Saturday, December 10, 2011

Harnessing the Water in Tanah Air: Mikrohidro in Indonesia

Photo from Yayasan Mandiri
Kami sampaikan bahwa listrik yang kini menerangi rumah mereka itu sangat bergantung pada air.  Sedangkan air sangat bergantung pada hutan.  Jika masyarakat senang dengan adanya listrik dan ingin terus menyala, mereka harus menyayangi hutan.  Suriani, head of the Kelompok Simpan Pinjam Meratus Indah cooperative, quoted in Kompas 12/8/11

Today's post is inspired by an article that appeared in Kompas (1) about a mikrohidro (micro-hydropower) project in South Kalimantan province.  Mikrohidro refers to hydroelectric installations that produce up to 100kw of electricity (wikipedia).  Mikrohidro projects by nature are small and usually provide enough electricity to a number of households or a village to power small appliances, like lamps or TVs.  They typically employ any of a number of different types of turbines on small streams.  Indonesia (and Southeast Asia in general) is an ideal place for mikrohidro given it's location smack in the middle of the InterTropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).  Rainfall averages about 2100mm/year across the archipelago, with 4,257 cubic kilometers of rain annually (runoff of about 2,128 cubic km).  In addition, about half the total land area of the country is mountainous, which creates the vertical gradients necessary for harnessing the kinetic energy of falling water.  60% of the population of Indonesia is rural, which makes it expensive and technically challenging to link up remote villages to the national grid, so the potential for small-scale hydropower is indeed intriguing.

Graphic from
I've long been fascinated by micro-hydroelectric projects because of the potential benefits, but also because they are pretty cool.  The first time I saw a microhydro generator was about 10 years ago in the hills or northern Vietnam.  That particular gadget was pretty small and provided only enough electricity for a couple of light bulbs, but I was really struck by the ingenuity.  At the time only one house in the village was enjoying the benefits of electricity (I presumed the turbine was privately owned), but it was easy to imagine the benefits of more turbines.  Here in Indonesia I've seen several mikrohidros in villages around the national park.  They are larger scale; one we visited near Gunung Tujuh provides about 3000 watts total to around 10 households.  The members of the "cooperative" pay 15,000 (US$1.75) rupiah per month for their electricity.  The turbine is run by a small waterwheel turned by water flowing though a small canal which runs off a main stream that brings water to rice fields.  When a sluice gate is opened the water turns the turbine, providing electricity.  The sluice gate is helpful because the villagers don't need electricity all the time, so limiting the use of the turbine saves on wear and tear.

The Kompas article describes how a remote village had adopted mikrohidro.  This particular project generates about 8,000 watts, which is shared among 42 households at 200 watts/house.  They use the electricity from 5pm until 7am unless there is some sort of special activity.  The members of the community have regulations on what they can use the electricity for; lights and televisions are okay, but ice boxes and washing machines are prohibited.  The idea, according to the head of the cooperative, is to conserve the electricity while discouraging "consumerism" in the village.  Each household pays 40,000 (US$4.70) rupiah per month which pays for upkeep and maintenance.  To be eligible to receive electricity the members have to sign a written agreement that they will help take care of the water catchment area.
Drawing from here.  
 In this particular system this means that no trees within 200 meters of the riverbank can be cut down.  If someone disobeys the covenant and cuts down a tree, they have to plant 5 replacement trees.  If someone opens up a field for cultivation in the protected area, they have to pay a fine and they also lose their access to electricity.

The trees are protected because they help ensure a stable water supply, without which the turbine wouldn't work.  Trees are an important part of the hydrological cycle because when it rains trees keep the water from entering the stream all at once.  In addition to slowing the water down with their leaves, trees absorb thousands of gallons of water into their roots.  Water is carried up through the tree and is evaporated directly out of the tree's leaves (transpiration), and is released back into the air.  Eventually this makes it rain.  If you cut down all the trees, not only does the water flow more quickly into the stream, you lose the storage capacity of the forest as well as the rain-generating aspects, and so you undermine your steady and dependable supply of water.

Benefits and Potential of Mikrohidro...

Water is an abundant resource in Indonesia.  The UNDP estimates that the country has hydropower potential as high as 62.2 gigawatts, including 458 megawatts of mikrohidro.  Thus far, though, only around 5 megawatts have been installed in rural areas, and it's estimated that only about 1 megawatt of this is being used.  At the same time, about 40% of Indonesian households lack electricity, and over the next two decades electricity consumption is expected to grow by 450%.  Though the state-owned electricity monopoly (PLN) has greatly increased its capacity (growing from less than 800 megawatts in the mid-1970s to around 21 gigawatts by the end of 2002), it has difficulties expanding the national grid for a number of reasons.  A big limitation is the cost of the infrastructure required to deliver electricity from a large power plant to rural villages.  Another problem is the company's finances; they are deeply in debt, which was exacerbated by the 1997 financial crisis.  During the crisis the value of the rupiah declined sharply versus the dollar, which had the effect of greatly increasing the value of PLN's debt.  At the same time PLN has to buy fuel and spare parts on the world market, and so a weaker rupiah makes these things more expensive.

