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Two decades of clean, quiet power in rural Borneo

December 18, 2020

How do you get electricity to remote villages in the mountains of Borneo, miles from paved roads and even farther from power plants? The problem has stumped governments for years–leaving villagers to rely on loud, dirty, and expensive diesel generators for electricity.

Seacology’s first project in Malaysian Borneo successfully tackled this problem in the village of Long Lawen, by funding a micro-hydro energy system. Twenty years on, we’re delighted that it’s still supplying clean energy to village families.

The villagers recognized the energy-generating potential of their mountain rivers, but lacked capital and expertise. So in 2001, Seacology worked with Green Empowerment and The Borneo Project to bring micro-hydro to Long Lawen, a traditional community of about 50 households.

 

The intake site, where water to drive the system is collected.

Community members deliver the micro-hydro equipment in 2001.

Unlike large hydroelectric projects, micro-hydroelectric turbines have minimal environmental impact. Using a small water catchment, an inlet, a series of pipes, and a generator, the micro-hydro system has provided Long Lawen with electricity since its installation. It’s saved thousands of dollars a year in diesel expenses, eliminated the noisy rumble of the generators, and reduced air pollution. Working with a Malaysian nonprofit organization, local people got the training they needed to maintain the equipment. Thanks to regular maintenance, the system required no major repairs for the first decade of operation.

A community member fine-tunes the micro-hydro turbine in 2001.

The system continues to provide reliable electricity nearly two decades later.

The turbine has long been the sole community power source. It keeps the lights on at the local school and clinic and powers the clinic’s refrigerator. It also provides electricity for the longhouses—a type of traditional horizontal apartment building—where residents live. Even in the dry season, the system provides a reliable source of power with few interruptions.

In exchange for funding for the micro-hydro project, the villagers pledged to protect 15,236 acres of tropical forest. This forest is home to an amazing variety of plants and animals, and as the watershed for local rivers, is key to keeping the micro-hydro working. The community also worked with the local government to prevent logging upstream, which in addition to destroying habitat, would have polluted the river and undermined the micro-hydro system.

 

 

Dense forest surrounds Long Lawen and provides a habitat for many vulnerable species.

The micro-hydro system supplies power to several longhouses, horizontal apartment buildings, where the villagers live.

Protecting forest in Borneo is extremely valuable because of its incredible biodiversity. One acre of a Borneo forest may be home to more species of trees than is all of Europe! And huge amounts of forest there, home to orangutans, hornbills, pygmy elephants and other wildlife, have been cleared in recent decades to make way for oil palm plantations or logging.

When Seacology’s field representative in Malaysia, Chris Wright, visited Long Lawen to see how things were going many years after the original project began, he found the micro-hydro still working well and the forest “fiercely protected.” We made a small grant so the community could put up signs that demarcate the protected area and warn people away from prohibited activities. The community agreed to protect the forest for another 15 years.

Long Lawen may get connected to the public electrical grid before long. But villagers intend to hang on to the micro-hydro system–they know it will be an important backup for what is expected to be a blackout-laden connection.