Renewable Energy in Timor Leste (East Timor)

East Timor is located in the eastern part of Timor, an island in the Indonesian archipelago that lies between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. East Timor includes the enclave of Oecussi, which is located within West Timor (Indonesia). After Indonesia, East Timor’s closest neighbor is Australia, 400 mi to the south. It is semiarid and mountainous.

Timor was first colonized by the Portuguese in 1520. The Dutch, who claimed many of the surrounding islands, took control of the western portion of the island in 1613. Portugal and the Netherlands fought over the island until an 1860 treaty divided Timor, granting Portugal the eastern half of the island as well as the western enclave of Oecussi (the first Portuguese settlement on the island). Australia and Japan fought each other on the island during World War II; nearly 50,000 East Timorese died during the subsequent Japanese occupation.

In 1949, the Netherlands gave up its colonies in the Dutch East Indies, including West Timor, and the nation of Indonesia was born. East Timor remained under Portuguese control until 1975, when the Portuguese abruptly pulled out after 455 years of colonization. The sudden Portuguese withdrawal left the island vulnerable. On July 16, 1976, nine days after the Democratic Republic of East Timor was declared an independent nation, Indonesia invaded and annexed it. Although no country except Australia officially recognized the annexation, Indonesia’s invasion was sanctioned by the United States and other western countries, who had cultivated Indonesia as a trading partner and cold-war ally (Fretilin, the East Timorese political party spearheading independence, was Marxist at the time).

Indonesia’s invasion and its brutal occupation of East Timor—small, remote, and desperately poor—largely escaped international attention. East Timor’s resistance movement was violently suppressed by Indonesian military forces, and more than 200,000 Timorese were reported to have died from famine, disease, and fighting since the annexation. Indonesia’s human rights abuses finally began receiving international notice in the 1990s, and in 1996 two East Timorese activists, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta, received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to gain freedom peacefully.

After Indonesia’s hard-line president Suharto left office in 1998, his successor, B. J. Habibie, unexpectedly announced his willingness to hold a referendum on East Timorese independence, reversing 25 years of Indonesian intransigence. As the referendum on self-rule drew closer, fighting between separatist guerrillas and pro-Indonesian paramilitary forces in East Timor intensified. The UN-sponsored referendum had to be rescheduled twice because of violence. On Aug. 30, 1999, 78.5% of the population voted to secede from Indonesia. But in the days following the referendum, pro-Indonesian militias and Indonesian soldiers retaliated by razing towns, slaughtering civilians, and forcing a third of the population out of the province. After enormous international pressure, Indonesia finally agreed to allow UN forces into East Timor on Sept. 12. Led by Australia, an international peacekeeping force began restoring order to the ravaged region.

The UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) then governed the territory for nearly three years. On May 20, 2002, nationhood was declared. Charismatic rebel leader José Alexandre Gusmão, who was imprisoned in Indonesia from 1992 to 1999, was overwhelmingly elected the nation’s first president on April 14, 2002. The president has a largely symbolic role; real power rests with Parliament and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, also a former guerrilla leader.

The first new country of the millennium, East Timor is also one of the world’s poorest. Its meager infrastructure was destroyed by the Indonesian militias in 1999, and the economy, primarily made up of subsistence farming and fishing, is in shambles. East Timor’s offshore gas and oil reserves promised the only real hope for lifting the country out of poverty, but a dispute with Australia over the rights to the oil reserves in the East Timor Sea thwarted those efforts. The oil and gas fields lie much closer to East Timor than to Australia, but a 1989 deal between Indonesia and Australia set the maritime boundary along Australia’s continental shelf, which gives it control of 85% of the sea and most of the oil. Under these terms, Australia was to receive 82% of the oil revenues and East Timor just 18%. Finally, after years of wrangling, the two countries agreed in May 2005 to defer the redrawing of the border for 50 years and to split the oil and gas revenues down the middle.

