The Jakarta Post
It’s not often that the public gets to see President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo angry. Typical of a Javanese ruler, his silence during the meeting on Monday morning with the management of the state power company PLN spoke volumes. He was very angry.
That seems to be the consensus among journalists present when the PLN board gave him a lengthy technical explanation about why most of the western and central parts of Java suffered a long blackout on Sunday through Monday, crippling many cities, including Jakarta, the seat of the nation’s capital.
Jokowi uttered a few words, saying that he did not buy the explanation and that a big company tasked with distributing power to the people should have better contingency plans to deal with disruptions of the scale seen on Sunday.
His anger reflected the sentiments of millions of people who were left without power for 10 hours or more. The disruption was massive, many also had no water supply or means of communication. Hundreds or thousands were stranded on underground and overground rail tracks. Such is our dependence on electricity, the distribution of which is monopolized by PLN.
Posts on social media these last three days have been unkind to PLN, with memes mocking its incompetence. That’s the most the public could do. You are powerless against a utility monopoly.
In contrast, Jokowi, freshly reelected for a second five-year mandate beginning October, can do more. It is safe to assume that he would do something to make PLN more publicly accountable and ensure that no such occurrence happens again in the future.
As president, he has many options, including: Replacing the entire PLN board; bringing in someone from the private sector who understands the concept of public service; dismantling PLN’s monopoly; breaking it into two or three companies that would compete with one another; or privatizing PLN. Some of these are not particularly drastic measures, as they have been taken in other countries and have proven effective.
Jokowi should also seriously consider promoting the use of solar power at homes.
Having solar panels at home reduces our dependency on PLN for power. It is renewable and environmentally friendly, and we can go one step further: Sell our surplus electricity to PLN.
Straddling the equator, Indonesia is the most ideal place on earth to use solar panels on a massive scale. One study shows that Indonesia gets 5.5 hours of sunshine a day on average during the year, compared with 3.5 hours for subtropical regions like Germany, the United States, China and India, where solar power is already making a significant contribution to the overall energy mix.
There are several catches in Indonesia, but none the President could not address.
Solar panels are still prohibitively expensive, although prices are coming down rapidly, so it shouldn’t be long before they become affordable to many, at least to middle class Indonesians.
The government makes it difficult for people to buy solar panels because of a 60 percent local content requirement, which has effectively pushed prices higher in the absence of local producers that make solar panels on a large scale.
PLN has made sure it pays households 65 percent of what it chargers customers for any surplus electricity households sell. A mandated 35 percent price difference is only possible in a monopoly set-up.
The difficulty with switching to alternative sources of energy is the opposition that will come from powerful business lobbies. We saw this with the launch of liquefied gas and more recently biofuel, for vehicles. Both programs failed to take off in the absence of strong political will from the government.
In spite of the rhetoric about going for renewable and clean energy, Indonesia continues to fail to make the transition away from fossil fuels, primarily because of vested business interests.
Lessons from other countries show that the adoption of alternative sources of energy can only happen if the government offers incentives, including through subsidy schemes.
Indonesia’s experience is exactly the reverse. The government has maintained subsidies for gasoline and now even coal, which fire most of PLN’s power plants, giving no chance for alternative energy sources to make a dent. That subsidy money would be better spent promoting the use of renewable and clean energy resources, including solar power.
PLN has its own internal problems, with its CEO under investigation for corruption, and one caretaker-CEO taking their turn after another in the past year. This leadership issue certainly needs sorting out. But the other main problem, PLN’s monopolistic power, must be addressed.
Jokowi is unlikely to dismantle the power of state companies, including PLN, and privatization has never been on the cards, but at least he could allow or even promote the use of solar energy. Other countries with far less sunshine than Indonesia are already ahead.
Rather than venting or bottling up our anger, we should turn this energy toward demanding the President change the way electricity is managed in this country.