An open-pit coal mine in Jambi, south Sumatra.The Widodo government's preference for coal-power plants is an environmental and public health disaster, critics say. Photo: AFP / Goh Chai Hin
An open-pit coal mine in Jambi, South Sumatra. The big banks are still funding huge coal projects in Indonesia. Photo: AFP / Goh Chai Hin

A far-reaching corruption scandal centered on a proposed power plant in Indonesia has cast a shadow over the country’s risky reliance on coal as a supposedly cheap source of energy.

Anti-graft investigators arrested nine people in July, including a member of the national parliament, over allegations of bribery in connection with the awarding of contracts for the $900 million Riau-1 coal-fired plant, on the island of Sumatra.

Investigators have also charged the country’s social affairs minister, Idrus Marham, for his alleged involvement (the sting where the bribe was transacted in July took place at his home).

They have questioned the head of state-owned utility PLN, Sofyan Basir, who is ultimately responsible for sanctioning the project. PLN has since suspended the 600-megawatt project.

Riau-1, though, is only one of dozens of coal-power plants planned for construction throughout Indonesia as part of the government’s ambitious push to add 35,000 megawatts of power generation to the national grid in coming years. (The initial target date was 2019, but the government now says it may take until 2024 to get that capacity on line.)

There are at least 18 similar plants at various stages of development — from licensing and land acquisition to the procurement of technology — that are also suspected to have been tarnished by corruption, according to the NGO Association of Ecological Action and People’s Emancipation (PAEER).

In particular, so-called mine-mouth plants like Riau-1, which are built close to the coal mines that supply their fuel and for which PLN awards contracts less transparently, are particularly prone to corruption, a coalition of environmental NGOs says.

“There are many similar irregularities that can be found in other power projects that are part of the 35,000-megawatt program,” Merah Johansyah, coordinator of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), a member of the NGO coalition, said in a press release.

“Starting from irrational planning, land acquisition process that involves violence [against local communities], permit issuance process that has been tampered with, to indications of bribery.”

Idrus Marham, the former Indonesian minister of social affairs, became the first member of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s Cabinet to be named a suspect in a graft investigation as he has been implicated in an embezzlement case related to the development of a coal-powered power plant (PLTU) in Riau. Photo: The Ministry of Social Affairs.

Transporting lignite

One of the defining characteristics of mine-mouth coal plants is that they typically burn lignite, also known as brown coal, the lowest quality available. Because there’s little economic value in transporting lignite long distances to power plants, they go instead to plants built near the mines, which then feed the electricity generated into the grid.

Mine-mouth plants need more lignite to produce the same amount of electricity as plants that burn higher grades of coal, since lignite has a lower calorific value.

“Lignite isn’t popular in the market because of its low quality, and the mine sites are usually located deep in remote areas,” PAEER coordinator Pius Ginting said. “So to prevent this low-grade coal from just sitting there with no buyers, producers will try to lobby [for the government to promote their lignite].”

That’s what happened in Indonesia, where the government decided to promote the development of mine-mouth plants in a shift away from coastal coal plants. This was part of an effort to both boost domestic market demand for the country’s coal industry and meet growing electricity demand.

The government plans to develop 6,045 MW of mine-mouth power plants: two in Sumatra and eight in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. No more coastal power plants will be built on either island, the Minister for Energy and Mines Ignasius Jonan said.

“For islands that have coal mines, they have to build mine-mouth plants,” he said. “There’s no more negotiation. I don’t want to negotiate.”

Greenpeace says the Celukan Bawang coal-power plant damages public health, the environment and the local economy, and this is the case for coal plants across Indonesia. Photo: Alit Kertaraharja/ Mongabay.

Opaque appointments

It’s not just negotiations that have been cut; transparency has also disappeared when it comes to developing mine-mouth power plants.

PLN says it will not hold open tenders for these projects, and will instead directly appoint the developers it considers best prepared to handle them. It says this will speed up the whole process and help deliver much-needed electricity quickly.

