How Sustainable is Our Electricity Generation System?

How Sustainable is Our Electricity Generation System?

Managing the energy trilemma of security, equity (accessibility and affordability) and sustainability is indeed a problematic challenge, especially for developing countries where energy is a pivotal resource needed to achieve higher living standards.

Unfortunately for Indonesia, the government is still facing the classic problem of closing the supply and demand gap, with about 5.9 million households still disconnected from the electricity grid. Disparity across regions is evident, with the 2016 national average electrification ratio at 91.16 percent, of which the western part saw up to 99.97 percent electrification (Bangka Belitung) and the eastern part as low as 47.78 percent (West Papua).

In dealing with the issue of energy access, the government often opts for the easiest way in choosing energy sources based on the least costly and fastest building options (as explicitly stated in the National Electricity Plan and PLN’s Power Supply Business Plan). As many may have acknowledged, these are coal-fired power plants we are talking about, with a 35 GW fast-track project of mainly coal-based power plants under way.

With this, Indonesia is working in against the global trend of energy development, which is shifting away from coal resources to generate power. To compare, the UK is planning to phase out coal by 2025, while China’s annual growth in coal demand has decreased from 11 percent (2000-2006) to 7.3 percent (2006-2012). Recently, the Netherlands government declared its target to shut down all of its coal power plants by 2030.

Looking more closely at the security aspect of coal-fired power plants, the current production-to-reserve ratio (R/P) of domestic coal resources is about 70 years. To put this into perspective, the United States’ and Russia’s respectively equal 266 and 452 years – implying that the common belief that Indonesia is rich in coal resources may no longer be true.

Even so, there is no mention of resources availability, nor is a scenario projected after 2050 that limits the utilization of coal. All we know now is that this country will see coal contributing 25 percent to the 2050 energy portfolio. Thus, the current policies of promoting coal dominance may be unjustified and potentially lead to a long-term sustainability challenge.

While it is true that Indonesia’s carbon emission is blamed mainly on the land-use sector, excessive promotion of coal use for the electricity generation system makes a solid case for a shift in trend. As highlighted by the National Development Planning Agency (BAPPENAS) on its climate change review, the energy sector will overtake the land-use sector as the largest source of carbon emissions by 2030.

Unfortunately, its extensive use of coal does not improve Indonesia’s technological expertise in coal-based power conversion. It is reported that the average efficiency of our coal-fired power plants lags behind by both world and Asian standards. This causes significant fuel consumption and thus, imposes a severe threat to the climate change agenda.

Around the world, nations are racing each other in increasing domestic use of renewable energy sources. Sadly, in Indonesia, renewables seem to be merely an accessory that the government highlights in news coverage as part of its effort to pursue environmental sustainability. “Hydropower and geothermal are keys”, as they said. Even so, within the 1995-2015 period, the country saw only 1GW geothermal and 2.5GW of hydropower in added capacity. These are insignificant amounts compared to the total 40 GW capacity of newly built power plants.

However, one must understand that transitioning blindly to renewable energy sources is not necessarily a direct translation of sustainability. Studies have shown that some renewables have the unintended consequence of disrupting overall ecological sustainability if they are implemented in resource-scarce regions.

Hydroelectric dams cause immense water loss due to evaporation and in some cases, can even emit higher levels of greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. Geothermal sites will overlap Indonesia’s forestry area, with 18% of 312 potential geothermal sites falling within conservation forests and a further 31% in protected forests.

Neglecting the balance between combating climate change and maintaining the sustainability of other environmental factors make the sustainability of these solutions questionable.

Meanwhile, local renewable sources are underdeveloped in areas where the electrification rate is low. For instance, Nusa Tenggara (with less than 80 percent electrification rate in 2016) has the highest wind speed and solar irradiation, but harnessing these sources for power generation is low, when wind and solar energy have the reputation of leaving minimal environmental footprints. Also, Nusa Tenggara has a comparatively high availability of land and moderate economic power to sustain the wide area needed for these still-expensive technologies.

This calls for subnational energy planning that should be built with a bottom-up approach. Utilizing local energy sources is encouraged, but must be selective to maintain the sustainability of the region’s natural and economic resources.

It is very easy for us to unintentionally neglect the secondary consequences of our actions or plans, especially when the immediate benefits are so apparent. In this sense, coal-fueled power plants are indeed the easiest and fastest route to achieve energy security, but I am not buying that it is worth the risk of putting us on the fast track to environmental catastrophe and long-term risks in energy security.

Sooner or later, the world will transition to renewables, and it is not right if we are way behind because our strategy is to prioritize one aspect of the energy trilemma to the neglect of the other two. A holistic understanding and approach to solving the energy problem are urgently required, and leap-frogging from the current state to a sustainable framework could be our solution to achieving energy security and access at the same time.

I am confident that our great nation has the capability and resources to make that happen, and so the courage to do so among our policymakers is the only barrier to pursuing our sustainable future.

by Firra Ghassani Gumilar

The writer is a Master of Science candidate in sustainable energy futures at Imperial College London, specializing in energy policy analysis.



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