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Indonesia coal power push neglects rural households, chokes urban ones

  • The Indonesian government’s push to generate an additional 35 GW of electricity capacity by 2019 relies heavily on building new coal-fired power plants.
  • Observers say the program focuses too much on the already saturated Java-Bali grid, while ignoring millions of households in more remote areas.
  • The preference for generating power from coal could also threaten the health of up to 30 million people living in areas slated for power plant construction, a recent study from Greenpeace says.

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s picturesque Wakatobi islands are so remote that the electricity only comes on at night. A thousand miles to the west, meanwhile, there’s so much power surging into the capital, Jakarta, that it could end up killing residents from the air pollution expected to be generated by seven new coal-fired power plants.

This stark disparity calls into question the government’s ambitious plan to significantly boost the capacity of the national grid, largely through burning coal, which activists warn could endanger the health of up to 30 million people.

The planned distribution of the new power plants, says Arif Fiyanto, energy campaigner with Greenpeace, “clearly indicates that the government’s target of providing electricity for Indonesian people who still don’t have access to electricity can never be achieved, even if all of the planned projects were completed by 2019.”

The underserved areas include islands like the scenic cluster that make up Wakatobi, a diver’s paradise in Southeast Sulawesi province, where visitors find that electricity at some resorts is only available from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.

The province has 81 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity, with just over three-quarters of households connected to the grid. Sulawesi as a whole, including its outlying archipelagos, have a combined installed capacity of just 1,508 MW (1.508 gigawatts), or just 81.5 watts for each of its 18.5 million inhabitants.

It’s a different story in Java and Bali, which have a combined installed capacity of nearly 25 GW, or 167.5 watts for each of 149.2 million residents — more than double the figure in Sulawesi. The electrification ratio, or proportion of households connected to the grid, in Java and Bali ranges from 90 percent in Yogyakarta province to 100 percent in Banten province.

A coal-fired power plant on the coast of West Java province pumps out smoke over a nearby settlement. Photo by Nathalie Bertrams/Greenpeace.

This abundance of electricity comes with its own problems: Experts warned in September that the glut in Java and Bali threatens to damage the country’s finances. More recently, a study from Greenpeace estimates that emissions from the growing number of coal-fired power plants being built to meet the electricity target in Java threatens the health of 30 million people in the region.

Reality mismatch

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was aware of the disparity in access to electricity when he took office in 2014. In 2015, he launched his flagship program to add 35 GW of generating capacity to the national grid by 2019.

The program immediately drew criticism from many, including the erstwhile chief minister overseeing energy policy, Rizal Ramli, who said in July 2015 that the program would saddle state-owned power utility PLN with at least $10.7 billion in bills for idle power capacity. (Rizal was removed in a reshuffle after less than a year in office.)

Environmentalists have also opposed the program, given that 20 GW, or 57 percent of the planned additional capacity, will be generated by coal-fired plants.

“This is not an ambitious project and the target is not so high,” the president said at the time. “But this is what we owe to the people and we must pay it because a lot of them still don’t have electricity.”

Three years into its five-year term, the Jokowi administration has failed to attend to the demands of those still living without power, energy experts point out.

“In the end, what the government was promoting and the reality do not match,” Greenpeace’s Arif told Mongabay.

A coal-fired power plant in Jepara, in Central Java, belches out a column of smoke. Photo by Paul Hilton/Greenpeace.

Both the government and PLN have in the past year signaled that they are behind schedule and may have to scale back plans, but their focus still remains on areas that already have high electrification rates.

In its working plan for 2017-2026, PLN proposed generating an additional 33 GW between 2015 and 2019. More than half of that, or 17.7 GW, will feed the Java-Bali grid, while Sumatra is slated to get 5.6 GW. The scheme also allocates 3.2 GW for Kalimantan, 3.4 GW for Sulawesi, and less than 1 GW (942 MW) for the Papua-Maluku region.

