Oktoviano Gandhi: Investing in Indonesia’s Solar Energy

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Alva Energi team with the local teachers after fixing the solar PV system at the school

To celebrate Indonesia Mengglobal’s anniversary month, our theme for this year is “Indonesia Matters: Global Impacts from Within”. This month, we are covering Indonesians who have studied and/or worked abroad, then utilized the knowledge and experience they’ve gained to develop Indonesia from within. To start the month off, I decided to reach out to my friend Oktoviano “Okto” Gandhi, a native of Palembang, to hear how he plans to evolve the solar energy industry in Indonesia.

I first met Okto in 2015 when we both attended the annual symposium held by PPI Dunia (“Overseas Indonesian Students Association Alliance”) in Singapore. He had just graduated with a Masters in Physics from the University of Oxford and was about to start as a PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore (NUS). At the moment, he is finishing up his PhD in Solar Energy while juggling Alva Energi, a startup he co-founded focused on empowering communities in Indonesia through renewable energy and technology. I recently caught up with Okto to hear more about his journey into solar energy and his plans for his startup.

Oktoviano Gandhi in Oxford attire
Okto in his sub-fusc (Oxford academic attire) and gown on his graduation day

Last time we spoke, you mentioned your interest in renewable energy came about during your internship in Brazil. Can you tell us more about that?

At Oxford, aside from the regular summer internships they also had these international internships. After my third year, I spent two months doing research at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. At first, I decided to apply because I love traveling just like anybody else, so I thought it was a good opportunity to learn and do some research while at the same time experience living in a different country. It ended up being quite a life-changing experience as it was my first foray into the world of renewable energy.

In Brazil, I worked with the Institute of Energy and Environment within the University of Sao Paulo to analyze Brazil’s energy intensity trend, which is the measure of how much energy is used to produce GDP. Generally, manufacturing countries have high energy intensity because they require a lot of energy to produce the goods they manufacture. On the other hand, countries that have a larger service sector should have lower energy intensity because they don’t need as much energy in the tertiary industry. That summer I looked at the energy trends in Sao Paulo from 1995 until 2014. My work was to analyze what happened, why and how they contributed to the trend, and predict what the state can do in order to have a higher GDP, yet at the same time consume less energy.

Carnival practice in Sao Paulo
Carnival practice at Rosas de Ouro (Golden Roses), one of the many samba schools in Sao Paulo

What was living in Brazil like?

In terms of the level of development, Brazil is pretty similar to Indonesia. The culture is pretty different, though! The first time I was in the UK, I was surprised by how everyone hugs each other so casually. When I first met the students at the university, a lot of the women just kissed me on the cheek—it’s customary there but I was just shocked because I wasn’t used to it.

Favela
Favela (slums or shanty towns) in Rio de Janeiro

In Brazil, it also seems that as long as you speak Portuguese, you really are treated as a Brazilian. It’s a very multicultural country. There are people with light skin, brown skin, dark skin, people of Japanese descent, Korean descent, Chinese descent, and also African descent. I also see a lot of mixed-race couples, a lot more than I usually see in Indonesia, Singapore, and even the UK.

What was your most memorable experience during your time in Brazil?

Brazilians are really friendly! They’re also well-known for their samba and salsa. I was frequently invited to samba bars and samba schools. If you know me, I’m really not the type to dance or participate in these kinds of things, but I found it really fun. When I got back to the UK, I even tried to look for samba bars in Oxford!

Salsa and samba
Professors and students casually dancing salsa during barbeque session at the University of Sao Paulo

Another thing that’s not that great but also memorable is the crime. It can be very dangerous there. And it’s not just dangerous for foreigners; two of my Brazilian friends there were involved in incidents. One of my male friends was about to go home from university one day, and as he was about to get his bike, someone stabbed his hand and stole his bike. The wound took six months to recover. One of my female friends also got mugged when she was walking home from university. This wasn’t even late at night, it was probably around 5pm! After hearing all these stories from my friends, I couldn’t help but feel scared when I was walking alone. I’m sure no one really means to do actual harm, but if something were to happen, it’s scary because I don’t speak the language and am not able to protect myself.

So it sounds like your experience in Brazil was life-transforming, in a way? What led you to pursue a PhD in Solar Energy?

I first got interested in solar energy because of this internship. I realized that energy is a very important subject—it’s at the core of everything and it also enables economic development. Especially in Indonesia, there are still many who don’t have access to energy in the form of electricity. Because of this, it’s harder for them to progress, because they can’t do anything at night, for example.

Brazil is pretty similar to Indonesia in terms of the population, the level of development, their locations on the equator, and both governments also aren’t the cleanest on Earth. In Brazil, however, the energy policies are a bit more advanced and make more sense in my opinion. From there, I figured this is probably where I can contribute. Coming from a physics background, the closest to my background is either nuclear or solar energy. Nuclear energy is difficult to explore in Indonesia, because imagine if there’s a nuclear power plant in the middle of Java Island. If anything were to happen, that would close up the west part of the island to the east part of the island because you’d need to evacuate the people and quarantine the area. Solar energy is more fitting because there are a lot of rural communities where this could be of use, and you can harness solar energy in both small and large scale, from powering a single village to a large city.

