- Locals and environmentalists have opposed a plan to expand a coal-fired power plan in northern Bali, Indonesia.
- They are worried that the expansion will exacerbate the existing impact of the plant on the environment and locals’ health and livelihoods.
- A particular concern focuses on the survival of dolphins and endemic species living in close proximity to the plant, with Greenpeace saying the dolphins have particularly been affected since the plant came on line in 2015.
- Another major worry is air pollution, with many locals complaining of respiratory ailments as a result of the fumes and coal dust emitted from the plant.
JAKARTA — Dolphins haven’t had it easy in Bali, a resort island in Indonesia that’s massively popular with tourists.
They’re often held captive in chlorinated pools for traveling circuses; a report alleges that dolphins at one such outfit had their teeth filed down or removed altogether to prevent bite injuries to swimmers.
But the biggest challenge they face is one that threatens their habitat and that could potentially drive them away from the island’s waters. That challenge comes in the form of a massive coal-fired power plant in the sleepy fishing village of Celukan Bawang, on Bali’s north coast. The plant lies west of the popular Lovina Beach, a prime spot for dolphin-watching boat tours.
But the tour operators could soon be out of business, if the grim scenario painted by a Greenpeace report plays out. Since the plant began operating in 2015, the environmental watchdog says, it has dumped coal waste residue on the land and in the sea, wreaking havoc on the local ecosystem. The steady traffic of coal barges supplying the plant have also damaged coral reefs and driven away fish.
The impact has been far-reaching, the report says, with local fishermen forced to sail further out to sea because of declining catches in their traditional fishing areas closer to shore.
In hot water
Didit Haryo, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, says dolphins are among the animals most affected by the power plant.
The plant is just 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Lovina Beach, and as such lies easily within the typical dolphin roaming range of around 40 kilometers.
“In the past, locals in Celukan Bawang said there were still many dolphins passing by,” Didit told Mongabay. “But they say they rarely see dolphins nowadays.”
There are several ways in which the plant is potentially impacting the local dolphin population, says Putu Liza Kusuma Mustika, a marine mammal expert at the University of Queensland in Australia.
For starters, there’s the pollution from the heavy metals disposed of into the sea, as well as rising water temperatures due to the pumping of hot water from the plant’s cooling system. Then there’s the high volume of coal-barge traffic, raising the risk of dolphins getting hit. Finally there’s the noise pollution from the ships’ sonar, which can disorient the dolphins, who rely on their own sonar to communicate and navigate.
“But the biggest threats are the heavy metal pollution and hot water,” Liza told Mongabay.
Liza, who studied the dolphins of northern Bali in 2010, said she found they ranged from 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of Celukan Bawang, to 40 kilometers west of the village, in West Bali National Park. That puts the power plant right in the dolphins’ known habitat.
Didit said he suspected the decrease in reported dolphin sightings off Celukan Bawang was liked directly to the warming of the seawater there, which is pumped into the plant to cool it before being pumped back out at a higher temperature.
“It’s still an assumption, but it must’ve been caused by the power plant, which needs a lot of water to cool down its machines,” he said.
Liza said that while there had been no research done on the direct impact to dolphins of warmer waters around power plants, climate research had shown that a water temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) was devastating for whales. Dolphins and whales in tropical waters can only tolerate temperatures up to 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).
“Anything more than 30 degrees Celsius will likely cause them to flee,” Liza said. “But unfortunately, this fact is used by the proponents of the power plant to argue that it’s actually a good thing for the dolphins to flee from the plant.”
The environmental agency in Buleleng district, the administrative region that includes Lovina, Celukan Bawang and the West Bali National Park, said that its own tests showed water and air quality near the power plant were at acceptable levels. According to the agency, six samples of seawater from the area showed an average temperature of 30.9 degrees Celsius (87.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — lower than the officially sanctioned limit of 35 degrees Celsius (85 degrees Fahrenheit), but higher than the tolerable limit for cetaceans.
These include beaked whales, whose migration route passes through the area, according to Liza. She said four of the whales got stranded on the shore between Celukan Bawang and Lovina in August 2015, the same month the power plant went into operation.
