An Indonesian woman looks on at a smoke-belching power plant in a file photo. Image: Twitter

JAKARTA – Coal is part of the deadly cocktail that puts Jakarta near the top of the list of the world’s most polluted cities. But that may be about to change with an Environmental and Forestry Ministry regulation requiring all of Indonesia’s existing thermal power stations to install anti-pollution scrubbers.

If fully enforced, it will apply to the 4,025-megawatt Suralaya power complex at the northern entrance to the Sunda Strait and two other coal-fired stations west of the Indonesian capital that together contribute 7,185MW to the main Java-Bali grid.

None of those plants have scrubbers capable of removing much of the sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) and PM2.5 particles carried over the city of 10.6 million by prevailing westerly winds, particularly during the wet season between November and April.

Another five million residents in the satellite cities of Bekasi, Depok and Tangerang are also badly affected by PM2.5 pollution in particular, which Greenpeace Indonesia and other researchers claim kills more than 7,000 Jakartans a year.

Issued late last year, the new regulation mandates the installation of pollution control equipment in all new coal-fired plants, including the Chinese-built 2,220MW Java 7 power station, whose second unit went into operation last October, and other stations either under construction or on the drawing board.

Suralaya and Java 7 both lie close to Banten’s smoke-wreathed industrial city of Cilegon, home to the integrated Krakatau steel facility, a 50-year-old state enterprise with its own belching 400MW coal-fired generator and several major petrochemical plants.

On the other side of the Sunda Strait, state-owned Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN)’s website currently lists five planned, privately-owned mine-mouth plants totaling 1,124MW to be built in coal-rich South Sumatra, adding to the 460MW already in operation.

A coal-fired power plant in Indonesia. Image: Facebook

Elsewhere, in an era when coal is on its death bed in most countries around the world, another three new coal-fired stations, with a combined capacity of 5,320MW, are nearing completion in heavily-populated East and Central Java, each likely to be in operation long beyond 2050.

Providing some relief, however, the new Japanese-funded 2,000MW Batang facility is Indonesia’s first ultra-supercritical plant, its two units equipped with low NOx burners, electrostatic precipitators and flue-gas desulfurization to reduce emissions.  

One of the  key findings of Monash University’s 2019 Roadmap for Indonesia’s Power Sector is that the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources continues to grossly over-estimate energy demand across Java and Sumatra, Indonesia’s two most populous islands.

If PLN sticks to its current plans, the research team concluded, there is likely to be an overcapacity of 12,500MW of coal, gas and diesel, resulting in US$12.7 billion in wasted investment and adding a further burden to cash-strapped PLN’s bottom line.

Power expert Fabby Tumiwa, who was part of that team, says unless there is a change in the national power plan coal’s share of the energy mix will climb from 65% to 68% by the end of this decade when Indonesia will be under increasingly heavy pressure to switch to renewables.

The government is already struggling to increase the share of geothermal, hydro, wind and solar from 13% to a modest target of 23% by 2025, but Tumiwa expects that to change rapidly with advances in energy storage and other technologies making renewables cheaper than coal.

The Monash report noted that the cost of large scale wind and solar installations has already declined to a point where they are now competitive with the latest fossil fuel generators and come without any commodity price volatility.

Finding the money to build coal-fired stations has also become increasingly difficult with the Japanese and South Korean governments ending their funding and companies like Siemens and Toshiba following the lead of General Electric in not taking on any new coal plant contracts.

The move to renewables will reduce the power of Indonesia’s coal lobby, headed by such players as Aburizal Bakrie and Garibaldi Thohir, which recently pressured the government to renew existing concessions and to replace 25-35% royalty payments with a flat 10% value-added tax. 

A view of downtown Jakarta taken from the same position early in November a day apart showing how the wind trajectory dictates pollution levels. Picture: Ong Hock Chuan/Used with Permission

Looking at an operating loss of $828 million so far this year, PLN has already called for a 10-year delay, complaining that the new emission cap will result in an increase in power rates of 0.88 US cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) and boost subsidy spending by $729 million a year to pay for the equipment.

Depending on the technology and the type of coal used, scrubbers add about 30%, or about $110,000 a megawatt, to the cost of a new power station, which environmentalists insist is cheap at the price compared to the impact on health. Retrofitting a flue-gas desulfurization unit costs another 30% more.

In a presentation before the regulation was announced in September last year, the utility estimated that 87 existing coal-fired plants with a total capacity of  20,752MW, would be affected by the new emission rules, which come into force in three years.

With some of the largest reserves in the world, mostly concentrated in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and Indonesia ranked second among global exporters, Indonesia currently relies on coal for 34,700MW of its total electricity generation of 71,000MW.

The remaining 14,990MW was built by Japanese, American and other Western power developers, who added scrubbers as part of the overall cost of their state-of-the-art plants, investments PLN did not seem willing to make itself.

Up to now, the benchmark has always been East Java’s 4,710MW Paiton complex, the world’s 12th largest coal-fired plant and the most efficient on the Java-Bali grid, which uses saltwater flue gas desulfurization units and so-called eco-friendly coal from Kalimantan.

Power executives say regulation 15/2019 does not clearly define the steps and stages operators must follow to comply with the new standards, but it does stipulate that existing plants will have to integrate the results of emission monitoring by the end of 2021.

According to a 2019-2020 Greenpeace study, Suralaya is the world’s 18th biggest single hotspot, pumping out the highest concentration of colorless SO2 in Southeast Asia – 75% of  Indonesia’s total emissions – followed closely by Singapore’s oil and gas refineries to the northwest. 

View of the Suralaya coal power plant on May 4, 2019 in Cilegon city, Banten province, Indonesia. Photo: Greenpeace/Ulet Ifansasti

Studies over the past four years consistently show land transportation as the main contributor to Jakarta’s dangerously-high pollution levels, especially the PM2.5 particles which are four or five times above World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

But among the world’s highest number of new coal-fired plants within 100 kilometers of a national capital are also many smaller coal and diesel generators used in manufacturing, a category ranked second behind transportation as the main source of Jakarta’s PM2.5 and SO2.

Air quality improved by 42% in the first two weeks of Jakarta’s partial Covid lockdown last April as traffic congestion eased dramatically, but the haze produced by PM2.5 particles has persisted in varying intensity even on Sundays and holidays. 

A 2019 white paper produced by Jakarta’s Environmental Agency and Vital Strategies, a global public health organization, said there was an urgent need for manufacturers to install what it called “the best available air pollution control devices.”

The report said Jakarta should encourage industries that use high-sulfur fuels to shift to natural gas or renewable energy either through incentives, regulation or sanctions, calling on state-owned Perusaahan Gas Negara (PGN) to expand its 1,116-kilometer South Sumatra-Jakarta piped gas network.