At first, I wanted to work for a solar company in the UK, but at that time, most companies looking to invest in renewable energy were only willing to hire people with at least 10 years of experience, which I obviously didn’t have. On the other hand, the smaller companies wouldn’t sponsor my visa. In the end, I thought, why not try to position myself as the future solar energy expert in Indonesia. While learning more about the industry, I could gain a PhD in it, which led me to my PhD in Solar Energy at NUS.

How did your startup, Alva Energi, come about?

Okto and Ali at Geranting Island
Okto (first from right), and Ali (second from right), explaining how to maintain a solar PV system to Pak Sadri (first from left) and Pak Wahyu (second from left), teachers of the local school in Geranting Island

There were a few things that led to the start of Alva Energi. First of all, it’s quite boring to sit in front of a computer all day, so I wanted to do something more hands-on. At the PPI Dunia symposium in Singapore, I met Ali Aryo Bawono, who is also interested in solar energy like me. We decided to learn more about solar energy together, and eventually team up to try to use solar energy to solve some of the problems in Indonesia.

At that time, we encountered this community project in Geranting Island, Batam. We participated in the project and visited Geranting to try to understand what the people need and tried to come up with the solution using solar energy. To our surprise, we found that there are actually a lot of solar systems already installed. Each house there already had a solar home system (small solar panel, with batteries and lightbulbs) installed. These solar home systems were a result of an initiative by the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries as part of their “bantuan ke pulau 3T (terpencil, terluar, tertinggal)” initiatives. Unfortunately, most, if not all, of the systems no longer worked. After the systems were installed, there was no knowledge transfer that took place to enable the local community to maintain the systems. When something broke, they couldn’t do anything about it, either because they didn’t know what to do, or in the off chance that they did know, they didn’t have money to buy the missing components. So we thought we could try from there—try to repair a solar PV system in a local school on that island so that at the same time we can learn more about solar energy, people’s needs, and how we can be helpful.

Okto in Sumba
Okto explaining how the different components in solar PV system work to the system caretaker, village head, and local religious leader in Homba Karipit Village, Sumba

After this project at Geranting, we looked into what kind of solar components we needed to purchase, sought funding, and created a monitoring system so that if anything were to happen in Geranting, we could find out even all the way from Singapore. We soon realized that if it’s just the two of us, it wouldn’t be enough. We recruited other people, and that’s how we started doing projects together. The initial visit to Geranting took place in May 2016, and in February 2017 we returned to fix more of the solar PV system as soon as we had more funding. In June of that year, we came back again to replace the batteries. Until now, we still keep in contact with the people there.

What is the plan for Alva Energi in the future? How do you plan to expand it?

Right now, there are 6 of us involved in Alva Energi. Unfortunately, everyone is working on it part-time, which is why we’ve been moving at a slower pace than we’d like. We’ve only done a few projects so far aside from Geranting. We went to Sumba Island to electrify a village, Cambodia (which was more in solar water pumping and powering the school), Semarang (residential solar PV installation) and another project in Jakarta which was more experimental (we worked on a smart station). When I finish my PhD in August, I will be the first to commit to Alva Energi full-time.

The solar energy industry in Indonesia is still pretty much non-existent. We’re still trying to figure out if there’s a niche where we can operate in, make money, and still make a positive impact. So for now, we will keep doing more projects and at the same time continue to learn. I’ve really enjoyed every single project we’ve done because the learnings are tremendous. There’s always something that we don’t know about yet so the opportunities for learning are huge.

Okto at reception in Sumba
Welcome reception with traditional Sumba dance and Sumba cloth gift
Alva Energi
Villagers, local NGO, Misi Kami Peduli team (the organizer of the project at Homba Karipit Village), and Alva Energi team after the inauguration of the solar PV system

What advice would you give for students who are also looking to positively impact Indonesia?

Whatever you need to do, just do it now. I know it’s cliche, but it’s cliche for a reason. If not now, then when? It might never happen. For example, at that time we wanted to understand how solar panels work, so we just ordered one online and played with it. There’s no need to think too much into it because sometimes you end up not doing it when you overthink.

Another thing is, whatever you choose to do, always do your best. Oftentimes I notice that people will do things half-heartedly when they don’t think something is important. But you never know when something or someone becomes important. When I first started at NUS, I was doing research on the fabrication of solar cells, but also took a Power Systems module. When I decided to change the topic of my research, I approached the lecturer of that module to do my PhD under her. If I were to half-ass her module, she might’ve just looked at me and remembered I didn’t do well in her module, and then rejected me. But I did my best in her module and as a result, she saw me as hard working and reliable.

My last two cents is to keep doing different things. Live in different countries, try different experiences. Not only will we learn more about the world, but we also learn more about ourselves. Should we then decide contribute back to Indonesia, we will also know more where we can contribute.

This article was written by Indira Pranabudi and edited by Riri Malikah. Featured in this article is Oktoviano Gandhi. In his own words:

Oktoviano Gandhi received Master of Physics degree from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, in 2015. He is currently working towards a Ph.D. at the National University of Singapore (NUS). On the research front, Oktoviano has worked on the engineering aspects of solar cells and modules, all the way to analysing policies’ impact on energy intensity. His scientific work has resulted in more than twenty international publications.

Through Alva Energi, the company that he co-founded, Oktoviano is now channeling his expertise in solar energy, rural electrification, electricity grid planning, and energy policy to promote renewable energy development in Indonesia.

Find him on LinkedIn!

Oktoviano Gandhi

All photos were provided by Oktoviano.