Impact on the community
It’s not just the marine life that’s feeling the literal and figurative heat from the Celukan Bawang plant. Locals have complained about pollution, waste, loss of livelihoods, and unresolved land compensation deals, with a third of the plant’s site still in dispute.
The impact on the local community was documented in a Greenpeace report released in April this year, which quoted residents and local officials. Many of them complained of health problems, particularly respiratory ailments caused by the dust and fumes from the burning coal.
One of them is Karimun, 63, who lives just 50 meters (164 feet) from where the plant’s smoke stacks stand today, with nine other family members. This is despite a 1997 law on environmental impact assessments, which stipulates a minimum distance of 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) between a power plant and the nearest residential area.
“I’m worried about my health,” Karimun said as quoted in the report. “I’ve gotten sick, so have my grandchildren, usually from respiratory issues and fevers.”
Before the plant was built, Karimun said, none of them had been this sick. But now, she said, they visited the doctor at least four times a month.
Emissions from coal-fired power plants can expose people living within the vicinity to dangerous levels of tiny carcinogenic particles known as PM2.5. These particles are small enough to enter the bloodstream, and long-term exposure to them can cause acute respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease. Other noxious emissions produced by coal-fired power plants include nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, and heavy metals like mercury.
Since the government doesn’t provide air quality data in the area, Greenpeace decided to monitor the air quality in Celukan Bawang and the main tourism hub of Denpasar, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of the plant.
According to Greenpeace’s real-time monitoring, uploaded to the global air quality monitoring platform IQAIR Air Visual, the level of PM2.5 in Celukan Bawang usually hit more than 50 micrograms per cubic meter in the mornings. This is double the WHO’s guideline level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter in a 24-hour period. On July 3, the PM2.5 level in Celukan Bawang spiked to 100.4 micrograms per cubic meter.
Greenpeace’s Didit said PM2.5 particles could travel as far as Denpasar on the wind. The watchdog’s air quality data showed two days during the monitoring period — July 19 and 24 — when the PM2.5 level in the city exceeded the WHO guideline level, hitting 29.8 and 29.6 micrograms per cubic meter, respectively.
PT General Energy Bali, which operates the power plant, has refuted Greenpeace’s claims. It said that since the plant began operating three years ago, it had not caused any damage to the environment. The company’s general affairs manager, Putu Singyen, said the operator had adhered to every government regulation, including those related to the environment.
“I’m also a Buleleng resident and I don’t want the environment to be damaged,” he told The Jakarta Post. “Everything is fine.”
The operator is now looking to more than double the plant’s output to meet growing demand for electricity across Bali. The Celukan Bawang plant currently has a generating capacity of 426 megawatts; the second phase of the project would bring an additional 660 megawatts on line.
Environmental activists say they’re concerned that this will result in increases in pollution, pumping of hot water into the sea, and barge traffic.
Mercury and ash produced from burning the coal could wash as far as Lovina Beach, destroying the dolphins’ habitat, said Greenpeace senior coal campaigner and air pollution researcher Lauri Myllyvirta. The group calculates that the amount of mercury produced annually by the power plant should the expansion go ahead would more than double from the current 30 kilograms to 80 kilograms (66 pounds to 176 pounds).
Liza said this could spell greater trouble for the dolphins.
“The pollutants will accumulate in their bodies,” she said. And because they’re mammals, they could potentially pass it on to their offspring through their milk, she said.
The expansion of the plant could also exacerbate the air pollution, eventually enveloping the entire island and threatening the tourism industry, the backbone of Bali’s economy, Myllyvirta said.
According to Greenpeace’s modeling, the air pollution could also affect West Bali National Park, home to several endemic species, including the critically endangered Bali myna (Leucopsar rothschildi).
“Why is the impact of the expanded power plant expected to be much greater than the existing impact?” Didit said. “It’s simply because the planned capacity of the plant … It means more coal and more pollution.”
Greenpeace says the current level of air pollution from the plant is responsible for causing 190 premature deaths each year, and says the figure could total to 7,000 after 30 years in operation at its current capacity.
