Benoit Prim: Champion of Renewable Energy

By Bill Dalton

Benoît Prim is 44-year-old engineer born and bred in France who has lived and worked in Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia. He has 19 years of experience in large scale renewable energy projects, providing technical advice and due diligence services for investors in wind and solar projects in France, Australia, Indonesia, India and Korea. Benoît has been actively involved in raising awareness about renewable energy and sustainability in international schools in Bali. A father of two French/Australian/Venezuelan children, Benoît lives with his Venezuelan wife Mercedes in Berawa, Bali.


How did protection of the environment become so important to you?

I experienced first-hand the effects of pollution. While growing up on the Mediterranean Sea in the south of France, I was fortunate enough to take up two sports that would shape my life: surfing and windsurfing. Spending a lot of free time in the water, one of my most vivid memories occurred while I was surfing in southern France. I encountered an oil slick from a tanker that had cleaned out its tanks offshore. It was not a massive spill – the balls were only 2 cm in diameter – but the oil was so sticky that it took days to get it off my skin and surfboard. This incident made me realize how humans can so easily and thoughtlessly damage the beautiful environment that we’ve all been blessed with. It prompted me to choose a profession in which I could put my energy into a good cause and become part of the solution.


When did you first get interested in renewable energy?

I got involved in renewable energy projects right after graduating with a Master’s Degree in Industrial Engineering in France in 2000. I started working on hydro and wind projects before migrating to Australia. My love of surfing inspired me to move to Australia where I spent more than 10 years of my life. Later in 2015, I got involved in solar projects in the Philippines at the time of a gold rush in the industry due to generous policies supporting solar energy.


What projects have you worked on in Indonesia?

I was involved in the first two utility scale wind farms built in the country, among the largest onshore wind turbines in the world: 135 m rotor diameter by 135 m hub in height. Each of these powerful machines in South Sulawesi can provide electricity for up to 8,000 households.


What are the chances of Bali adopting solar energy on a large scale?

With the large number of expatriates on the island who know about solar and the tourism industry that is more and more willing to take a sustainable approach to business, there’s real opportunity to boost solar panels penetration on Bali even with little government support. With this in mind, I started a Bali-based solar panels company called Inecosolar this year. But I quickly realized that, going beyond just solar energy, education must play a major role in expanding sustainability practices here. People just aren’t aware how much havoc their (in)actions will wreak on the environment, a state of affairs that will ultimately have serious adverse impacts on themselves and their kids.


What is your approach to educating children?

I promote sustainability awareness in schools. Although it’s difficult to change grownup’s habits, kids are much more open to new ideas. They are literally the future. I explain to them the serious consequences that result from the irresponsible disposal of waste, food, water and energy and get them to find their own solutions. In Australia, there’s a campaign to save water called ‘Every Drop Counts.’ I strongly believe that this same consciousness must be applied to sustainability at large. Every action and every piece of plastic saved or recycled counts. As consumers, we have the choice to refuse to buy products which don’t adhere to sound environmental practices. Companies will stop producing such products if we stop buying them. They will always want to sell products and will adapt to meet the market demand. We need to let them know how we feel!


Have you done any installations for properties that are completely off the grid?

I have not yet personally but I work with designers, suppliers and installer who have done them and I have more and more enquiries for off-grid projects. Solar + battery is a great alternative to reduce or replace diesel use in remote areas. In Indonesia, there are 23 million people who do not have access to electricity. The main issue is funding but there are more and more development finance institutions willing to support these kinds of projects, so hopefully more people will benefit from cleaner energy sources in the future.


What are the chances for the large-scale adoption of renewable energy in Indonesia?

The chances are high but, regulation permitting, the question is when? Indonesia has good renewable energy resources and already has lots of geothermal and hydro power already installed. However, Indonesia is historically a gas and coal rich country with 88% of its electricity generated from fossil fuels. This is not going to change anytime soon, but generating electricity from wind energy is now cheaper than coal, nuclear, diesel and most gas-based generation. Electricity demand is growing, so rather than building new coal power plants, renewable energy presents a credible and cost-effective option.


How is Indonesia’s progress in finding alternative sources of energy compare with other countries?

I’m in Manila these days on assignment for the European Union which aims at identifying the market potential for private sector involvement in renewable energy. We are looking for opportunities for the EU to support companies or projects that want to improve energy access for off-grid populations by replacing diesel generated energy with renewable energy or implement entirely new renewable energy projects. We’re meeting with all the main stakeholders involved in renewable energy in the Philippines: government, financial institutions, donors, associations, developers and suppliers and there are many opportunities despite regulation uncertainties. I’ve found that change is actually driven by individuals and companies’ internal policies rather than government policies. Some commit to renewable energy or are even forbidden to invest in fossil fuel projects given the risks these projects represent both in terms of investment and public image.


What will happen if no action is taken on the alternative energy front?

The energy market is very different in Indonesia than in other S. E. Asian countries but hopefully we’ll witness deep going changes in the future. It has to be done. Where there’s a will, there is way. Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines represent approximately 80% of all existing and planned coal power stations in S.E. Asia. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim was quoted saying ‘If the entire region implements their coal-based plans right now, I think we are finished.’ That says it all.


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