East Timor’s capital, Dili, descended into chaos in April and May 2006, when the prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, fired almost half the country’s soldiers for striking. The fired soldiers, who had protested against low wages and alleged discrimination, then began rioting, and soldiers loyal to the prime minister started battling them. Soon the violence had spread to the police force and the civilian population, causing about 130,000 to flee their homes to avoid the bloodshed. Australian troops were called in to control the unrest. On June 26, Prime Minister Alkatiri resigned in an effort to stop the country’s disintegration. Alkatiri has been criticized for doing little to stem East Timor’s grinding poverty and social problems, but the former independence fighter has remained immensely popular. In July, Alkatiri was replaced by José Ramos-Horta, winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.

In April 2007 presidential elections—the first since the country gained independence—none of the candidates won a majority, necessitating a runoff election. Francisco Guterres took 28.8% of the vote, Prime Minister Ramos-Horta garnered 22.6%, and Fernando de Araujo won 19%. Ramos-Horta prevailed in the second round of voting, taking 69% to Guterres’s 31%. Estanislau da Silva took over as interim prime minister, replacing Ramos-Horta, who held the post since 2006. In August, President Ramos-Horta named independence activist Xanana Gusmão as prime minister. The move sparked violent protests led by supporters of the Fretilin party, the former governing party. Fretilin won the most seats in elections, but Gusmão formed a majority coalition, called the Alliance of the Parliamentary Majority (AMP).

President Ramos-Horta survived an assassination attempt in February 2008. He was shot in the back and stomach in a gun battle outside his home between his guards and supporters of renegade general Alfredo Reinado, who was killed in the altercation. Reinado and several other generals were fired in 2006 after lodging complaints of discrimination. Their case became a rallying cry against the government and sparked a wave of protests. Shortly after the shooting, Prime Minister Gusmão’s motorcade was attacked by the same rebel group, suggesting a coup attempt. He was not injured in the ambush.

While Solar Progress readers sit down to a cup of tea and leaf through another glossy magazine, the wealthier children in villages throughout Timor-Leste are holding their exercise books a little closer to the candle flame. Some are using kerosene lanterns. These lights are helping them, so they can do their homework, and learn to read and write, an important skill which will help them to play their part in the development of the new nation of Timor-Leste. It will be a long time before these children have enough light to do their homework without eyestrain, and even longer before their less fortunate neighbours can even afford to go to school. Renewable energy has indeed a very important part to play in the development of Timor-Leste.

The renewable energy industry in Timor-Leste is in its infancy. Some simple solar lighting systems have been installed in a few villages throughout the country, for example in the hills in Liquica and Bazartete subdistricts. PV modules have been installed, providing power for three lights only per house. There are systems in Asumanu, Darolete, Lukulai, Leorema, Leotela, and Luidahar. Installation of these systems was funded by CEP, in Indonesian times. Systems in Gariana were funded by the World Bank. A Christian group, Comunidade Edmund Rice, has also done some very good work to help villagers in Railaco, Ermera district, with simple solar lighting systems. These systems were sourced from the Rainbow Power Company in Australia.

Recently, a very enthusiastic and tremendously capable group of volunteers from the Alternative Technology Association’s International Projects Working Group carried out installations of photovoltaic systems in the villages of Remexio and Liquidoe, in Aileu district. The systems were installed in community buildings such as a police station, an administration building and a clinic. These energetic volunteers, including Mick Harris, Alan Hutchinson and Virginia Graham, Chris and Wendy Moss, installed five PV systems in only four days, a truly heroic effort! Backup support for the project was provided by Mario Soares, a Timorese Community Development Officer who works tirelessly for the development of Aileu district.

According to Chris Moss, one of the ATA members who installed the Aileu systems, "There are also some Rotary sponsored systems, supplied by SES in WA. They use a small panel, and a 15AH battery which has a simple regulator attached. A small 1W compact fluoro light, with reflector, can be used for a few hours a night. The system is simple to assemble and can be installed by the owner."

Many people in Timor-Leste are without electric power. According to a study on Climate Change in East Timor, "Approximately 60% of the population of Timor Leste has no access to electricity (East Timor Planning Commission 2002). The Indonesian withdrawal in 1999 caused much damage to energy services and an overall decline in electricity supply." The situation in Baucau, Remexio and Los Palos is particularly difficult for the Timorese. These towns had an electric power supply during Indonesian times, but now, since independence, there is no longer any fuel to run the municipal power supply. In Remexio, a fuel grant from the Japanese government ran out in April 2003. There has been no electric power in Baucau since December last year and no power in Los Palos for two years now. The ubiquitous presence of overhead wiring in Baucau streets seems like a cruel joke. It must be difficult for people selling vegetables in the market to look up and see the wiring which no longer carries any electric current. And how hard it must be for wealthier people who invested a lot of money in electric appliances during Indonesian times, which are now lying unused. An Asian Development Bank study highlights the need for improved power supply distribution systems in nine districts: Aileu, Baucau, Los Palos, Maliana, Oecussi, Same, Suai, Viqueque and Kovalima.

