Thursday, 4 October 2012

Indonesia: Sometimes by Candlelight

An archipelago of 17,000 tropical islands strewn with natural disasters, terrorism and turbulent politics, cemented together with economic growth and a burgeoning population. There are volatile separatist movements in Northern Sumatra as well as in West Papuan and the country is still struggling to address the violent devastation brought about by the Boxing Day tsunamis and the extremists (who remain active) responsible for the Bali bombings. To round off this list of woe, Indonesia is facing an energy crisis as well.

As the Indonesian economy grows, there's been an increase in the amount of people who can afford night-time lighting and some basic consumer electronics. The price of oil has increased worldwide in the past decade and Indonesia's electricity network can't keep up. Blackouts are becoming an increasingly common experience for the ordinary people of Indonesia's towns and cities.

Arriving into the mountain village of Kaliurang on the slopes of Merapi, was a surreal experience: a whole village, in darkness. The only light in the main street came from the solitary glow of a gas stove at a food stall, the hostel I arrived at was lit by candles.

I asked the owner of the hostel how often blackouts like this happened. He said that it was a rare occurrence, maybe twice a year. However, the candles were still left out the afternoon of the next day, which made me doubtful of the veracity of his statement.

The blackout lasted an hour. When light returned I went to the village centre in search of dinner. People I asked about the situation gave the impression that it was a more regular experience than my host was letting on, saying that it was a once a month or every two month occurrence.

In Java's second biggest city, Yogyakarta, I experienced the second blackout of my visit. The lights failed suddenly and there as an audible groan from the internet cafés and hostels. Some of the larger hotels in the city had private generators and light spilled out onto the streets. Car headlights and scooters provided illumination as the crowds made their way back to hotels and losmen. If the hostel owner was telling the truth, I was either incredibly unlucky to experience the two blackouts that occur in a year in the space of a five day visit, or they occur with such frequency that it's preferable to lie about them.

These were blackouts on a small scale, but Indonesia has experienced some of the most widespread in history. In 2008, 100 million people (imagine everyone in England and France sitting in the dark) were left without electricity when coal ships couldn't make delivery due to rough seas. The resulting deficit in supply caused a cascading fault through the power grid. For individuals, it is an inconvenience. For Indonesia's economy, it scares away possible investment. Companies' manufacturing facilities grind to a halt with each blackout. Even with cheap labour and the availability of resources, for some companies, it won't be worth the effort.

These power blackouts, similar to those that occurred recently in India, are the physical manifestations of a global energy crisis. As demand increases in developing nations such as Indonesia, the world's ability to cope will be tested. Wealthier nations have a better capacity to adapt with a price increase for energy, and can do without some luxuries. For those in developing nations where 50% of the world's population lives, it means going without lighting, heating and access to education. It is a global challenge that will shape every aspect of life in the next century.


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  2. Hi James, your articulate and insightful analysis of this issue was a pleasure to read.

    You have touched on one of the oldest and most important power system issues - power quality! And if you ever wondered is that important, go take a drive down to Leixlip and look at the Intel plant. It is electrically reinforced more than any other site in Ireland. Intel is of unbelievable importance to the Irish economy, and if a black out were to occur at the Intel plant, they would lose a staggering amount of money. ESB would get a slap on the wrists and the Irish Government would have to do a lot of grovelling to make sure Intel stayed investing in Ireland. An outage at Leixlip would mean other companies depending on high levels of power quality (companies like Aughinish Alumina, Google, Facebook etc) would no longer find Ireland as an attractive location for their investment.

    Indonesia look like it has a capacity problem, that is, it does not have sufficient levels of installed generation to meet its peak electricity demand in a reliable manner. Simply put, it needs more power plants. This is a planning issue. The Indonesian Government has not increased its generation capacity to keep up with the growth in electricity demand. It has also not upgraded the electricity grid which delivers power to the load centres. When you add a 'weak' grid to an inadequate generation portfolio, you end up with a power system that has low levels of security. Low security levels are the prime reason for blackouts. What I mean by low security is that the Indonesian power system is not 'robust' to disturbances. So when the system is subjected to some form of contingency (say a power plant or power line tripping out), the Indonesian power system does not have the ability to maintain an uninterruptable supply of electricity to the customer. It has to resort to cutting off some of its customer’s load to ensure that the unbalance caused by the power plant or power line tripping out is corrected. The Indonesian system operator is creating local blackouts, to prevent a total system blackout. However, this isn’t acceptable operating practice at all. Maintaining a constant supply of electricity to the customer, including during times of disturbances, is the primary mandate of a system operator. If it fails to do this on a regular basis, it’s a poorly run power system. No other way around it.

    You also talked about cascades James. A cascade is the uncontrolled successive loss of elements (power plants, power lines) on the power system. A cascade cannot be restrained from spreading beyond the area in which the original disturbance occurs, and means the whole system blacks out. So what you experienced in Indonesia was not a cascading outage, but a local blackout.

    I think these are fundamental issues with the Indonesian power system. So I don’t think that the black outs you experienced were directly linked with the energy crisis. Though without doubt, the energy crisis is having an indirect effect; with more money being spent on fuel to run the system, there is less money available to put the reinforcements in place to increase the security of Indonesia’s power system.

    Just as a side note - I know the Hawaiian power system experiences local blackout issues as well - again due to the 'bail and twine nature' of its power system (small islands, which are not interconnected). To deal with this fundamental weakness in its grid, Hawaii has a lot of diesel generators, which can start-up quickly in times of black out and get the system going as soon as possible again. I’d imagine Indonesia has something similar - Ad hoc power system operation - expensive, inefficient, and as you said James, seriously hurting the country’s ability to attract foreign investment.