water pumping and in some cases desalination can be major considerations. Treatment of effluents and biomass wastes can provide the opportunity to produce biogas for cooking.
  • A key consideration for the long term viability of island electricity systems is their operation and maintenance. Charges to islanders need to cover the associated costs, including the replacement of parts (which need to be readily available), and charging schemes should be enforced. Responsibilities for operation and maintenance should be clear and incentivised. The necessary skills should be established through training schemes.
  • Women prioritise energy needs differently to men, so a gendered approach to energy access is required. They have also been proven to be effective entrepreneurs, disseminating renewable energy technologies to island communities. The ‘Wonder Women’ initiative run by Kopernik is a concrete example of this, where women are trained as renewable energy micro-entrepreneurs, and are able to bring clean energy and economic progress to their communities. Women’s groups were highlighted for their capacity to bring change and success, for example in managing payment schemes and community facilities such as freezers for fish.
  • The tourism industry can act as a bringer of electricity and education to island communities. More should be done to include island resorts in community energy and environmental projects. Dialogue can be strengthened between local government, NGOs and tourist operators to achieve better outcomes.
  • Positive demonstration projects are useful, not only for the communities in which they exist, but as examples to others: ‘seeing is believing’. The Sumba iconic island initiative is one such positive example, showing how a combination of technologies, government and non-government agencies, donors, and local communities can combine to achieve better development and economic outcomes through increased energy access that comes from renewable energy.

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