For communities which have electric power, the power supply is chronically unreliable. The power supply may be unavailable for weeks at any one time. Unfortunately the price for electricity in Timor-Leste is very high, and billing processes may not be ideal. For example, one consumer from Maubara, Augusto de Jesus claims that he pays 60 US cents per Kilowatt-Hour (approximately 4 times higher in price than in Brisbane, Australia, for example). Pat Walsh, the Director of CAVR in Dili, only pays 16 US cents per kilowatt hour, however he recently received a bill for $1200 USD for an organisation which has few appliances, only a few computers, a photocopier, the odd ceiling fan and two dysfunctional small package airconditioners. The last bill was for $15,000 USD however CAVR contested this outrageous sum and simply refused to pay.

Loke Dalan, a local NGO, is charged according to a peak load of 6A, regardless of how many kilowatt hours have been used. With the average income in many villages being $5USD a month or less, the cost of electric power is out of reach of some consumers willingness-to-pay, even where there is an available power supply.

In spite of high charges, the government department which is responsible for power supply often finds that it is unable to raise the necessary funds to pay for fuel to keep its generators running continuously. Of course, many villages and towns throughout Timor-Leste have no power supply ever, and do not have the capacity to design, operate and maintain a stand-alone power supply system, whether this system uses diesel fuel or a renewable source of energy. ANZSES and organisations like it cannot help all of these villages, however opportunities exist to install demonstration systems, which can be used for training and capacity building for the communities in which they are located.

Until recently, there has been no reliable method of raising revenue for funding the purchase of hardware, maintenance of electric power supply systems or even fuel and other running costs for generators. Prepaid power cards have been introduced in Dili and a government office is open 24 hours a day to receive payment to add credit to one’s account.

An obvious barrier to the uptake of renewable energy technologies in Timor-Leste is the high capital cost. Why would anyone want to use solar energy for their backup power supply instead of a diesel generator? While there is no doubt that solar electric power supply systems have an extremely high capital cost, so too do many other essential items of infrastructure such as school buildings, computers, photocopiers and bitumen roads. However, solar electric power supply systems have a much longer life than many of these items, if properly maintained. A solar electric power supply system, kept in good condition, should continue to provide electrical energy for twenty years, with extremely low running costs (although the battery will need replacing every 5 to 10 years). While diesel generators are relatively inexpensive, their running costs are very high. Over a twenty-year period, a diesel generator is much more expensive than a solar electric power supply system, in a country such as Timor-Leste, where fuel is difficult to obtain in remote villages and transport costs are very high. So a strategy worth considering for Timor-Leste is for the energy sector to work together with microcredit providers such as Oportunidade Timor Lorosa’e and the Stromme Foundation.

It is important to consider also whether a PV system with batteries is the best tool for providing energy services. For example, the police in many districts do not have an electric power supply for recharging their CB radios. A PV system is one possible solution, an excellent solution at that, but may not be the best tool in all circumstances. For example, if there is a vehicle available at the police station, it may be possible for the police to use the vehicle’s 12 volt battery to recharge the CB radios. Another possible solution is to use a manually operated CB/mobile phone charger, similar to that sold by Aladdin Power (ref:

There are many NGOs which have a high level of expertise in the area of appropriate technology, but this is primarily in the water and sanitation sector. Lack of a reliable electric power supply for livelihood activities is an emerging problem and a development priority for the people of Timor-Leste. Given this fact, it is suggested that it would not be unreasonable for ANZSES or ISES to share some of its substantial experience with environmentally-sustainable remote area power supplies. A reliable, environmentally-sustainable power supply in a number of strategic locations could also help the Timorese Government with the process of disaster preparedness. Development of Timor-Leste’s electric power supply system to enable it to respond to disasters more effectively is a long, slow process which will not happen overnight. In the light of widespread malnutrition and low incomes, the energy sector is not high on the list of the development priorities of NGOs and the Timorese government, apart from the obvious priority afforded to exploiting the oil and gas from the Timor Gap.

