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Jakarta Post

Dear PLN, we demand (to know) more

  • Esther Samboh

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, August 6, 2019   /   08:48 am
Dear PLN, we demand (to know) more President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo during a meeting at PLN headquarter in Jakarta, Monday, August 5, 2019. The president ask for PLN clarification regarding the blackout in Jabodetabek on Sunday, August 4, 2019. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

Train passengers stranded in the middle of underground railway tracks. Houses with babies and children running out of water and food. Motorists in chaos as traffic lights blacked out. Frozen breastmilk and food to feed families thawed and stale. Electronic payments unprocessed and communication networks unstable.

Millions were affected by the massive power outage that hit the capital and its surrounding cities in West Java on Sunday for roughly eight straight hours, with power remaining unstable for more than 24 hours until the time of writing.

“Disruption” in the extra-high-voltage Ungaran-Pemalang power line in Central Java is known to be the cause, but is “disruption” good enough a reason to leave multiple cities powerless? Should we settle with that?

As paying consumers of the sole power provider state-owned electricity firm PLN, and as taxpayers, we should demand more.

Indonesians have been patient. They are accustomed to blackouts every now and then, and the only thing they can do is call the PLN hotline and ask how long they will spend in the dark, more often without receiving a definite answer. It is about time to leave that habit behind and call for reform in transparency and accountability in our power company.

Just months ago, PLN told us we had an abundance of electricity, that Java and Bali had a power surplus, with power plants on the two islands having a combined capacity of around 33,000 megawatts, an 8,000 MW surplus from maximum consumption of 25,000 MW. Unlike in other parts of the country, Java and Bali are no longer scheduled for rolling blackouts.

The issue undoubtedly leaves a big question mark over President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s 35,000 MW electricity supply plan and how the overwhelming supply should be followed by quality and consistency, let alone leadership skills from PLN, to serve citizens. Leadership in PLN is another big question. The blackout crisis couldn’t have asked for better timing, as the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) Ministry, responsible for the management of state firms, just appointed a new acting president director for PLN on Friday, two days before the crisis.

Sripeni Inten, previously procurement director at PLN, was appointed the first female to lead PLN, after two previous acting president directors in four months, to fill in the big gap left by former PLN president director Sofyan Basir. He stepped down on graft allegations being processed by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

The corruption allegations surrounded coal-fired power plant PLTU Riau-1, where Sofyan allegedly “facilitated” the project to be handed over to independent power producer (IPP) Blackgold Natural Resources Ltd.

The blackout naturally raises deeper, more structural questions over the management of power plant projects and whether internal management and the leadership of PLN is strong and solid enough to handle such a massive power outage crisis.

Especially since similar blackouts happened on Java and Bali in 2002 for two days and in 1997 as well, today’s expectations are that a state electricity firm as powerful as PLN should have had a technical contingency plan and clear communication guidelines in disseminating information to the public.

Disruption in transmission at high voltage and backbone circuits should indeed be handled with extra care, and we may need time to recover. But a capable management team would execute the crisis contingency plan in a manner that would win consumers’ trust and ease their concern.

Further, it may be time to structurally reform the people under PLN’s leadership helmets, for the sake of accountability. Filling in the CEO position with three different people in four months must stop.

Making matters worse is the influx of information online, speculating when the power will be back on, whether there is a rolling blackout, etc. A centralized, one-door PR system would have eased and tackled the influx of information and misinformation, and calmed the public with information on how to carry on with their lives.

Beyond that, the PLN monopoly on our utility service may need to be reviewed. With no choices of electricity service, and with a level of service that can create such a severe power outage when rolling blackouts are still experienced across the archipelago, it may be time for more options on power providers.

PLN apologized several times, to the public and President Jokowi, who conveyed disappointment directly at its office on Monday and demanded a speedy recovery. But they stopped short of explaining why there was a “disruption” in the north circuits of Ungaran-Pemalang that disturbed the voltage and frequency of electricity transmission.

But the root of the problem — how the disruption occurred, what caused the disruption, and if it is something that could have been preempted — remains a big mystery.

The incident clearly presents a massive challenge to the government regarding its plans, beyond the 35,000 MW electricity procurement. How could a cashless society operate with unreliable electricity? And how would the digital economy thrive when it is difficult to get a simple telco signal?

The Java blackout is much larger in size than the July power outage striking the “city that never sleeps” New York, which left hundreds of thousands and even Times Square without electricity for two days. The difference: Private electricity provider Consolidated Edison was quick to conduct tests to find the root of the problem.

Law No. 30/2009 on electricity stipulates that consumers have the right to “uninterrupted” electricity with quality and accountability. Consumers are also entitled to “compensation” on power outages caused by an operator’s mishap. Therefore, we have the right to demand more quality service, compensation, accountability, transparency and more from PLN.