If the plant is expanded, the projected number of deaths over that same period could top 19,000, Greenpeace says.
Those same emissions will also have significant climate impacts. The expanded plant is projected to burn nearly 3 million tonnes of coal per year, according to the environmental impact assessment for the project. After 30 years, it would have released more than 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of the exhaust emissions of 38.8 million motor vehicles over the course of a year.
That would exacerbate the threat that climate change already poses to the hundreds of thousands of people living along Bali’s northern coast, according to Sarah Burt, a staff attorney at the U.S.-based nonprofit Earthjustice.
“Although this region is already imperiled by warming seas, sea level rise and storm surges, the government ignored climate change when approving the project,” she said in a blog post.
It will also jeopardize Indonesia’s international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent by 2030. And the stakes have never been this high for Indonesia, and other countries, to meet, if not exceed, their climate targets, with researchers warning that the planet could soon cross a threshold leading to extreme weather events and rising sea levels.
Even if countries succeed in meeting their emission reduction targets, the world could still lurch toward this “irreversible pathway” into a future scenario dubbed “hothouse Earth,” according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“What we are saying is that when we reach 2 degrees of warming, we may be at a point where we hand over the control mechanism to Planet Earth herself,” Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a co-author of the study, told BBC News.
Under this scenario, some of the Earth’s natural sinks of carbon dioxide, such as forests, oceans and soil, will become net emitters, leading to a cycle of uncontrollable warming.
“We are the ones in control right now, but once we go past 2 degrees, we see that the Earth system tips over from being a friend to a foe,” Rockström said. “We totally hand over our fate to an Earth system that starts rolling out of equilibrium.”
‘Null and void’
In a bid to stop the expansion of the plant, community leaders in Celukan Bawang, supported by Greenpeace and lawyers from the Bali chapter of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), have filed a lawsuit against the Bali provincial administration. They argue that the permit for the plant’s expansion was issued by the governor of Bali in April 2017 without the prior and involved consent of the affected communities.
In his court, Muhamad Anshari, a resident, said the meeting to inform locals about the plant expansion project in August 2016 was only attended by 23 people from two neighborhood units — less than 1 percent of Celukan Bawang’s population of 5,461 people from 23 neighborhood units.
The residents also note that the permit fails to include detailed assessments on the impact of the expansion on the environment, the health of residents, and their livelihoods. The permit, for instance, omits projections on the plant expansion’s impact on air quality, as well as data on the existing impact of the plant on air quality.
“I’ve experienced firsthand the impact of the existing plant,” said Ketut Mangku Wiana, one of the plaintiffs. “There’s a stench coming from the plant. My throat became very dry.”
Liza, the marine biologist who testified as an expert witness in the trial, said the environmental impact assessment for the plant expansion was riddled with omissions, including simple points such as the date that water samples were collected.
“I read the document and I couldn’t find the date,” she said. “I’m not an expert in environmental impact assessments, but if the document was a thesis, I wouldn’t give it a passing grade because, scientifically speaking, it has a lot of holes.”
She also countered skepticism raised about her expertise, saying that while her study on dolphins near Celukan Bawang was conducted in 2010, long before the plant was built, it was still more than the plant operators had done.
“Did they even bother to study [the impact of the plant on dolphins] at all?” she said. “They have to prove [that the plant doesn’t affect the dolphins] through modeling, but there’s no research at all.”
In support of the lawsuit, Earthjustice, along with the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL) and other green NGOS from around the world have submitted an amicus brief to aid the court in its decision. The groups say the expansion plan for the Celukan Bawang plant doesn’t include a comprehensive analysis of the climate change impacts.
Margaretha Quina, the head of environmental pollution at ICEL, said that reason alone should be enough for the court “to declare the Celukan Bawang power plant’s environmental permit null and void.”
The brief also says the project is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and warming waters.
“Sea level rise as high as 1.32 meters [4.33 feet] would increase the risk of coastal flooding and storm surges, which would affect operation of the plant, including threats to coal ash containment structures,” the groups said.