Fabby Tumiwa, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Essential Services Reform (IESR), says such a scheme, with no clear criteria for who can be awarded a contract, is prone to abuse, and cites the case of Riau-1.

Riau-1 was awarded without a transparent bidding process by PLN subsidiary Pembangkitan Jawa Bali (PJB) to a private consortium that includes a subsidiary of the energy firm BlackGold Natural Resources.

One of BlackGold’s top shareholders, Johannes Budisutrisno Kotjo, was among those arrested in the anti-graft bust in July. He has been charged with paying a 4.8 billion rupiah (US$328,000) bribe to Eni Maulani Saragih, who sits on the parliamentary oversight committee for energy policy and has also been charged.

“A project like this wasn’t tendered, but directly given to PJB for it to look for a partner,” Fabby said. “We don’t know how it decides when it comes to choosing a partner. This creates opportunities for corruption.”

Coal trucks enter CEI’s mine road. The Indonesian government plans to develop mine-mouth power plants in a bid to meet the country’s growing electricity demand. Photo: Yitno Suprapto / Mongabay.

Mine-mouth scramble

The Indonesian government’s embrace of mine-mouth power plants and the opacity that shrouds them make these projects ideal for miners looking to offload their low-grade coal, says Pius of the NGO PAEER.

“Many coal producers try to supply their coal for mine-mouth power plants, like what we see in the Riau-1 case,” he said. “This makes for a very competitive market.”

Heating things up even further is a government plan to proceed with building a high-voltage undersea cable between Sumatra and Java. When it was first brought up in 2013, the idea was to feed excess power from Sumatra into the main Java-Bali grid. Now, though, a glut of power generation in Java would mean more electricity pouring into Sumatra.

“In the end, the market [for power generation] in Sumatra will get even more competitive because Java no longer needs power from Sumatra,” Pius said. “This compels coal producers to resort to corrupt practices to ensure their coal continues to feed mine-mouth power plants.”

In the case of BlackGold, the Singapore-listed company had “good reason to be highly motivated” to secure its stake in the Riau-1 project, according to the US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Melissa Brown, an energy finance consultant at the IEEFA, said the project “promised to provide demand for low-grade coal which would struggle to find a market outside of Sumatra.”

BlackGold is not the only miner eyeing the mine-mouth boom. Other coal producers in Indonesia, such as PT Tambang Batubara Bukit Asam and PT Adaro Energy, are also looking to get involved in mine-mouth power plant projects.

“The future of the company is in power plants,” Tambang Batubara Bukit Asam’s chief director Arviyan Arifin, said. “We want to transform to mine-mouth power plants in the future. With our known deposits, we have the capability to contribute up to 5,000 MW [of power].”

Adaro Energy CEO Garibaldi Thohir said separately that his company preferred to supply coal for domestic power plants than for export.

The IEEFA’s Brown highlighted the “severe conflicts of interest associated with many of the mine-mouth” projects recently awarded.

“In many ways, the circumstances surrounding [Riau-1] are emblematic of Indonesia’s strategic challenges,” she wrote, “due to over-reliance on coal [plants] backed by a revolving cast of coal producers who are highly motivated to push speculative projects that will benefit narrow interests.”

Locals affected by coal power plants protest in front of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in Jakarta. Photo: Hans Nicholas Jong.

Unaccounted costs

The push to build more plants that burn the dirtiest of coal in the least efficient manner continues to be justified by all involved based on the bottom line: that it’s the cheapest fuel source available.

That was the rationale given by Eni, the MP now facing criminal charges, who wrote to her family after her arrest that she had hoped her actions would at least allow the public to “enjoy cheap electricity.”

In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the investigative news outlet Tempo, she reasoned that as long as the project served the national interest, then any “blessing” that she received from it was “halal,” or permissible under Islam.

