Asia’s Energy Transformation: Indonesia

On April 17, voters in Indonesia went to the polls and apparently re-elected President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) to a second term. Final results are due May 22. This election, and President Jokowi’s second term, if early results are confirmed, will have momentous consequences for infrastructure, energy and global climate.

This is the third in an Infrastructure Ideas series on the state of Asia’s Energy Transformation, following earlier reviews of the energy situation in Pakistan and in Bangladesh. Indonesia shares many commonalities with the other two countries: one of the ten most populated countries in the world (with over a quarter of a million people, Indonesia has the 4th largest population), facing energy high demand growth while running out of domestic fuel sources on which it has relied, and strongly considering a large-scale expansion in its coal-burning capacity to meet its energy needs. The energy choices Indonesia makes in the next few years will have major effects on the availability and cost of energy for Indonesians, and on global climate.

President Jokowi’s initial election, in 2014, was widely greeted as great news for infrastructure in Indonesia. His electoral platform stressed implementing reform programs needed to address Indonesia’s widespread and longstanding infrastructure problems, including beginning to bring in private capital and reduce reliance on Indonesia’s state-owned monopolies. His first term did not live up to expectations on this score: government bureaucracies and vested interests have been largely successful in limiting change. Yet needs continue to grow, and the same problems and choices will now face a second Jokowi administration.

Energy is the most critical battleground between the Indonesian old guard, clearly proponents of both maintaining state control and relying on Indonesia’s coal resources to meet energy needs, and reformers. Indonesia’s current electricity consumption and production are very low for a country of its size, with production capacity of about 60 Gigawatts (GW), slightly over half of which is coal based. The country’s “Electricity Supply Business Plan” (Known as RUPTL) calls for a near-doubling of capacity, to 115 GW by 2025, including from 25 to 35 GW of new coal-fired capacity. This places Indonesia among the five countries with the largest plans for new coal-fired power.

Indonesia’s coal resources are large, and unlike Pakistan and Bangladesh, the country has been developing and exploiting these at a large scale for decades. Indonesia ranks as the fifth largest coal producer globally (After China, the US, Australia and India), and is the world’s second biggest exporter of coal, after Australia. Those resources, however, are not unlimited: Price Waterhouse Coopers forecast that at planned utilization levels, the country’s coal resources would be exhausted by 2033.

Indonesia’s domestic energy resources are not at all limited to coal. The country was an oil exporter, until falling oil production turned into an importer. It has widespread hydropower potential, albeit complicated by land ownership and biodiversity considerations, and among the best geothermal energy potential of any country. About 9 GW of total electricity capacity today is renewable energy, mostly hydropower. The latest RUPTL projected a 300% increase in renewable energy capacity by 2025, to about 35 GW: 6 new GW of geothermal, 12 GW of large-scale Hydropower, and 8 GW of wind and solar (mostly wind). However, development of renewable energy has been largely stalled, due to a combination of land/biodiversity issues affecting hydro and geothermal projects, and of inability to get wind and solar-based power production off the ground. As a result, unlike many countries which are rapidly ramping up the share of energy use based on renewables – largely because these have become the cheapest alternatives, Indonesia has been stuck: not moving forward, and trying to do so mostly with coal-fired megaprojects. President Jokowi’s legacy in Indonesia will be largely determined whether in his second term he succeeds in getting the power sector unstuck, and in moving the country into exploiting low-cost wind and solar electricity, or whether he remains mired in Indonesia’s bureaucracy and vested interests.

Part of the roadblocks to Indonesia’s development of renewable resources is complicated: the land and biodiversity issues which are involved in many potential large-scale hydropower or geothermal projects will not easily be solved. But another part is simpler: country after country is taking advantage of the combination of free-falling technology costs in wind and solar and of auction mechanisms which force competition among the world’s still-growing number of producing companies. IRENA has stated that Indonesia has 47 GW of solar power potential. At least, better said, technically simple. And economically simple. The officially estimated cost of greenfield coal-fired generation may be lower in Indonesia than anywhere else ($0.05/ kilowatt hour), but those estimates like in many other places underestimate both coal transport costs and the impact of current disruptions in the coal market, without pricing in likely medium-term scarcity costs. Wind and solar prices are already on a par with the low-end of coal-based generation prices, and continue to fall.

Where large-scale development of wind and solar electricity in Indonesia is not simple is in the politics. The state-run power utility, PLN, combines a monopoly of transmission and distribution with being the by far largest producer of power. It is an artefact in a world where most countries have separated power generation from T&D responsibilities, and where most have increasingly turned to private capital for financing new generation capacity. And as both a competitor and the eventual buyer of wind and solar power from potential new producers, its enthusiasm for the wind and solar auctions which have triggered rapid growth in renewable capacity in many countries has been superficial. PLN would far rather build power plants itself – which means thermal or possibly hydropower power – than have others build them. Its reasons are a mix of classic bureaucratic inertia and self-interest, and of links to political interests and corruption. The reasons are not economic: the government has pumped between $3 and $4 billion annually into PLN in recent years to cover losses, and letting others finance power which will come at a lower cost to PLN would reduce those losses. A recent documentary released in Indonesia, which the government has tried hard to suppress, is named “Sexy Killers,” and highlights the links between the country’s coal industry, PLN and politicians. And as noted in a recent column by Bill McKibben, the potential for bribes in small-scale, decentralized wind and solar development is far smaller than it is where single mega-projects such as coal plants involved.

The past few months have seen somewhat of a stalemate. A few renewable projects have inched forward, as have a handful of natural gas-fired projects. But large-scale auctions for wind and solar have made no progress. The 2019 RUPTL, released in March, gave more verbal support to wind and hydropower, though without indicating it would take practical steps to bringing this closer to reality. A number of coal-fired plants planned in Java were reportedly suspended or cancelled, yet have re-appeared in the new policy document, and plans for solar are minimal. As noted in its review of the RUPTL, IEEFA called the statements about incorporating more renewables “a cut-and-paste planning exercise that does little to address fundamental problems with Indonesia’s over-reliance on coal-fired generation,” and stated that “Indonesia appears to have embraced what can best be described as a contrarian understanding of power trends with the decision to add less than 1 GW of solar over the next decade.”

On April 23, the arrest was announced of PLN’s CEO, Sofyan Basir, on charges of corruption related to a $900m coal-fired power plant. Unlike in the case of competitive public auctions in wind and solar, this coal project – Riau I – was awarded directly by a PLN subsidiary to a Singaporean company (arrests include one of the Singaporean company’s Board members). A sign of the tide turning? Indonesia’s energy and economic future hangs on the decisions that will be made by President Jokowi in his second term. As does a lot of carbon.

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