Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Medan's Solar House

Because I was going to North Sumatra to 'develop systems' for the Weaving Centre, and because our building will be finished this month, it was time to consider the matter of electricity again, but more seriously this time. Decisions have to be made and very soon. We want to use renewable forms only. Are they available? Where? In the capital city of the province? More locally? Or should I be looking to import?

I turned to Google and, to my surprise, found the site 'Solar House' in Medan. I wrote to the proprietor via Facebook and, to my even greater surprise, received a response in Dutch! Mr. George Frans was an Indonesian who had lived a good part of his life in The Netherlands. So, too, his wife, Ibu Vonny. They demonstrated the inimitable hospitality for which Indonesians are famous, and invited to pick me up and bring me to lunch and show me their solar systems. What a fabulous opportunity!

The day after landing in Medan, I found myself sitting on their little porch. The experience was rather like looking at a traditional Balinese painting: the longer you look, the more you see. Mr. Ossy (as he is known because the 'George' is hard for Indonesians to pronounce) was experimenting with and testing a mind-boggling variety of tiny, inexpensive systems. They took up no room and were so well integrated with the home, that only when he began to talk and show them, did they really come into view.

I write from a little Homestay at the top of Samosir Island that utilizes a couple of large solar panels and one large battery. The lights in the house are bright and, because they are left on at night, without warning, when the energy is used up, everything is doused in darkness. One does not know when this will happen. (One hopes one does not have to go to the bathroom.) The system does not promote energy awareness. The solar panels are simply installed as substitutes for the state energy that is wired in.

The Solar House is different. It is not small-scale. It is tiny-scale and every part of its complicated network (complicated now because it is still being tried out; it will be simplified in time) promotes energy awareness.

Each room of the house has a tiny solar panel, no larger than a tablet computer, affixed to the roof.
The energy is wired to an energy controller that has USB openings so that the energy can be distributed to a battery and little power banks. The power banks are filled and utilized as required. This is what promotes the energy awareness.

Pretty well everything runs off USB connections: the lighting, the fan, the water pumps, the projector that serves the TV and the computer, and even the mini-refrigerator. The size of the latter promotes consciousness of the use and storage of food. The system is more complex than simply throwing a switch but it is also only a tenth of the price if not less. And the system is also infinitely expandable depending on needs that arise. It also allows for individuality. Mr. Ossy has a multitude of types of lamps: this little one for reading (that runs off its own power bank), that large one (with its charger built in) when overhead lighting is needed, a small one whose power bank allows it to function until morning, and so on. Energy can be tailored for individuals needs and tastes. This person likes to work on the computer, another would like to watch TV, and still another needs to use power tools. I imagine a household in which everybody meets at the central power controller in the morning to charge their power banks.

Because the panels are small, they do not support large energy drains. Mr. Ossy is building his house so that it maximizes the coolness that nature provides and he does not have to use an electricity-driven cooling system. His wife is careful with food so that there are not too many things that need refrigeration. Lights are not left burning, and so on.

Even before he moved back to Indonesia from The Netherlands, his 'obsession' was written up in an blog. He is an idealist and he knows that his ideas are useful. He gives workshops in which the participants make USB plugs (very easy, he says) and he can also show them how to exchange a regular wall plug for a USB plug. He surfs the internet and orders the interesting new gadgets as they become available; then he tests them for usefulness and accuracy. He knows the market. He is an ideal 'village consultant'. His knowledge is ideal for the 'poor man', perfect for villagers who have no electricity but who also have no money to buy a 'regular' (read: large) solar installation. His findings are ideal for students who can scarcely afford electricity and who live minimally, and for whom power banks are already a part of daily life. (His results are also for the 'rich man' who has little energy awareness...).

Pak Ossy wants to help the world kick its dependence on non-renewable energy. He knows that it is doable to live comfortably with a low energy footprint. To my utter delight, he was excited by the idea of coming to our Weaving Centre to help us develop an appropriate energy system. Showing the villagers his wares is exactly where he wants to invest his talents and knowledge. Luckily it will be possible to schedule this workshop during my stay in Indonesia this time. I can hardly wait... and I wonder if he may have transformed my life back in Holland as well.  Knowledge and inspiration are the two roots of all change. Chance meetings as well.

Thank you, Pak Ossy and Ibu Vonny for the knowledge and inspiration that you have shared so openly, graciously and enthusiastically with me!


On Monday 24 April Pdt W.M. Tarigan drove George Frans and his wife Vonny to visit us at the Simalungun Weaving Centre and explain how we can use solar equipment for our specific needs. Lasma made a delicious meal and afterwards George took over and we had our first Weaving Centre Workshop. He very generously donated two of his small systems to support what we do. He seemed very pleased that Ober, Lasma's husband, caught on so quickly and was able to operate the systems.

We collected on the 'weaving porch' for the solar
workshop. Pendeta Tarigan and Lasma's father are 
in the far left corner, ibu Vonny is exploring my book,
Lasma's sister, Agustina, is hugging her Mom while
watching Pak Ossy connect the systems. Pak Ossy 
is inspecting our pump
We now have a small system working in the bathroom. The light there goes on only occasionally, only at night (during the day enough light comes into the bathroom through the glass blocks in the wall), and is turned off again usually within a matter of minutes. A small solar panel is more than sufficient to supply this need. It is connected to an energy-efficient light with an internal rechargeable battery. The next day Ober affixed the solar panel to the roof, extended the connecting wire, attached the on-off switch and we now have light in the bathroom that behaves in exactly the same way as light from PLN (the state-run electrical network) sources. The whole system costs less than 50 euro.

The bedroom now also has an on-off switch that operates a lightbulb with its own inbuilt rechargeable battery. This is attached to a larger panel, approximately 20 x 20 cm., that Ober also installed on the roof. This larger panel supplies a power controller with USB openings that allows us to charge other equipment as well.

Ober (because he was born in October) is clever with his hands.
Here he prepares fresh coconut for us to drink.

George had ideas for our well pump that we want to explore as soon as possible so that we get our own water as soon as possible. Right now we get it from Lasma's parents and lugging it here is no fun.

Pak Ossy is exploring the idea of whether the Weaving Centre can be used as a demonstration model for solar electricity adapted to village needs. We will see whether this idea and opportunity are compelling for Ober.

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