A lot of attention is rightly given to the role of solar-powered products in addressing extreme poverty in developing nations. Whilst this remains a vital consideration, solar also holds the potential to provide energy for communities that are thriving, but remain – at least partly - off-grid.
One such example is Batukaras, a small, palm-fringed fishing and surfing community in West Java, Indonesia. Batukaras is also home to CLEAR (Creatively Linking Environment Art and Resources), a grass-roots, not-for-profit creative movement that draws on the inspiration provided by different cultures to nurture environmental education and waste management through skill-sharing activities.
As part of its environmental commitment, CLEAR has been trialling a range of solar panels with local residents at their off-grid community learning centre Bale Tau, aiming to generate sufficient cheap and renewable energy to provide lighting and charge mobile phones. In doing so, the panels also enable the residents of Batukaras to increase their energy independence, cut the electricity bills of those who have access to the mains power grid and strengthen resilience against the frequent power cuts that occur in the area.
The latest solar panels to be deployed in the community have been supplied as part of Freeplay's Energy Centre. The Energy Centre is a solar-powered lighting system and mobile phone charger supplied with durable and efficient crystalline solar panel, a power pack and two bright LED bulbs.
Wawan Ruswana, a resident of Batukaras, comments, "Solar panel systems are very useful for us and we don't need to spend a lot of money to buy it. There are several kinds of solar panels, and they work very simply. We can put the solar panels on the roof of our house filled with sunshine, then connect the cable."
Another local resident, Yadi Setiadi, continues, "Solar panels are the best things I've ever seen. Solar power systems are pure energy from the sun. Installing solar panels on your home helps combat greenhouse gas emissions and reduces our collective dependence on fossil fuel. Solar cells, which are linked together in a panel, convert sunlight into electricity via photovoltaic materials, such as silicon.
"They are easy to install and easy to use. They can be cleaned with just water, with no soap necessary, and they are also waterproof. These solar panels really help us, especially when we are going somewhere where there is no electricity, and they are good for people who like doing outdoor activities such as travelling, hiking or trekking.
"It is also true that solar panels are all about daylight, not just sunshine. Panels can still generate some electricity on gloomy days. That's cool!"
And CLEAR volunteer Pete Cosby adds, "Solar panels give us enough energy to power lights in our huts and communal area, enable us to charge our phones that we need for communication while working on the CLEAR project or with outside world, and allow us to charge other USB pluggable appliances.
"Solar panels can indeed save our planet and Mother Earth! They can help us to clear the pollution we are causing by burning coal, gasoline or from power stations. Sun is there for all of us and it is free of charge. The only investment is buying panels and installing them. Which is not a hard task!"
However, solar-powered systems such as the Freeplay Energy Centre are not just providing energy for personal use. They are also delivering light and power in support of a range of community initiatives. "We used to spend time at Bale Tau every Wednesday evening," explains Wawan Ruswana. "We called it Belajar Bersama or Learning Together. Before we had solar panels, we only used a table lamp. Now we can put our solar panels under the sun in the day and we can use them when the night comes. Now we have solar panels systems, we have light."
Furthermore, the residents of Batukaras are thinking to the future. Chani Leahong of CLEAR explains, "The women's group is planning to come and get involved with learning about the solar panel systems, and to compare the different designs. The women's group is called the PKK, and is similar to the WI in the UK, and they have expressed interest in becoming an agent for distribution of solar panels via Kopernik." Kopernik is an organisation that connects simple technology with 'last mile' communities to reduce poverty, and is a distributor of the Energy Centre and a range of other solar-powered and hand-cranked Freeplay Energy products.
But Wawan Ruswana has the final world. "What I like is the solar panel charger, because I can use it for my cell phone charger. I can bring the solar panel charger everywhere and I'm not afraid of having a low battery level again. Cool, right? Thanks Freeplay."