An opportunity exists for renewable energy capacity-building in Timor-Leste, supporting the private sector as well as the government. So far, only two renewable energy businesses have been identified, both in Dili. There was a third business, a hardware shop which sold solar lighting systems as an adjunct to its core business, however it appears to have recently closed down.

The staff at the two shops are doing a wonderful job of promoting renewable energy in Timor-Leste. Work which has been done is a credit to them. It is, however, a long and difficult process. Neither of the shops in Dili had any information available in local languages until recently. One shop had information in English, a brochure about system sizing, for potential customers to work out roughly what size system they would need and how much it might cost. The information contained in the brochure was excellent, if only it was available in local languages, as very few Timorese speak English. To make the brochure even more useful, it has been translated by Australian Volunteer Trish Morrow and is available at both of the solar energy retailers. A library in Lecidere, Xanana Gusmaõ Reading Room, also has copies of the system sizing document in Tetum language. The English version of the brochure included a solar radiation map for Australia, which has been replaced by a map of Timor and neighbouring islands. A simple maintenance manual for renewable energy systems is currently being drafted by Australian volunteer Trish Morrow with assistance generously provided by Krish Seewraj. Krish works at the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs on the Bushlight program, providing RAPSS systems to Indigenous communities.

There is little competition in the market for any entrepreneur who would like to set up shop in Timor-Leste. Baucau, the second largest city in Timor-Leste, is an ideal location to set up such a business. Products which would sell well here include portable solar lanterns, portable lights which can be recharged by a generator or PV system, windup (manually-operated) mobile phone chargers, small 12V DC ceiling fans, and possibly even 12V DC or three-way fridges if these could be made small enough and cheap enough. Kerosene refrigerators may also sell well here, although people who can afford refrigerators often tend to either live in places which have electric power or may have their own diesel generator. Almost no-one has electric washing machines here, or vacuum cleaners or airconditioners or electric toothbrushes. Most people cook with wood, using a simple three-stone cooking fire, with a few rich people using gas or kerosene, or maybe an electric rice cooker. Some businesses and NGOs have photocopiers and computers, but fax machines are rare, due to the lack of landline telephone services.

Two Timorese technicians have skills in system installation. One of these, Jacinto Soares, has installed over 20 systems and has a wealth of experience in solar water pumping.
There is little interest in wind energy in Timor-Leste at present, however the Timorese government has expressed some interest in hydroelectric schemes and a local NGO, Haburas, is investigating the possible environmental impact of such schemes. Chris Moss notes that "A Norwegian hydroelectric company is investigating using a lake in the Los Palos area, which has a strong year-round flow, for electricity generation

At present the river outflow disappears underground, but the plan would be to drill through the mountains and harness the power before discharging to the sea. The environmental effects of doing this are being evaluated". "The area has higher than average rainfall, being situated near the eastern tip of the island, but due to drought conditions for two years, the lake has largely dried up, although the river is still flowing. The scheme has the potential to satisfy a large amount of Timor-Leste’s present power requirements. Another area, Same, is also suitable for large-scale hydro-electric generation".

To increase Timor’s generating capacity, other options are being considered. According to Geoff Drew, "There is a long-term possibility of a large gas-fired power station somewhere near Suai where there is sufficient surface water for the steam turbines." There are many areas such as Liquidioe and Metagou where villages are located on the top of a ridge with potentially good wind resources, and may be suitable sites for projects if the capacity to implement such projects can be developed. In the energy sector, there is much work to be done.
Energy Conservation

Energy conservation in Timor-Leste primarily relates to more efficient use of fuelwood for cooking. Electrical energy conservation is not a major concern in Timor-Leste at present. Many people do not have electrical energy at all, and those that do cannot afford to pay high power bills, thus ensuring to a certain extent that household energy conservation looks after itself. However, non-government organisations and businesses are another matter. Development agencies tend to be staffed by Timorese with some education but this is not necessarily of a technical nature. Energy may be wasted, in spite of the good intentions of NGO staff, simply through lack of knowledge. However, with so much need throughout the country, with widespread poverty, it is hard to see the immediate relevance of energy conservation education. With daily incomes of less than $0.50 for more than half the population, child malnutrition, wasting and stunting affecting 43% of the children of Timor-Leste, then of course it is hard for NGO staff to feel any sense of urgency about energy conservation. Combating hunger and disease is simply much more important.