Proponents say the capital and operating costs for coal plants are lower than for other types of power plants. But these costs don’t account for the health and environmental problems associated with burning coal, Pius says. “If these external costs, incurred from health and environmental impacts, are included in the cost of coal energy, then the price will be much higher than renewable energy,” he said.

In Indonesia, this all-inclusive cost amounts to $61.50 per megawatt-hour (MWh), according to a study by the US-based International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). That’s more than PLN’s listed rate of $55 per MWh in 2016.

Other countries have shown that the cost of generating renewable energy can be much lower than that. Solar generation has reached prices as low as $29 per MWh in Chile. In India, recent solar projects are selling electricity at $40 per MWh.

A major factor for the high external costs associated with coal plants is that they create the greatest amount of air pollution of any electricity-generating project. Burning coal emits a range of substances that are toxic to humans and that have been associated with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases such as stroke, asthma or lung cancer.

In Indonesia, coal pollution is believed to be responsible for nearly 7,500 premature deaths per year, according to a study by researchers at Harvard University. This is almost double the figure in Vietnam (4,250) and almost six times more than in Thailand (1,330).

And mine-mouth power plants could have an even greater impact on public health and the environment because they need to burn more coal to generate the same amount of electricity, leading to more pollution.

The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that, in Indonesia, these plants are usually located in rural or remote areas with limited access to health services. When locals are made aware of the impact that coal power plants have on their health, it’s usually already too late.

Riska Nurohma, for instance, has been exposed to air pollution from three units of coal power plants near her house in Cilacap district, Central Java, for years. But it wasn’t until last year that she was diagnosed with pneumonia on her left lung.

“I’m sick because of the fume from the coal power plants,” she said during a recent protest in Jakarta. “The smell is so nauseating. A lot of my neighbors are suffering from respiratory infections as well, while others are suffering from water shortage as the groundwater has become salty.”

Yet despite these negative impacts, the Indonesian government continues to subsidize coal producers and power generators in a bid to keep electricity prices artificially low.

Another IISD report puts the cost of the coal-production subsidies alone at $946 million in 2014 — a hefty 36 times more than the subsidies for renewable energy that same year, and a tenth of the national health budget for 2013.

A worker walking by solar panels at the Kayubihi Power Plant in Bangli, Bali. This is the only solar plant operating in Bali out of three power plants currently. Photo: Anton Muhajir/ Mongabay.

State subsidies for coal-power generation are also serving to hold Indonesia back from achieving its self-imposed target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Removing subsidies on all fossil fuels, including coal, starting in 2015 would have yielded about a 7% reduction in emissions by 2020 from the business-as-usual scenario, according to a report by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

If those subsidies were invested in renewable energy, the government would have achieved a cut in emissions of 12% by 2020 — exceeding its emission reduction target of 11% by 2029. By 2025, emissions would be reduced by more than 19%, the report said.

“Reforming the support to the coal industry has the potential to open up significant investment streams for renewables, at the same time making them more competitive at a market level just by removing supports that keep coal prices low,” the report read.

Yet despite the projected savings in costs and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the government is sticking to its reliance on coal as the country’s main source of electricity. In PLN’s latest working plan, coal is expected to supply 54% of the country’s electricity by 2025. Renewables will account for 23% of the energy mix, up from 12% in 2017.

But after 2025, coal will get a boost to 58.5% of the energy mix, bucking a global trend that has seen other countries phasing out their coal-fired power plants in favor of renewables.

Environmentalists have urged President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to end Indonesia’s continued reliance on coal, warning that it will lock the country in a high-carbon economy and derail climate policies and action.

The emphasis on developing mine-mouth plants, in particular, is at odds with the president’s own stated goal of improving social welfare by allocating more of the state budget to human development priorities, such welfare and education, according to PAEER’s Pius.

“Jokowi is campaigning for a second term by saying that his administration will shift its focus from building infrastructure to building human capital,” he said. “But how will you do that if you sacrifice your own people by developing mine-mouth power plants?”

This article first appeared on Mongabay. You can see it here: Graft and government policy align to keep Indonesia burning coal