Blackouts in Bali and Java

Sudden blackouts on two key Indonesian islands last week may be just the start of a spiralling two-year power crisis that could stymie economic growth, curtail resource exports and trigger social unrest.

Outages on the main commercial islands of Java and Bali, the country’s worst since a day-long blackout brought Jakarta to a halt in August 2005, were due to storms that hit coal deliveries and exposed the precarious balance of Indonesia’s power supply.

After chronic underinvestment and steadily growing demand from an economy growing at its fastest pace in a decade, analysts now see a crisis on the horizon for the world’s fourth-most populous nation, which holds elections next year.

Jakarta has managed to stave off the kind of supply crises seen in China and India in recent years, but as growth picked up after the 1997-98 financial crisis, plants built in the previous decade are showing their age and straining to meet demand.

Officials said the blackouts were due not to a lack of power plant capacity but of fuel ships carrying coal from Kalimantan were unable to reach port and unload their cargoes due to stormy weather, forcing two major power plants to cut production as their coal stocks dwindled to only two or three days.

State electricity firm PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) staged planned powercuts in Jakarta’s commercial and residential areas over the weekend in order to save precious supplies.

Critics blamed the crisis on poor planning, and said that PLN should have been better prepared, with larger stockpiles. The firm may now require plants to double stocks to 30 days.

But even with sufficient fuel supplies, Indonesia is already struggling to meet peak period demand, officials say, a situation set to worsen until new plants are built by 2010 — provided the government can overcome a legacy of investor resistance.

The interim choices are clear but costly — buy more diesel and fuel oil to revive expensive oil-fired generators; limit coal exports to ensure domestic supplies; or reduce the government’s popularity by instituting more rolling blackouts.

Of the 17,500 megawatts (MW) installed capacity on Java and Bali, about three quarters of the country’s total, only about 15,500 MW is in operation since many of the plants are old and inefficient, said a PLN official, who declined to be named.

With evening demand peaking at 15,200 MW, they operate at a razor-sharp 2 percent supply cushion, a dire situation made worse when plants shut for maintenance or repairs. At peak times, demand can exceed capacity, the PLN official said.

Given its abundant natural resources, Indonesia should be well placed to meet its own energy needs. It is Asia’s only OPEC member, the world’s second-biggest liquefied natural gas (LNG) producer, and the biggest thermal coal exporter.

But last week’s blackouts showed the need to address energy policy urgently to keep Asia-Pacific’s sixth-largest economy ticking along after last year’s 6.3 percent growth — its fastest in a decade but still trailing giants China and India.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono wants to attract billions of dollars of investment for infrastructure, including the power sector, to spur economic growth and reduce high unemployment.

But the power industry is one of many infrastructure woes plaguing this sprawling archipelago of 226 million people, along with unsafe ferries, single track railways and scruffy airports. As a China Post article explained.