BEDUGUL, Bali: On the southern slopes of dormant volcano Mount Bratan were three peculiar looking steel structures, standing several hundred metres apart from each other.
The structures – two-metre-tall metal pipes adorned with oversized valves and protected by razor-wire fences – seemed at odd with the surrounding landscape, one of the last swaths of untouched forests in the tourist island of Bali, Indonesia.
The pipes and an abandoned pond nearby are all that is left from a stalled project to construct the island’s first geothermal power plant.
The project was halted in 1995 following a series of protests from locals, but not before three out of the six proposed wells were dug and kilometres of roads paved. Around 1 sq km of forest was also cleared.
The mountain, protesters said, has water springs which are vital to the thousands living and farming on Mount Bratan’s foothills and slopes.
According to Bali governor I Wayan Koster, the power plant is supposedly located inside an area considered sacred by the Hindu-majority Balinese.
The plant has caused irreversible environmental damage, locals believe, including floods and occasional gas leaks.
With Bali’s energy consumption predicted to rise to 2,000MW in the next five years, there has been talk of reviving the geothermal plant project. However, the local government has insisted that this is not on the cards and attempts are being made to tap on other forms of clean energy.
GEOTHERMAL PROJECT NOT WITHOUT ENVIRONMENTAL CONSEQUENCES
Indonesia, which straddles the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, has the most volcanoes in the world at 147. Out of this, 76 are active, making it ideal for tapping geothermal energy.
According to by the Indonesian Energy and Mineral Resource Ministry, geothermal energy in Indonesia could generate 28.5 gigawatt of electricity, enough to supply 40 per cent of the country’s electricity needs.
Only 1.9 gigawatt of that energy has been harnessed today and 13 geothermal plants have been built.
In terms of energy mix, 57.2 per cent of Indonesia’s power plants still rely on coal and 24.8 per cent is powered by petroleum, both of which produce greenhouse gasses that exacerbate climate change.
A study by the United States Office of Scientific and Technical Information said that coal and petroleum power plants produce 0.96kg and 0.71 kg of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour respectively. Meanwhile, geothermal power plants only produce 0.08kg of CO2 per kWh.
"Geothermal energy can be environmentally friendly if it is harnessed the right way. But when the risk outweighs the benefit, it can actually be very detrimental to the environment,” said Dwi Sawung, an energy expert at the NGO, Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI).
“The problem is geothermal energy can be found along volcanic belts near active volcanoes and most of the time they are found inside protected forests and on steep mountain slopes. This makes the surrounding areas prone to landslides and floods. If it is not done properly, geothermal plants are also prone to gas blow outs.”
Among the numerous cases of environmental degradation cited by Mr Sawung is the 2015 landslide in West Java province. The landslide occurred at a geothermal power plant complex, sending 750 cubic metres of earth towards a village 200m away. Eleven homes were destroyed and five people were killed in the incident.
A similar landslide occurred the following year inside a geothermal power plant site Bengkulu province. Three power plant workers and three local villagers were killed.
Although the Bedugul geothermal project has been postponed indefinitely, locals in the area say they are facing consequences 15 years after the forest was cleared and the wells dug.
Mr Wayan Hendra, who manages a strawberry farm near the plant said the areas in the foothills of Mount Bratan are often flooded during the rainy season.
“It never flooded before the geothermal plant was built,” he told CNA. “Is there a direct correlation? I am not sure. But the only development happening in the mountain was the power plant.”
Meanwhile, Mr Ida Bagus Dirga, who works at a nearby Ulun Danu Bratan Hindu temple, a lakeside tourist attraction, said people living in the foothills of Mount Bratan like himself are anxious about a potential gas blow out.
“People are worried that the whole of Bedugul area could one day be covered in mud like Sidoarjo,” Mr Dirga told CNA.
He was referring to the 2006 mudflow in Sidoarjo, East Java which devastated more than 3,000 homes. The mudflow was attributed to the drilling for natural gas near a long dormant mud volcano.
Mr Wayan Puja Ambara, chief of the Bukit Catu village where the plant is located said the government should do something about the abandoned plant.
“It has been 15 years. If the government wants the project to continue, then proceed. If they don’t, then they should properly close the drilling hole and not leave the pipes to rot like that,” he said.
He said that the beginning of this year, the whole village reeked of sulphur. The smell lingered for weeks. "We worry that if the pipes are left to rot without any clear decision (whether the project should resume), the village would be in danger.”
JAKARTA SOUGHT TO REVIVE PLANT, BUT LOCAL GOVERNMENT SAID NO
A proposal to resume construction of the Bedugul geothermal plant resurfaced in February last year, after a number of parliamentarians from Jakarta visited Bali.
“Bali’s electricity consumption is predicted to rise by 700MW in the next five years and the government wants that need to be met with renewable energy,” one of the members of parliament who made the official visit to Bali last year, Mr Gus Irawan Pasaribu told CNA.
“Meanwhile there is a half-built geothermal power plant in Bali. Three out of the six proposed wells have already been drilled. Why put that to waste?”
The then Energy Minister Ignasius Jonan also lobbied Bali's governor I Wayan Koster to resume the geothermal plant when the two met in Bali in August 2019. Mr Jonan was replaced by Mr Arifin Tasrif two months later when President Joko Widodo was sworn in for his second term in office.
Governor Koster has rejected the central government’s request.
“The minister wanted (the geothermal project) to resume. But I told him that we shouldn’t,” the governor told reporters in September last year.
“I told him if I continue (the project), the people of Bali would demonstrate. It sits on a sacred site. I can’t allow it (to proceed).”
Chief of Bali Energy and Mineral Resources Agency, Mr Ida Bagus Ngurah Arda said last month that the governor’s position remained unchanged.
BALI GOVERNMENT SAYS IT IS COMMITTED TO RENEWABLES
With most of its power coming from the neighbouring Java, Bali has been struggling to become energy self sufficient.
As the geothermal project stalled, the province turned to a less sustainable source of energy.
In 2013, then-governor Made Mangku Pastika gave the green light for the construction of a 426MW coal-powered power plant in the northern part of the island. The plant, which became operational in 2015 uses 5,000 tonnes of coal everyday.
But Mr Koster, the current governor is committed to powering the island using renewable and less harmful sources of energy, the island’s energy chief said.
“There are plans to convert the coal-powered plant to use natural gas,” Mr Arda was reported as saying by local media.
He said the governor is also planning to encourage the private sector and individuals to use solar energy by rolling out tax incentives. “We are formulating the necessary regulations right now,” he reportedly said.
There are also plans to revive the 700kw wind power plant in the island of Nusa Penida which fell into disrepair just two years after the turbines were operational in 2007.
Mr Arda said that the governor is also planning to build two 50MW solar power plants in Jembrana and Karangasem districts.
“Meanwhile, the Bali government is looking for other potential geothermal sites,” he said.