Having said that, if NGOs are to set up their offices in villages where the need is greatest, these are the villages which don’t have any municipal power supply at present. In this case, a little attention to energy conservation could help these organisations to spread their limited funding a bit more thinly. For example, if the organisation uses a laptop or notebook computer instead of a desktop, then they may not need to spend nearly so much money on the capital cost and fuel for a diesel generator. And if these NGOs install a renewable energy system, then it will most likely be very much smaller if it is used to power a laptop, than it would be if it was used to run a desktop computer . (Note however that not all laptops are energy-saving, mainly just those which are centrino-based and have a slower processor clock speed).

In terms of household energy consumption, the greatest potential for saving lies in replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights. There is also a firmly entrenched local custom of leaving on at least one light for the whole night. This dates back to Indonesian times, and is motivated by a fear of intruders such as (formerly) militias or (more recently) thieves.
The importance of culture

The importance of culture in determining people’s behaviour cannot be overstated. This has an enormous impact on the success of any renewable energy project. To discuss a real-life example, one of the communities in Motaulun, Bazartete subdistrict (Mauluto) has expressed interest in renewable energy technology for the operation of machinery such as corn grinding machines, coconut processing, or sewing machines. (Of course, they do not really need solar energy to operate sewing machines which can be manually operated. Manually operated aids for coconut processing also exist but are not known to the villagers.) Most of the women in this village do not speak much Tetum or Indonesian (only Tokodede, a local language for Liquica district), and cannot read or write.

Without assistance from an NGO or an organisation such as ANZSES, it is unlikely that these women would have the capacity to install a renewable energy system and keep it running. (However it must be noted that they can’t afford one anyway, without some form of microcredit scheme to cover the capital cost). Would this village then be the ideal place for ANZSES or ISES members or other NGOs to carry out some useful work? Possibly, but this would be a long-term process, after the community has had some experience in working together to resolve their problems and being accountable.

Investigation into the community’s history reveals that they have been given five sewing machines already, which have been misappropriated by one person and are being underutilized while most of that project’s intended beneficiaries go without. A previous microcredit project was called to a halt when it was found that a number of villagers had used false names and false signatures to extract funds under false pretences, and loan defaults were occurring. A recurrence of these types of events would possibly have a negative impact on the success of any attempts at a renewable energy project.

Because of the influence of the UN and countless other NGOs during the time of emergency in Timor-Leste, a "cargo cult" culture has emerged in some villages. It is also important to be aware of existing Timorese social structures which sometimes exist to transfer resources from the poor to the rich. Timorese customs and values need to be considered in the implementation of any project. For example, it is important to ensure accountability and transparency by framing up the contract documents for any project to explicitly state that funds given to a community for a renewable energy system must not be spent on anything other than a renewable energy system. It is also possible that an NGO’s solar energy system could be "overused" and the batteries flattened by staff members "borrowing" it for a variety of livelihood activities which are not strictly work-related. This risk could be avoided by careful attention to project design and framing up any legal documents relating to the project.

Making systems vandal proof and difficult to remove is helpful to ensure the sustainability of renewable energy projects. It is also important to ensure that documents specify that necessary maintenance work is actually undertaken. This will help to avoid the risk that the system is allowed to run down because the staff have not felt a sense of urgency about attending to maintenance tasks. Of course, this only applies to people who are literate. Project documents need to be framed up in a language which people can read and understand.

What can be done to enable people who are illiterate to understand their rights and responsibilities towards a renewable energy project? Lessons can be learned from the water sector. In the water sector, substantial experience already exists in the formation of water user groups. These groups exist to oversee maintenance of water supply infrastructure, resolution of disputes over water access rights and to ensure project sustainability long after the donors have gone. Sometimes these organised groups provide an entry point for NGOs to work with the community in other sectors such as health and livelihoods, or maybe also energy.

