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When lecturer Subhan Petrana chose renewable energy as his field of study at Khairun University in Ternate, North Maluku, the reasons were personal. The year was 2015 and power from state-owned electricity company PLN was only accessible to the surrounding islands of North Maluku for 12 hours a day, forcing residents to resort to generator sets or kerosene lamps. With no power at night, economic activity, education and access to healthcare were restrained.
“I felt the need for a change,” said the alumnus of Australia Awards Short Course on Renewable Energy Technology and Policy. “There had to be ways to help people to have power in a self-sufficient manner that was environmentally friendly as well. Generator sets rely on fossil fuels. Not only is this bad for the environment, bringing fuel to the islands actually costs more due to the great distance from Ternate.”
In the same year, Subhan collaborated with the Tropical Renewable Energy Center (TREC) at University of Indonesia’s Faculty of Engineering to build solar-powered cold storage for a community of fishermen in Morotai Island, North Maluku. Prior to the invention, fishermen had to purchase costly ice blocks to keep their catch fresh. “It was also a collaboration with the residents,” he said. “We provided the facility, while maintenance was done by the residents.”
Subhan’s choice to focus on renewable energy also came from his concern for the environment, in line with the Indonesian government’s commitment for the nation’s energy to use up to 23 percent renewable power. Through the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources’ regulation in 2018, electricity consumers are encouraged to install rooftop solar panels and contribute to the effort.
The country plans to add up to 65 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power by 2025 and according to Subhan, North Maluku has the potential to provide 3.36 megawatts (MW) of solar energy. But one of the difficulties faced by the province is the absence of skilled professionals in the field.
“From procurement to engineering, it’s vital to have the skills. But the human resources still come from outside of North Maluku, which adds more cost,” said Subhan. “That encouraged me even more to find out how we could improve the situation.”
It turned out that the answer was participating in the short course in 2018. Taking place at Griffith University in Brisbane and the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, the two week-course introduced participants to forms of renewable energy and took them to related facilities such as a wind farm in Canberra.
After completing the course, Subhan received information that participants could contribute through the Alumni Grants Scheme (AGS). Along with fellow participant Julianto Putra Kanggeyan and former ANU student Ilyas Taufiqurrohman, they aimed to raise awareness of renewable energy in North Maluku with the intention of producing a skilled workforce. Subhan noted that the solar energy facilities installed by the North Maluku government were abandoned as there was no local technician equipped to do any maintenance.
In November 2019, Subhan and his colleagues’ project came to life with a workshop designed to train participants to become a skilled workforce for rooftop solar installations or maintenance. Held in North Maluku, Khairun University’s Faculty of Engineering, vocational school SMKN 2 Ternate and PT Suryavardhana Global Korpora were involved as collaborating organisations. Fifty selected students went through a hands-on experience in the two-day event, while the school received tools and modules for a solar power plant.
“The students were excited, they had heard about solar power, but they had no idea what it looked like and how it worked,” said Subhan of the workshop.
A public seminar followed in the same month at the North Maluku Governor’s Office, featuring speakers from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, Eko Adhi Setiawan from TREC and the North Maluku branch of PLN. “Beyond all of our expectations from campaigning for renewable energy, the seminar concluded with the installation of a solar panel unit at a Ternate house as well as a subdistrict head office building in North Ternate,” Subhan recalled with delight.
The trained students had immediately put their newly gained knowledge to work with the installations. Subhan reported the electricity bill for the house was later reduced by 50 percent, while the subdistrict head reported a 40 percent cut.
Solar panel installation in North Maluku slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic provided opportunities for Subhan and colleagues to keep raising the awareness of renewable energy in eastern Indonesia. They conducted webinars, formed a community-based entity called Mentari national community and established PT Ice Energy company as a vehicle to implement their ideas.
Subhan, who still lectures at Khairun University since joining the university’s teaching staff in 2010, realised that while renewable energy might be technical, there were also social and policy issues to be considered. “That’s one of the most important things from the short course that I still carry with me today. How people, policies and politics play a significant part in renewable energy,” he said.
Of the meaningful insights he gained from the short course, he shared, “For someone from the engineering field, I was used to always thinking in a technical manner. But on-ground experiences have taught me that technicality was the last thing I needed to worry about. The course really opened my eyes to the fact that sitting at the top of the list is how to approach the people, in which we also have to consider social and political issues. Technology will not evolve when we exclude the people factor.”
In the future, Subhan hopes to bring training and seminars on rooftop solar panels to other nearby provinces, such as North Sulawesi. He has fond memories of the short course, saying it greatly affected both his career and him personally.
“I might’ve started out of sympathy for my surroundings, but the course gave me a clear vision of what I wished to pursue,” he said. “It’s as if each episode of my life, from settling upon renewable energy, learning so much from Eko of TREC and then participating in the course, has gracefully framed my life, and I’ve formed this unwavering intention to immerse myself in the cause.”
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