Meidella Syahni

Published: December 6, 2023

From selling solar-powered lamps to installing hybrid power plants in villages, Mada Ayu Habsari aims to break the glass ceiling of the male-dominated energy sector. She faces a rocky road, but also is surrounded by allies.

When landing in a port in Sofifi, a small town in Halmahera island, North Maluku in a stormy weather in 2009, Mada Ayu Habsari was immediately swarmed by children who called her “Tante Amerika bawa listrik” (American auntie bringing electricity).

At that time, Mada, who likes to paint her hair in a different color, was working to install a generator set to power a base transceiver station (BTS) in Sofifi. The generator was crucial to power the telecommunication facility because the town had yet to get access to electricity, even after it was officiated as the provincial capital in 2010.

“[People living in Sofifi] should have the same access to electricity as us who live in the Java Island,” Mada said, referring to Indonesia’s most populous island. “It’s sad to know that they think only foreigners who can bring electricity to the island.”

The experience in Sofifi became a turning point for Mada to work on the field of energy efficiency and clean and renewable energy, with an aim to provide wide access to electricity to as many people as she can across Indonesia.

“I want to become the door for other people to get proper access to electricity,” she continued.

Mada’s first venture into the energy sector started in 2006, when a colleague offered her a job in PT Sakabaja, a company providing generator sets and low-power light-emitting diode (LED) lamps to Indonesian remote areas.

But her job at Sakabaja led her to a discovery that the electricity in such a remote area was not sustainable. The generator set used to power facilities in the remote villages needs diesel fuel, which needs to be transported from a bigger island. The supply, however, could be disrupted for months if ships could not sail through the rough weather.

Such disruption led Mada to innovate to produce small solar panels to power the LED lamps she sold. The solar panel generated electricity used to fully charge the lamp and allow it to turn on for eight hours.

“Some areas didn’t have electricity, but were covered by (cellular) services. So people can charge their lamps and their cellphones now,” Mada recounted her experience.

Her innovation led to a contract with the state-owned electricity company PLN, which bought 100 units of the solar-powered lamp for the disaster-struck Wasior in West Papua in 2010.

Despite her success in Sakabaja, Mada left the company in 2012 to establish Enertec Mitra Solusi, aiming to provide energy efficiency and renewable energy for big businesses.

From selling energy-efficient LED lamps to state-owned buildings and commercial buildings, Enertec shifted its business to repair central air conditioning systems. The maintenance would allow the system to consume less energy to produce a more efficient result in cooling the buildings.

“Most of the buildings have outdated chilling systems which they used for decades,” Mada said. “Most important thing for them is to have them running rather than making them efficient.”

A 2020 study revealed that commercial and industrial buildings in Indonesia have the potential for a 10 to 30 percent increase in energy efficiency. However, achieving this goal is challenging due to the absence of a legal framework that incentivizes the business sector to pursue such advancements.

Mada’s initiative to encourage businesses to enhance their energy efficiency aligns with the government’s objective of reducing industrial energy consumption from 34 percent in 2020 to 17 percent by 2025, contributing to the overall national energy conservation target.

Fighting through ‘valley of death’

After achieving success in promoting energy efficiency among businesses, Mada later founded PT Watala Capital. This company specializes in installing small hydropower and solar plants, along with a battery system, aimed at providing energy solutions for remote villages. The company offers plants and battery systems with various capacities, ranging up to 50 megawatts, sufficient to power approximately 40 homes.

However, this business model faced challenges due to the elevated cost of equipment, leading to higher electricity prices generated by the hybrid system compared to electricity from coal-fired power plants. Mada, nonetheless, recognized that the price comparison wasn’t truly equitable. The cost of electricity from coal plants doesn’t account for environmental expenses, and it benefits from substantial government subsidies, making it an uneven comparison.

“The real cost for electric generation is never published, causing the electricity from the renewable plants to seem more expensive,” she said.

In addition to her two companies, Mada is actively involved in Carbon Share, a digital individual carbon offset service collaborating with various environmental conservation organizations nationwide. She also spearheads Seetrum, a youth community dedicated to providing education on energy efficiency.

From a business standpoint, the primary hurdle for companies in the energy sector is securing funding, a particularly challenging task for clean or energy efficiency firms in Indonesia. Many financial institutions still perceive such businesses as non-bankable due to perceived high risks and limited profitability.

According to a study by New Energy Nexus Indonesia, clean energy tech startups typically encounter financial difficulties and struggle to survive beyond the first 12 months of establishment. The growth rate for such startups in the past five years has been a discouraging minus 7.5 percent.

A staggering 90 percent of clean tech firms rely on the personal savings of their founders to stay afloat. Out of 50 respondents in the study, only one managed to secure funding, leaving the majority still in the process of raising funds.

“Many startups cannot survive the valley of death,” said Pamela Simamora, a researcher from New Energy Nexus Indonesia, during the recent report launch.

She further emphasized that only 78 percent of these startups managed to generate some revenue from their business, with a mere 28 percent reporting actual profits.

Pamela expressed disappointment over this situation, highlighting the missed opportunity for these companies to create green job opportunities in Indonesia. She explained that even if these companies could endure and capture just 1 percent of the potential valuation in the global clean energy technology market, the domestic renewable energy sector could be valued at billions of US dollars.

Despite the rising trend in investment for early-stage startups, the funds predominantly target fields perceived as mature, often excluding clean energy technology. Pamela noted, “This is not ideal for the Indonesian clean tech startup ecosystem, [the majority] of which are still in the early phase.”

Women helping women

In contrast to the traditionally male-dominated energy sector, the clean energy industry, as revealed by the New Energy Nexus study, boasts a diverse landscape with 70 percent of startups led by individuals under 40, and 45 percent being female-led.

Hening Parlan, the deputy chair of the environmental council of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization, has actively advocated for increased implementation of clean and renewable energy within the religious organization. Her efforts include campaigns for coal usage reduction through religious sermons and the installation of solar panels in Muhammadiyah-owned buildings.

Hening has recently connected with Mada resulting in discussions to explore plans for Muhammadiyah to install solar panels in around 4,000 schools nationwide, potentially creating a small clean energy enterprise.

Mada also explained the benefits of solar energy to Muhammadiyah’s environmental council and the potential for creating jobs through clean energy initiatives.

“So they can imagine that green jobs will be the future,” Mada said.

As for Hening, she shared that while she has met a lot of women advocating for a clean energy future in Indonesia, it’s rare to find a female ally working on the business side like Mada.

“The business of energy transition is more than just talking about the wires, but also attitude, especially how to convince other people that this is an important issue to tackle on,” Hening said. “I hope we have a second, or even third, Mada for the future.”

For Mada, more women should be involved in mitigating the climate crisis, particularly in the pivotal domain of energy transition. Whether it be at home by championing energy-efficient practices ato pursuing roles as researchers or business professionals, mirroring her own journey.

Read the Indonesian version here.