The expansion of the Celukan Bawang plant is representative of the Indonesian government’s heavy reliance on coal to meet the country’s growing energy needs.
More than 60 percent of the electricity produced in Indonesia comes from coal-fired plants, and that capacity is expected to nearly double by 2027 to meet rising demand, according to the government’s electricity procurement business plan.
Bali, in particular, is experiencing a tourism boom, with new hotels and restaurants popping up regularly. That demand will have to be met by building new power-generating capacity on the island, either through coal or gas, Jisman Hutajulu, a senior electricity official at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, told Reuters.
However, Jisman said the decision on whether to opt for more fossil fuel capacity or renewable energy was ultimately up to local governments to make, with energy security, the environment and the cost all factored in.
Critics of the Celukan Bawang plant say the additional power demand can easily be met with renewable energy, given sunny Bali’s untapped potential for solar generation.
Island in the sun
If Bali’s renewable energy potential was fully exploited, it could generate as much as 115,372 gigawatt-hours per year of electricity, 98 percent of it from solar — far above its projected requirement of just 4,992.7 GWh per year by 2019 — according to a 2017 report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
Even if just 5 percent of that renewable potential was developed, the island could easily meet its projected energy requirement.
The districts of Buleleng in the north, home to Celukan Bawang, and Klungkung in the southeast offer the greatest technical potential for solar development, according to the ADB report. Combined, these two regions, where thousands of people still lack reliable access to electricity, could generate 59,000 gigawatt-hours per year of power from solar alone, the ADB researchers estimated.
In Denpasar, the provincial capital, there’s “huge potential” to install solar panels on rooftops, the report said, pointing to warehouses, factories, schools, public buildings and other structures with concrete roofs.
Annual solar irradiance, or the total power per unit received from the sun, ranges from 1,490 to 1,776 kilowatt-hours per square meter in Bali, compared to 900 kilowatt-hours per square meter in parts of Europe, where that figure is considered sufficient for solar power generation.
“[This] is a clear indication that Bali has the potential for commercially viable solar energy projects,” the ADB report said. “However, without proper policy and market intervention, it would be difficult to harness this potential.”
The researchers also said that large energy storage systems would be needed if all the power demand in Bali was to be met by solar energy.
Another hurdle to renewables in Indonesia is legislation stipulating that new renewable energy projects must provide electricity at a price about 15 percent cheaper than existing power plants in a given province. As a result, renewables often cannot compete with dirt-cheap coal.
Despite all the challenges, Greenpeace’s Didit said the ADB report clearly showed it was up to the government to tap into the renewables potential with appropriate policies and market intervention.
Bali already has three solar power plants. But only one of them, in Bangli district, is operating and selling power to state-owned electricity company PLN, after the local administration established a local company to sign an agreement with PLN. The two other plants are largely abandoned, with decaying facilities and no one to operate them.
“Because the local governments have no willingness [to support them],” Didit said. “So the problem only lies in the willingness of the government. If they want [to develop renewables], they certainly can, because the price of solar panels in the past 10 years has declined by more than 60 percent.”
Businesses also prefer renewables over coal to meet energy demand on the island, saying that the pollution from coal-fired plants could jeopardize the resort island’s tourism industry.
“Clean energy and sustainability are among requirements for quality tourism,” Bagus Sudibya, vice president of the Association of Indonesia Tours and Travel (ASITA), told The Jakarta Post. “Coal, one of the non-renewable energy sources, has been avoided by developed countries. Why are we still using it?”
Bali’s current power supply is already more than sufficient to meet demand, rendering the planned expansion of the Celukan Bawang plant redundant, critics say. Bali’s energy demand peaked in October 2016, reaching 860 megawatts, according to PLN’s electricity procurement business plan. Supply, meanwhile, is at 1,200 megawatts, about a third of which comes from neighboring Java Island, through undersea cables, Didit said.
“So based on data from recent years, Bali won’t need that much energy as the existing energy supply is enough,” he said. “So this is the perfect time for Bali to shift from dirty fossil fuels to clean energy.”