Indonesia: Powering a thousand islands

As long as electricity remains a costly and at times scarcecommodity, open fires are likely to remain a regular sightin rural Indonesian kitchens. How does this fit in witha national vision of energy self-sufficiency, electrification, and economic development?


by Glenn van Zutphen

It is hard to say just how many islands make up Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelagic state. Various sources offer numbers from about 13’000 up to 18’300 islands, though only a fraction of these are permanently inhabited. While the island chain boasts unique landscapes and ecosystems, its sheer expanse over more than 5’000 kilometers from east to west makes ubiquitous energy supply a challenge.


The major islands such as Sumatra and Java have solid and stable power grids, but many smaller islands do not. Here, if electricity is available at all, it is produced locally, making for highly dispersed energy supply. And while the terrain means that bringing electricity to a community may be technically challenging, there is another factor at play: Smaller populations and lower energy demand mean that electrification comes at a commensurately higher cost. Since economies of scale cannot be achieved, there is often simply no business case for building grid infrastructure. 


Standardized “fast power” units – pretested, mobile generators that are easy to transport and install, and whose modular design offers users high versatility and flexibility – are a feasible short-term solution for regional power needs, while distributed energy systems or micro- or minigrids would help provide electricity in remote locations on a more permanent basis.


Today, with consumption increasing by 7 percent annually, Indonesia is failing to meet demand with adequate infrastructure investment. As many Indonesians will attest, the result is a rise in the frequency and length of power outages on a daily or weekly basis.

A light bulb changes everything

Enter Dr. Ir. Tumiran. As a board member of the Indonesian National Energy Board (Dewan Energi Nasional Indonesia), coordinator for the Indonesian Smart Grid Association, and a member of the Electrical Engineering Faculty at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, he helps power this country of 260 million people on a day-to-day basis while laying the groundwork for its long-term energy independence and security. Besides his work at the National Energy Board, Tumiran was also the Vice Chairman of the Committee of National Energy Policy (2011–2014), responsible for preparing the blueprint for Indonesia’s energy strategy, and has served as a university lecturer.


Tumiran knows about the need for a stable power source. As a young student growing up in Binjai, North Sumatra, in the 1970s, he studied by oil lamp and candle, as his family home was not near the city grid. “I still remember the black soot on my face and in my nose from studying near that dirty lamp,” he recalls. When his family finally got a light bulb in their home, it changed everything. He believes that all Indonesians should have the same basic access.


The task is daunting; the government is currently only able to provide installed generating capacity of 58 of the 150 gigawatts needed to meet current needs and support future economic development. As of the end of 2017, some 5 percent of the population lacked access to power, and commerce and industry are not reaching their full potential unless they generate their own supply. Solutions like medium voltage direct current links with a transmission capacity of up to 150 megawatts, says Tumiran, could connect microgrids and ensure greater and more efficient power transfer and play a role in connecting renewable energy sources.


This very efficient plug-and-play technology, which combines the best of AC and DC transmission, can connect weak and unstable grids and link islands, industries, and small towns over up to 200 kilometers. Its less intrusive design favors swift approval procedures and helps reduce the visual and environmental impact in sensitive areas.

If they can use the electricity for industry, people will get good jobs; the economy will be better and stronger.
Dr. Ir. Tumiran, National Energy Board of Indonesia

Electricity - a costly resource

How do ordinary Indonesians deal with the high cost of electricity? Triyanto and Nunik, who like most Indonesians go by one name, live 26 kilometers from Yogyakarta and 7 kilometers from the crater of Mt. Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano. The next village is 4 kilometers away; their power is supplied under PLN’s “900 VA” plan, with a sliding scale for residential tariffs ranging from 169 to 600 Indonesian rupees (US$0.012 to US$0.04) per kilowatt-hour. 

“I use and need electricity in the night for lights. During the day, we use it to power a washing machine, and sometimes a refrigerator,” says 51-year-old Triyanto, who works as a farmer and local guide. But he does not use power every day; and even with the refrigerator and the washing machine, he has enough electricity. “If we had more electricity, I would use it for developing my business. But we use wood rather than electricity for cooking, because food cooked traditionally with wood fire is more delicious.” His wife Nunik, a kindergarten teacher, explains: “I actually would like to use gas because it is faster, but considering the situation now, gas is also more expensive. We have plenty of wood here, so I use wood.”

All alternatives considered

Back in Jakarta, Tumiran notes with the precision of an engineer and the candor of an academic how far behind Indonesia is when it comes to per capita use of electricity. “It is impossible to drive innovation and the national economy when people and industry don’t have access to power,” he says, noting that Indonesians on average consumed 800 kilowatt-hours per capita in 2014; based on the national energy policy to 2050, the government envisages boosting that figure to 2,500 kilowatt-hours by 2025.


While Tumiran favors renewable power sources over coal, oil, and gas, he also knows that any form of energy must be secure, economically viable, a continuous stable supply, and it must be near where people need it. One thing seems certain, though: Mobile fast power generators and decentralized systems have an important role to play in the overall picture.


Glenn van Zutphen, independent journalist in Singapore.

Picture credits: Hans Sautter, Rayzatul Akmal

  • Population: 260,000,000
  • Population without electricity: around 13,000,000
  • Electrification (total population): 95.35%
  • Installed electricity-generating capacity: 115 GW based on KEN
    Electricity from fossil fuels and biofuels (2017): 87.85%
  • 2025 goal: 22.5% of renewable power generation (hydro, geothermal, wind, and solar).
    Electricity from hydroelectric plants (2017): 7.06%
    Electricity from other renewable sources (2017): 5.09%


Source: National Energy Board

Dr. Ir. Tumiran, M. Eng., is a board member of the Indonesian National Energy Board (Dewan Energi Nasional Indonesia). He is a lecturer (and former dean) at the Engineering Faculty at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. He proposed an energy strategy blueprint for energy independence and security in Indonesia, among many other efforts aimed at bringing electricity to the archipelago. Tumiran obtained both his doctoral degree in Production and Information and his master’s degree in Electrical Power Systems from Saitama University in Japan; he is also a lecturer at the United Nations University in Tokyo, related to a new and renewable energy program 2011–2014.

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