An example may be relevant here. One water user group at Vatunou was functioning extremely well with regards to maintenance, and they requested help from a local NGO, Loke Dalan, to work out how to share water more fairly among themselves and raise the necessary funds for maintenance consumables such as joints and valves and teflon tape. The villagers had some ideas but had trouble articulating them. They could not document their ideas because of low levels of education and literacy, and a certain lack of confidence. Staff of NGO Loke Dalan facilitated a meeting of the water user group, listened to the ideas presented, summarised and presented them in pictorial form. A diagram was drawn showing each house with five buckets of water next to it. If any one household uses more than five buckets during the dry season, there will not be enough water left for their neighbours. The diagram showed a well dressed family (obviously in paid employment) contributing 50 cents once a month (calendar date circled), whereas a widow dressed in kabaya and sarong only paid 25 cents. If water was far away (woman shown carrying a bucket in each hand), then she only contributes 10 cents a month. The introduction of this pictorial contract was greeted with enormous approval from the community group members, and it was placed on the wall of the village chief’s office for all to see. A similar pictorial approach to contracts could be used for renewable energy systems.
Macro-economic development

Considering the Timorese economy as a whole, the biggest prospect for macroeconomic development is provided by the Timor Gap oil and gas. If this potential is to be realized for the benefit of Timor, then in future years, Timor will need skilled technical staff to work in the sectors of mining and energy. Small NGOs cannot hope to provide training in mining-related activities, but can help with technical training relating to energy, at least on a small-scale, albeit it somewhat indirectly. Any work done by NGOs to promote renewable energy can thus ultimately help Timor-Leste to exploit its oil and gas resources.

Work in the area of renewable energy thus helps to increase Timor’s capacity to (i) contribute to development on a macroeconomic scale through upskilling in the energy sector and (ii) contribute to village development by expanding people’s ability to carry out livelihood and educational activities after nightfall.

Will any work carried out in Timor-Leste by ANZSES members and non-government organisations actually be sustainable? The project sustainability will depend on the success of capacity-building activities such as training local staff about solar energy. Installation is helpful, and to be most effective should be followed up by training in maintenance. Maintenance support, such as provision of spare parts and access to skilled labour from trained electricians, is also essential. Any educational materials, produced to support training endeavours, should include pictures as much as possible. This will enable them to be used by people with low levels of literacy. Projects should preferably involve local solar energy suppliers as much as possible (even though this slightly increases the capital cost). This is important so that if major repairs are needed in future years, Timorese will be able to access spare parts and skilled labour locally. Of course, as in Australia, it is good to request a warranty for any components purchased from local suppliers.

The limited literacy levels of people in Timor-Leste, especially women, may impact on the sustainability of any renewable energy project. As much as possible, every effort should be made to include pictorial information in any documentation produced as part of renewable energy projects, and to use visual methods in communicating information as part of any training course.

The project sustainability will depend partly on continuity of staff. For ANZSES members who are only able to visit Timor-Leste for a short time, it is good to be able to liase with a local person who lives in the town or village where a renewable energy system has been installed. After returning to Australia, it is very helpful if the ANZSES members can maintain contact with such a person. This will help to ensure that essential monitoring and maintenance actually occurs. Installation of a RAPSS system is the easy part, and otherwise worthwhile projects in many other countries have failed because there was no user support or maintenance after the initial installation was complete.

Renewable energy projects in Timor-Leste will need financial support in the years to come, principally by way of microcredit as the capital cost of renewable energy systems is very high. (We have this same problem in Australia and other developed countries too, of course, as we are used to paying for power by the kilowatt hour. We do not usually have to pay for the upfront cost of our coal-fired power stations as the government does this for us). Ongoing technical support will also be needed. A local NGO, such as for example the organic agriculture network HASATIL, if they wanted to, could continue to monitor the results of foreign NGO’s work, at least in a peripheral way, for as long as that NGO survives as an organization and has a presence in Timor-Leste.

Learning from renewable energy projects can be fed back to relevant stakeholders such as any other NGOs working on similar projects, and small businesses operating in the renewable energy sector in Timor-Leste. This will help to improve other renewable energy projects in Timor-Leste and promote sustainability throughout the energy sector.
Solar Radiation and Rainfall