“The people who don’t have access to electricity are outside Java,” Arif said. “They’re in the small islands in Indonesia and they are not getting enough power plants built there.”

To cater to Indonesians in remote areas with little to no access to electricity, Arif called on the government to look to renewable energy resources. “Building coal-fired power plants in small and remote areas is not apt because it takes so much cost and time before they can operate,” he said.

Asked about the mismatch between areas that most need electricity and areas where power plants are planned, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources insists the government is building the new plants based on demand in each region.

“How big the demand is, that’s the amount of power plants that we allocate,” Pramudya, the head of the ministry’s electricity supply program evaluation division, said at a recent event in Jakarta. “We hope to have [a nationwide] electrification ratio of 99 percent by 2020,” from 93 percent at present.

PLN, meanwhile, maintains that increasing the supply of electricity stimulates demand, particularly from the industrial sector. “Infrastructure development for power is part of the drive for [economic growth],” Supangkat Iwan Santoso, strategic procurement director at PLN, told Mongabay recently. “So it doesn’t necessarily rely on demand, because when the electricity is available, demand will follow.”

Green activists protest at a coal-fired power plant in the city of Cirebon, in West Java. Indonesia’s electricity push depends heavily on the fossil fuel. Photo by Afriadi Hikmal/Greenpeace.

Power surge

In the meantime, the oversupply of electricity in the Java-Bali grid could pose a threat to the country’s fiscal health as well as the health of its citizens.

PLN recently reported a slowdown in annual sales as electricity demand failed to grow as expected, a trend experts attribute to sluggish economic growth. As a result, the company faces a glut of idle electricity capacity, especially in the Java-Bali grid.

Under so-called capacity agreements signed by PLN and energy providers, the government is committed to paying private power-plant developers a fixed fee based on generating capacity rather than actual energy demand. State officials and observers have warned PLN that the situation could cause serious financial damage to the company, and by extension to the state.

In addition to the warning, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources has ordered the firm to stop signing off power purchase agreements with independent producers for plants in Java until after 2027.

However, projects for which contracts have already been signed will still move forward, Pramudya told Mongabay recently.

Among these projects are seven coal-fired power plants that are set to be built in regions within 100 kilometers of the Greater Jakarta area, such as Banten, Bekasi and Cilegon.

With a total capacity of 5.6 GW, these seven large plants are set to go online between 2019 and 2024, with each expected to operate for at least 30 years.

In its recent study, Greenpeace warned that the emissions from both existing and new coal-fired power plants would significantly impact pollution levels in cities and towns downwind. These include Jakarta and its satellite cities of Tangerang, Bogor, Depok and Bekasi — a conurbation of some 30 million residents.

Residents of Batang district in Central Java stage a protest in Jakarta against the planned construction of a coal-fired power plant in their city. Photo courtesy of Ardiles Rante/Greenpeace.

Emissions from existing coal-fired power plants already expose an estimated 3 million people to microscopic particles known as PM2.5, at levels exceeding World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, the study found. Long-term exposure to such particulates can cause acute respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease.

The study, titled “Jakarta’s Silent Killer,” estimates that the numbers at risk would increase tenfold once the new plants are in operation. “So the people of Greater Jakarta will be condemned to worsening air pollution for at least a generation,” Greenpeace wrote.

It also listed other noxious emissions produced by coal-fired power plants, such as nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, and heavy metals, like mercury.

“Taking future changes in population into account, the planned coal-fired power plants would nearly double the number of premature deaths, and result in a dramatic increase in low birth weights,” it said. Overall, the study estimated the resulting pollution would cause an additional 10,680 premature deaths and 2,820 low birth weights each year.

“Put human health at the heart of Indonesia’s energy plan,” Greenpeace said, calling on the government to abandon plans for new coal-fired power plants. “Energy targets in Indonesia can be met with renewables, which can increase power supply and improve air quality to the benefit of all Indonesians.”

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