The Jakarta Post
A hydropower plant project in the Batang Toru ecosystem in South Tapanuli, North Sumatra, has been lauded for its future role of supplying electricity to the supposedly underpowered province and helping curb the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
However, these claims have been refuted in a new report from an energy consultant, who argues the Rp 22 trillion (US$1.6 billion) project is “entirely unnecessary [...] for future energy needs” and poses “a critical threat to the local ecosystem and the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan.”
David Brown, an energy consultant with Brown Brothers Energy and Environment, said upon the reports launch in late January that parties that supported the project had “mischaracterized, exaggerated or just manufactured much of the rationale for the dam”.
“Supporters said the dam would supply electricity necessary to support children across the province to study at night. However, North Sumatra is one of the most electrified provinces in the country, with 95.8 percent of its population having access to electricity,” Brown said.
He added that most of those who did not have access to electricity — 600,000 people — lived on Nias Island. “They won’t get benefits from electricity production on the Sumatran mainland.”
Brown went on to argue that the power produced by the dam would not help North Sumatra, which is set to build dozens of other new power plants by 2028.
According to state-owned electricity company PLN’s 2019-2028 electricity procurement plan (RUPTL), 80 new power plants will be built across the province, including 49 hydropower plants.
“Combined, the new hydropower plants alone will produce four times more power than the Batang Toru power plant,” Brown said.
He also refuted claims the hydropower plant would replace several diesel-powered plants currently operating across the province, as no such plants are currently in operation, according to the electricity company.
He added he reached the conclusions based on data provided by PLN and did not personally support the construction of gas-powered power plants.
The company that will operate the Batang Toru plant, PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE), claimed the dam would help the country achieve its climate change mitigation targets. Under the Paris Agreement, Indonesia pledged in its nationally determined contribution (NDC) to reduce its emissions by 29 percent below a business as usual (BAU) projection, or by up to 41 percent below BAU with international assistance.
The company claimed the Batang Toru hydropower project would reduce the country’s carbon emissions by 1.6 to 2.2 million tons per year, or 4 percent of its NDC.
“The actual figure, however, would not be as high as claimed. If the dam replaces a power ship currently powering up the province, it would only reduce 1.1 million tons of CO2 — smaller than claimed by the company,” Brown said.
The construction of the power plant has been met with protests from scientists and activists since 2018. They argued the project could potentially endanger the Tapanuli orangutan, an endemic species to the Batang Toru ecosystem.
Scientists confirmed in 2017 that the Tapanuli orangutans were a separate species from their Bornean and Sumatran cousins. The dam project was kicked off in 2012.
Researchers believe only 800 Tapanuli orangutans remain in their habitat of Batang Toru, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to include the species on its red list as “critically endangered”.
Scientists believe the construction of roads, power lines and the dam itself would pose increased risks to the already endangered species.
The Indonesian Environmental Forum (Walhi) has filed a lawsuit against the plan, claiming the dam would impact the livelihoods of farmers downstream as the dam would arrest the flow of the river for 18 hours a day.
NSHE spokesperson Firman Taufick dismissed the study, describing Brown as not credible.
“He is not part of the government responsible for developing the power system in the country. He is also not an electricity expert,” Firman said in a recent statement.
The company alleged that Brown’s report was a part of a campaign launched by global environmental group Mighty Earth against the construction of the hydropower plant.
“This is a campaign launched by Mighty Earth. Everyone knows who they are, as well as their motivation and interests. One thing is for sure, their interests are not for Indonesia. We know that,” said Firman. NSHE is cooperating with Sinohydro Corporation Limited, a Chinese state-owned hydropower engineering and construction company, to build the dam.
In a statement made available to The Jakarta Post on Friday, Brown regretted that Firman “did not comment on [his] report’s actual findings but did see it fit to make two remarks about [him].”
Brown added that the information in his report on the province’s electricity sector originated from PLN’s most recent RUPTL. “With that said, normal arithmetical analysis of information sourced from PLN’s 2019 RUPTL is fair game. I drew logical conclusions from public information that PLN itself has promulgated.”
Regarding Firman’s criticism of Brown’s qualification, the energy analyst said he and his brother, Jeffrey D. Brown, who co-authored the Batang Toru report, had more than 50 years of energy experience.
David said he had worked as an energy policy advisor to members of the United States Congress, before working as an oil, gas and mining advisor with the World Bank in Indonesia. He recently wrote a feasibility study and an investment proposal for the proposed purchase of a bioenergy plant in East Kalimantan.
Meanwhile, Jeffery was senior vice president at Seattle-based clean energy development firm Summit Power Group. He had also worked for 20 years as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs, advising clients related to virtually every type of energy and electricity generation project.
“In light of the qualifications outlined above, I would respectfully submit that Brown Brothers Energy and Environment is qualified to take a view on electricity supply and demand in North Sumatra, particularly when our view is largely in line with the electrification plans of the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry and PLN,” said Brown.
People-Centered Business and Economic Institute (IBEKA) founder Tri Mumpuni said the government should focus on building micro hydropower plants in areas not yet electrified across the archipelago, rather than promoting the construction of large projects, such as the Batang Toru dam.
“We should focus on promoting energy sovereignty, especially for people living in remote areas, because it will also empower them financially, among other things,” said Tri, who has been promoting the development of micro hydropower plants in several villages across the country.
Editor's note: This article has been updated on Feb. 18 to accommodate a clarification by David Brown.