As Tamar Ana Jawa wove a red sarong in the fading sunlight, her neighbor switched on a light bulb dangling from the sloping tin roof. It was just one bulb powered by a small solar panel, but in this remote village that means a lot. In some of the world’s most remote places, off-grid solar systems are bringing villagers like Jawa more hours in the day, more money and more social gatherings.
Before electricity came to the village, a little less than two years ago, the day ended when the sun went down. Villagers in Laindeha, on the island of Sumba in eastern Indonesia, would set aside the mats they were weaving or coffee they were sorting to sell at the market as the light faded.
A few families who could afford them would start noisy generators that rumbled into the night, emitting plumes of smoke. Some people wired lightbulbs to old car batteries, which would quickly die or burn out appliances, as they had no regulator. Children sometimes studied by makeshift oil lamps, but these occasionally burned down homes when knocked over by the wind.
That’s changed since grassroots social enterprise projects have brought small, individual solar panel systems to Laindeha and villages like it across the island.
For Jawa, it means much-needed extra income. When her husband died of a stroke in December 2022, Jawa wasn’t sure how she would pay for her children’s schooling. But when a neighbor got electric lighting shortly after, she realized she could continue weaving clothes for the market late into the evening.
“It used to be dark at night, now it’s bright until morning,” the 30-year-old mother of two said, carefully arranging and pushing red threads at the loom. “So tonight, I work … to pay for the children.”
Around the world, hundreds of millions of people live in communities without regular access to power, and off-grid solar systems like these are bringing limited access to electricity to places like these years before power grids reach them.
Some 775 million people globally lacked access to electricity in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are home to some of the largest populations without access to electricity. Not having electricity at home keeps people in poverty, the U.N. and World Bank wrote in a 2021 report. It’s hard for very poor people to get electricity, according to the report, and it’s hard for people who don’t have it to participate in the modern economy.
Indonesia has brought electricity to millions of people in recent years, going from 85% to nearly 97% coverage between 2005 and 2020, according to World Bank data. But there are still more than half a million people in Indonesia living in places the grid doesn’t reach.
While barriers still remain, experts say off-grid solar programs on the island could be replicated across the vast archipelago nation, bringing renewable energy to remote communities.
Now, villagers frequently gather in the evening to continue the day’s work, gather to watch television shows on cellphones charged by the panels and help children do homework in light bright enough to read.
“I couldn’t really study at night before,” said Antonius Pekambani, a 17-year-old student in Ndapaymi village, east Sumba. “But now I can.”
Solar power is still fairly rare in Indonesia. While the country has targeted more solar as part of its climate goals, there has been limited progress due to regulations that don’t allow households to sell power back to the grid, ruling out a way of defraying the cost that has helped people afford solar in other parts of the world.
That’s where grassroots organizations like Sumba Sustainable Solutions, based in eastern Sumba since 2019, saw potential to help. Working with international donors to help subsidize the cost, it provides imported home solar systems, which can power light bulbs and charge cellphones, for monthly payments equivalent to $3.50 over three years.
The organization also offers solar-powered appliances such as wireless lamps and grinding machines. It said it has distributed over 3,020 solar light systems and 62 mills across the island, reaching more than 3,000 homes.
Imelda Pindi Mbitu, a 46-year-old mother of five living in Walatungga, said she used to spend whole days grinding corn kernels and coffee beans between two rocks to sell at the local market; now, she takes it to a solar-powered mill shared by the village.
“With manual milling, if I start in the morning I can only finish in the afternoon. I can’t do anything else,” she said sitting in her wooden home. “If you use the machine, it’s faster. So now I can do other things.”
Similar schemes in other places, including Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa, have helped provide electricity for millions, according to the World Bank.
But some smaller off-grid solar systems like these don’t provide the same amount of power as grid access. While cellphones, light bulbs and mills remain charged, the systems don’t generate enough power for a large sound system or a church.
Off-grid solar projects face hurdles too, said Jetty Arlenda, an engineer with Sumba Sustainable Solutions.
The organization’s scheme is heavily reliant upon donors to subsidize the cost of solar equipment, which many rural residents would be unable to afford at their market cost. Villagers without off-grid solar panels are stuck on waitlists while Sumba Sustainable Solutions looks for more funding. They’re hoping for support from Indonesia’s $20 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership deal, which is being negotiated by numerous developed nations and international financial institutions.
There’s also been issues with recipients failing to make payments, especially as the island deals with locust outbreaks diminishing crops and livelihoods of villagers. And when solar systems break, they need imported parts that can be hard to come by.