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Sustainable Energy Transitions in Island Communities

By Mary Ann Q. Franco, Monika Merdekawati, and Beni Suryadi
29 September 2021

The island communities of Southeast Asia countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand are often associated with tourism, invoking picturesque views of the sea, white-sand beaches, and the warm welcome of islanders. Even though some of us are already residing in different parts of the world, nothing can beat the tropics with its beautiful shoreline, the rich and diverse marine life and environment, and most especially that warm smiles, the “good morning po ma’am and sir”, “the sah wah dee kha” or the “selamat pagi” that would greet visitors when they visit the islands.  

However, behind this holiday backdrop of the community is an actual scenario of a household trying to get through the day – maximising the sunlight while working on their handicraft and souvenirs. Having access to electricity at night, the fishermen prepare their nets at midnight before the diesel generator turns off. For school teachers, overtime often involves staying on school premises to print handouts and presentation slides for the next day’s lessons. Everyone tries and needs to adapt to the current circumstances of having limited or no energy access at all. 

On the other hand, ASEAN Member States (AMS) has committed to an aspirational target of 23 per cent renewable energy share in the Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES) by 2025. Most of the countries have goals to address climate change and decarbonise sustainably by deploying clean and renewable energy technologies and various market tools to encourage the usage and investments of these alternative resources per country. Local government players, non-government organisations, and the private sector seem to be quite optimistic that deploying clean, energy-efficient, and renewable energy technologies can be among the major solutions to achieve sustainable energy transition of the region.  

Despite the presence of renewable energy targets and the deployment of clean technological solutions, there is somehow a disconnect between the regional and national efforts vis-a-vis the everyday life of rural residents and island communities. As of 2019, around 45 million people in Southeast Asia have no access to electricity which is concentrated in 5 economies, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and the Philippines. As such, one of the main challenges still lingers: for electrification to be more than a means to survive everyday lives and to see electricity as an enabler to achieve long-term sustainable development. While it is important to have technological and market-driven solutions, it is equally crucial to consider the human dimension of the region’s sustainable energy transition. 

We are familiar with the energy trilemma: addressing energy security, sustaining economic growth, and achieving environmentally friendly development. Now there is a fourth and equally important aspect, which is energy democracy. Energy democracy is an emergent social movement that integrates technological solutions with the political, economic, social and cultural transformation of energy systems with increased participation from end-users and marginalised groups.  

The sustainable energy transition is more than just a hardware issue. Long term transition to renewables cannot just be addressed by simply deploying the technologies to the communities and assuming that people will continuously use them. Any clean and renewable energy intervention should invest in the people who use and adopt these renewable energy technologies. This means increasing their capabilities to manage these solar PV systems towards sustainable livelihood or more productive electricity use. This challenges current renewable energy interventions to invest in the processes and the people alongside the physical and technical components of the renewable energy system. Business and financing schemes should also be tailored to address not only the short-term energy needs of the communities but to improve the overall quality of life in these energy-poor areas.  

Distributed energy systems like hybrid renewable energy or microgrid systems can be more suitable in off-grid communities with relatively low-income households. These households are mostly living on a day-to-day basis, and their ability to control their electricity consumption would be helpful in their allocation of everyday expenses. However, the main caveat of the effectiveness of distributed energy systems is that they should also be accompanied by decentralised management or organisational structure within the community.  

Allowing more avenues for local and community stakeholders to participate directly in the decision-making process can help policies reflect their direct energy realities and socio-economic needs. In the region, there have been efforts to highlight the role of women and indigenous people in coming up with localised energy solutions and encourage community-based approaches and engagement towards long-term energy transition. For example, the 70 small-scale hydropower plants built by the People Centered Business and Economic Institute (IBEKA), was founded by a woman, Tri Mumpuni Iskandar. They have supplied electricity to half a million Indonesians in a rural area. In the Philippines, the growing solar rooftop installations and the lobbying efforts by many local organisations have successfully driven the government to amend the net metering rules to include attractive incentives. 

Finally, any sustainable energy intervention, especially to the energy-poor areas, should clearly define what electrification means and what access to energy truly means. Is it having electricity 4 to 6 hours per day for their basic energy needs, or is it having equal access to power to improve their everyday lives and achieve sustainable development? 

It is no coincidence that the word empowerment can literally and figuratively mean empowering the energy-poor communities and marginalised groups. Any societal transformation, whether in the energy sector, water or food, has always been a combination of a complex interaction of actors and structures that cooperate or contest with one another. While technologically-driven energy transition is inevitable, aiming for a democratic and participatory energy transition would help make a sustainable energy transition last for the longer term.

Dr. Mary Ann Quirapas-Franco is a Research Fellow of the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore. Her work focuses on the impacts of adopting sustainable energy technologies in the Southeast Asia region. 

Ms. Monika Merdekawati is a Research Analyst of ASEAN Centre for Energy (ACE). Her research interests are energy-climate policy and related efforts to ensure just energy transition in ASEAN. 

Mr. Beni Suryadi is Manager of ASEAN Climate Change and Energy Project (ACCEPT). He has over ten years of experience managing research and programmes relating to energy, power and climate change in Southeast Asia, supporting the countries in accelerating their energy transition.