Mon, Sep 26, 2016 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Indonesia struggles to tap volcano power


Steam rises from the Wayang Windu geothermal power station on West Java in Indonesia on Aug. 31.

Photo: AFP

Columns of steam shoot from the ground at an Indonesian power plant sitting in the shadow of an active volcano, as energy is tapped from the red-hot underbelly of the archipelago.

Pipes zigzag up rugged mountainsides covered in tea plantations, carrying steam from the Earth’s core to power enormous turbines at the Wayang Windu facility on Java island, Indonesia.

Indonesia, a seismically-active island chain studded with scores of volcanoes, holds about 40 percent of the world’s geothermal energy reserves, but has long lagged behind in its use of the renewable power source.

Now the government is pushing to expand the sector five-fold in the next decade, although the challenges are huge in a country where the burden of red tape remains onerous, big projects are often delayed and targets missed.

“The potential is tremendous,” said Rully Wirawan, field manager at Wayang Windu. “The current [Indonesian] government is trying to tackle the challenges, so I believe the development of the sector will be better in future.”

Geothermal, a clean energy source which releases negligible amounts of greenhouse gases, unlike burning dirty fossil fuels, is mostly found in seismically-active areas around tectonic plate boundaries.

The Earth’s heat emanating through the fault lines warms underground reservoirs and the resulting steam can be channeled to geothermal energy plants.

Fossil fuel addiction

The majority of Indonesia’s power is generated from its abundant reserves of coal and oil. It has installed capacity to produce about 1,400 megawatts of electricity from geothermal, enough to provide power to just 1.4 million households in the country of 255 million.

That is less than 5 percent of geothermal’s estimated potential and behind the world’s two leading producers of the energy source, the US and the Philippines.

However, the Indonesian government is aiming to increase the country’s generating capacity to about 7,200 megawatts by 2025, as part of a broader plan to boost the renewables sector, which would likely make it the world’s top producer of the power source.

A major part of the drive is a law passed two years ago that means geothermal exploration is no longer considered mining activity, as it was previously. The old definition had held up the industry as mining cannot be carried out in the country’s vast tracts of protected forests, believed to contain about two-thirds of Indonesia’s geothermal reserves.

The Indonesian government is also seeking to sweeten local administrations — which had sometimes resisted the construction of the steam-belching facilities — by offering them up to 1 percent of revenue from any geothermal plant in their area.

Abadi Poernomo, chairman of the Indonesian Geothermal Association, which represents companies involved in the sector, is upbeat about future prospects: “A lot of investors from abroad are coming to Indonesia with the intent to develop geothermal.”

High costs, red tape

Still, the challenges are enormous. While achieving the 2025 target might be possible, it would be extremely difficult, said Daniel Wicaksana, an energy expert at consultancy Frost and Sullivan Indonesia.

One of the biggest problems is the high exploration costs needed at the outset, as checking for potential geothermal reserves is a complex, time-consuming business that is not always successful.

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