Renewable energy potential in Indonesia
This opens up an opportunity to develop alternative power generation like mikrohidro.  Mikrohidro has a lot of advantages.  Hydropower is said to be one of the most efficient sources of electricity, with effeciency rates as high as 60-90% (2).  Mikrohidro is highly predictable and there isn't much variability in supply from day to day.  Experts say that the equipment can be engineered to last half a century.  It is renewable as long as the water catchment area is maintained, and it doesn't release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  In addition, by locating the generating capacity near the demand for electricity, you don't have to build or maintain the expensive infrastructure required with national and regional grids.  Think of how much it costs to build high-tension transmission towers.  Mikrohidro eliminates inefficiencies in the electrical grid, as local subscribers have to abide by usage rules.  More electricity also has indirect effects; light enables children to study longer, thereby improving education. Electricity for cooking reduces the amount of time spent looking for firewood, a job usually done by women, which gives them time for other activities.  Decreasing the use of wood, kerosine, and other fuels in cooking also cuts down on smoke inside the house, which has significant health benefits.  Excess electricity can potentially be sold to the national grid or to other users, creating a new revenue stream for the village.

Mikrohidro also avoids many of the adverse environmental impacts of larger hydropower projects.  Big dams lead to the inundation of large areas, which takes land out of production and often leads to the relocation of people (3).  In addition big dams can hamper or all together stop fish migrations on rivers.  Dams alter streamflow characteristics like velocity and volume, and thus have sometimes deleterious downstream effects.  Many dams also eventually become useless due to the accumulation of sediment behind the dam; when a stream enters a reservoir the water current slows down, and so it loses its capacity for sediment transport.  The sediment settles to the bottom of the reservoir, making it shallower and shallower over time.  Mikrohidro projects use the existing water flow to generate power, so no dam has to be built.

But starting a mikrohidro project is not as easy as it seems.  The gear is expensive, ranging from US$1,000 to $700,000, depending on generating capacity.  Access to this kind of money is often beyond the reach of villagers, and so foundations, non-governmental organizations, and multi-lateral lenders provide funds, but demand is far greater than supply in terms of donors.  In addition, Indonesia is still working to create a conducive business environment for mikrohidro.  Though the government passed a law in 1995 to allow small power producers to sell electricity to PLN, it took a long time for the law to be implemented.  New regulations were created in 2002 to make it feasible for independent producers to sell power to the grid.  This makes mikrohidro attractive to investors.  And the more investment you have, the greater the demand for equipment, which can spawn a domestic industry catering especially to the mikrohidro market.  Still, a UNDP study indicates that even when mikrohidro projects go online in Indonesia, they frequently perform under capacity or don't function at all.  It's estimated that one-third of all mikrohidro projects fall into this category.  There are many factors contributing to this problem: in many cases local people lack the capacity to operate and maintain the equipment.  In other cases spare parts are too expensive or just aren't available.  That's where IBEKA comes in.  

A Mikrohidro Crusader...

Map from IBEKA
One non-government organization (NGO) is working hard to bring mikrohidro to villages across Indonesia.  IBEKA (Institut Bisnis dan Ekonomi Kerakyatan, People-Centered Business and Economic Institute) was established in 1993 and has built more than 60 community-run hydropower plants with between 5 and 250 kilowatts of capacity, providing electricity to 500,000 people in rural Indonesia.  At the heart of IBEKA is Tri Mumpuni, IBEKA's executive director, and her husband, Iskandar Budisaroso Kuntoadji, who oversees technical aspects of mikrohidro projects.  For her efforts "Bu Puni" has been recognized by President Obama, and just this year she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay prize, a prestigious award for pioneers in community development in Southeast Asia.  Bu Puni's goal is to bring electricity to the 90 million Indonesians without it, but for her it's not just about power.  It's also about empowerment; IBEKA's projects seek to bring technical know-how to villages as well building capacity to manage their projects, which, it is hoped, will spill over into other community-building activities as well.  Community ownership is central to IBEKA's work; this is seen as the key ingredient in creating a self-sustaining project.

Mikrohidro, and community development projects in general, are about empowerment.  IBEKA has learned the valuable lesson that community participation is an essential ingredient in fostering a sense of local ownership.  Mikrohidro projects help people make the connection between sustainable livelihoods and environmental well-being.  Since people more immediately feel the effects of environmentally destructive practices, like cutting down trees in water catchment areas, they tend to think twice, and in many cases they create systems to regulate the resource and sanction people that break the rules.  These are lessons that we should all learn.


(1)  Kompas 12/8/11: Menjaga Alam Dengan Mikrohidro.  Unfortunately Kompas doesn't allow you to read certain articles online without paying a premium.

(2)  I got these numbers from a micro-hydro guidebook; I'm a bit dubious about the 90% figure.  The point, however, is that hydroelectric power is much more efficient than systems that rely on fossil fuel.

(3)  There is a rich literature on the human costs of large hydropower projects; during its 6 decades of work the World Bank has often been criticized for supporting these types of projects because of the impacts they often have on local communities.


Christian Science Monitor Story on Tri Mumpuni, coincidentally written by a young lady that once screwed me out of a story when I was writing for the Asia Times, can be found here.

IBEKA's website (mostly "under construction") can be found here.


  1. I absolutely support the mikrohidro project mentioned in the newspaper. The regulations are genius! The users pay for the goods produced (electricity), they're responsible for maintenance, and there are strict regulations to protect the surrounding forest (I particularly love the "chop 1 tree down, plant 5 more" rule). I am an environmental science major at UH, and although large scale hydropower reduces our dependence on fossil fuels, personally I think, more often than not, the damage caused to the environment outweighs the benefits. These people are using a natural resource in a sustainable manner. Ahh if only the rest of the world understood.

  2. It's nice to know that they are prioritizing these kinds of power-generating systems, which produce clean energy and cheaper electricity. I didn't know mikrohidros could generate enough energy to power several households but I am really impressed with the concept. Not only are they utilizing their natural geography (abundant rain year-round), which I think is genius, they are also protecting their environment by restricting the cutting of trees. This system may not be applicable to the other places, but the idea itself should inspire people to think of better alternatives for cleaner enrgy.