On Indonesia's eastern island of Sumba, solar power is providing people with electricity. Having electric lights can mean many things. It can mean being able to work later in the evenings, making more money and having more social gatherings.
Before electricity came to the village of Laindeha almost two years ago, the day ended when the sun went down.
A few families who could pay for them would start loud generators, which release smoke. Some people connected lights to old car batteries, which would quickly run out or ruin appliances. Children sometimes studied by oil lamps, but these sometimes burned down homes when knocked over by the wind.
Then social organizations brought small, solar panel systems to Laindeha and other villages on the island.
For Tamar Ana Jawa, it means much-needed extra money.
“It used to be dark at night, now it’s bright until morning,” the 30-year-old mother of two said. “So tonight, I work...to pay for the children.”
Around the world, hundreds of millions of people live in communities without regular electricity. In Sumba, off-grid solar energy equipment is bringing people limited electricity years before normal power systems reach them.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) says 775 million people around the world lacked electricity service in 2022. The IEA says Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are home to some of the largest populations without electricity. The United Nations and World Bank said in a 2021 report that not having electricity at home keeps people poor. People without power struggle to work in the modern economy, the report said.
Indonesia has brought electricity to millions of people in recent years. The World Bank says that, between 2005 and 2020, the country has increased the percentage of people with electricity from 85 to 97 percent. But there are still more than half a million people in Indonesia living without electricity service.
There are experts who say off-grid solar programs could be reproduced across the large nation of thousands of islands. They note the energy is renewable.
Now, villagers often gather in the evening to continue the day’s work. They also gather to watch television shows on cellphones that are recharged by solar panels and that help children do schoolwork by providing light.
But solar power is still rare in Indonesia. The country wants more solar energy to meet its climate goals. But there has been limited progress. This is because households that are not already connected to a power grid cannot sell electricity back to the company that supervises the power grid.
Sumba Sustainable Solutions, based in eastern Sumba, aims to increase solar use.
Working with international donors, it provides imported home solar systems. The systems can power light bulbs and charge cellphones. The company says on its website that it provides the equipment for monthly payments equal to $3.50 for three years.
The organization also offers solar-powered appliances like wireless lamps and grinding machines. It said it has sent over 3,020 solar light systems and 62 grinding machines across the island, reaching more than 3,000 homes.
Similar programs exist in places like Bangladesh and Africa south of the Sahara Desert. The World Bank says these programs help provide electricity for millions.
But off-grid solar energy systems like these do not provide the same amount of power as a grid. While cellphones and lights can be charged, the systems do not create enough power to operate devices like a sound system for a church.
Off-grid solar projects face problems too, Jetty Arlenda said. He is an engineer with Sumba Sustainable Solutions. The company depends on donors to pay most of the cost of the equipment because villagers could not pay the high cost of the solar equipment at market prices. Villagers without off-grid solar panels continue to wait while Sumba Sustainable Solutions looks for more money from donors.
The company wants support from Indonesia’s $20 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership deal. The deal, signed last year, involves loans and other money from developed nations and international financial companies.
There have been problems with villagers failing to make payments. And when solar systems break, they need imported parts that can be hard to find or costly.
But for now, villagers like Jawa said the solar systems are making a big difference.
I’m Dan Novak.
And I'm Anna Matteo.