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Indonesian gov't comes under pressure to 'dump coal'

November 08, 2023
tags:#Indonesia, #coal, #fossil fuels, #energy, #health
by:Tonggo Simangunsong
Haunted by the adverse effects of coal-fired power plants, a growing number of Indonesians are calling on the government to accelerate its energy transition.

In the year leading up to his passing in January, 51-year-old Zainal Abidin grappled with lung issues. During this period, he endured persistent breathlessness, frequent coughing and an inability to engage in any meaningful work, confining him to his home where he could only sit or lie down.

Residing in Sei Siur Village, located just five kilometers from the coal-fired power plant (PLTU) in Pangkalan Susu, Langkat Regency, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Abidin had never encountered any significant health issues before.

But in early 2021, symptoms began to emerge. When his family took him to a hospital in Stabat City, about 50 km from his home, an X-rays showed that his lungs were infected and contained fluid. 

"The doctor said at the time that he had black lung, and for about a year he was often in and out of the hospital," Zainal's sister-in-law, Siti Hadijah, 58, told FairPlanet.

Hadijah said that since PLTU started operating, life in the village has deteriorated. Abidin is not the only resident who has suffered health consequences as a result of the plant.

In 2022, Yayasan Srikandi Lestari, an NGO dedicated to raising awareness about the environmental effects of the PLTU Pangkalan Susu, unveiled research findings indicating that between June 2019 and 2022, a total of 243 residents from five neighbouring villages near the PLTU experienced itching, 42 individuals suffered from respiratory infections and four people contracted black lung disease, which resulted in the loss of three lives.

According to the NGO, it is estimated that the four PLTU units currently in operation burn approximately 23,770 tons of coal daily and generate 1,426.2 tons of waste (comprising fly and bottom ash) that needs to be managed every day.

Sumiati Surbakti, the director of Yayasan Srikandi Lestari, said that after the PLTU began its operations, various diseases started to affect residents, including as skin and lung diseases. He also mentioned that people's income sources from the sea and rice fields were compromised.

"That's why we, together with the community, always call on the government to shut down the Pangkalan Susu coal-fired power plant," she told FairPlanet.

Indonesia Power, a subsidiary of the State Electricity Company (PLN), which manages PLTU Pangkalan Susu, in a statement to local media denied the NGOs’ accusations of causing environmental pollution.

The company claims it did not dispose of liquid waste and coal burning ash into the sea, maintaining that it strictly and consistently carries out inspection and prevention of potential coal spills.

A false solution?

Indonesia heavily relies on coal-fired power plants as the primary source of electrical energy. According to official data from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, these power plants account for the majority of the country's electricity supply, amounting to 47 per cent, equivalent to 34,856 MW.

However, PLTUs are often implicated in the generation of air, water and land pollution, with far-reaching consequences for both the environment and the well-being of the local populace.

Indonesia is among the 200 countries that agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow 2021 to achieve net zero emissions (NZE) before 2050 by - among other methods - reducing reliance on fossil-based energy sources including coal.

A year later, in an effort to honor Indonesia's net-zero commitments, President Joko Widodo issued a presidential regulation to ban new permits for the construction of new PLTUs. The government also plans to retire 12 PLTUs in 2023.

However, as Minister of Finance Sri Mulyani stated, it is challenging to retire PLTUs that have been in operation as they constitute the main source of electricity in the country.

The government's dedication to its net-zero pledges came under further scrutiny after it removed coal waste (fly and bottom ash) from the list of toxic and dangerous categories. The Widodo administration also issued regulations on plans to manufacture liquid coal and gas as fuel, a method viewed by many environmental organisations, including Greenpeace Indonesia, WALHI, Trend Asia and Yayasan Srikandi Lestari, as highly dubious.

“This is what [we call] 'a false solution,' " Rimba Nasution, campaign staff member at Yayasan Srikandi Lestari, told FairPlanet.

The PLTU-flexible method

Experts highlight that in order to reduce its reliance on coal and honour its net-zero commitments before 2050, Indonesia must quickly embark on an eco-friendly energy transition.

"It is time for the government to accelerate the cessation of PLTU operations and immediately draw up a roadmap towards renewable energy," said Raden Raditya Yudha Wiranegara, a senior researcher at the Institute for Essential Services Reform.

Wiranegara added that, for multiple reasons, solar energy plants hold the highest potential. This has been confirmed by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, which noted that Indonesia's renewable energy potential exceeds 400,000 MW, emphasising that half of this is solar energy; however, the ministry stated, only 0.08 per cent - or 150 MW - has been utilised so far.

Wiranegara further highlighted the necessity of giving special consideration to the production of materials for solar power generation, with a specific focus on the mining of storage battery materials.

Notably, nickel mining in Sulawesi frequently garners attention due to its environmental repercussions. The disposal of waste from the nickel industry results in the pollution of marine waters and river ecosystems, deteriorating the quality of life for local communities.

This, in turn, poses a threat to the livelihoods of fishermen, damages agricultural land and contaminates water sources used for local consumption.

"The production of materials that are mined needs to be monitored so that it does not cause damage that is no worse than emissions," he said.

Wiranegara suggested that Indonesia can expedite the energy transition by adopting a temporary ''flexible PLTU' operational approach, which would ultimately enable the country to completely phase out coal-fired power plants (PLTU).

Flexible PLTU serves as a transitional measure until the remaining operational lifespan of existing PLTUs concludes, he explained. This approach involves optimising the electricity intake from solar power (PLTS) by decreasing the minimum load during sunny periods. During nighttime, when PLTS is inactive, PLTU can quickly generate electricity with increased ramp rates. The goal is to curb carbon emissions stemming from coal combustion in PLTUs.

Germany has implemented flexible PLTU since 2011, and India has been doing so for the past nine years, but according to Wiranegara, the Indonesian government has yet to follow suit.

According to him, the government still has a long way to go, and must first sketch out a roadmap for its renewable energy transition and arrange compensation deals with private PLTU companies with which it maintained contracts.

Monitoring compliance

Indonesia's lingering dependence on coal continues to pose a challenge to its energy transition.

"If the country wants to replace all PLTUs by 2050, or shut all PLTUs, then renewable energy plants must also be planned and built in stages," Fabby Tumiwa, an Indonesian energy transition researcher and chairman of the Indonesia Solar Energy Association, told FairPlanet. "It can't be done immediately; it can't be finished within 10 years."

He added that as per Presidential Decree 112 of 2022, Indonesia is to create a roadmap for terminating PLTU operations and plan the construction of non-PLTU power plants.

In terms of addressing environmental consequences, Tumiwa argued that the government's immediate action should involve monitoring compliance with emission standards established in accordance with Minister of Environment and Forestry Regulation No. 15 of 2019.

"If [the PLTU] does not comply with the regulations, it should be shut down," he concluded.

Image by Dominik Vanji.

Article written by:
Tonggo Simangunsong
A Traditional fishing boat sails on the Siur River in Langkat Regency, North Sumatra, where a coal-fired power plant is being built.
© Tonggo Simangunsong
A Traditional fishing boat sails on the Siur River in Langkat Regency, North Sumatra, where a coal-fired power plant is being built.
Embed from Getty Images
In 2022, Yayasan Srikandi Lestari, an NGO dedicated to raising awareness about the environmental effects of the PLTU Pangkalan Susu, unveiled disturbing research findings.
Embed from Getty Images
In terms of addressing environmental consequences, Tumiwa argued that the government's immediate action should involve monitoring compliance with emission standards.