Java communities say coal plants burning biomass make the air dirtier

Java communities say coal plants burning biomass make the air dirtier

  • PLTU 1 Indramayu, a 13-year-old coal power complex, has begun adding biomass to the coal it burns on the north coast of West Java province.
  • Indonesia’s state power utility said its 43 coal-fired units nationwide consumed 1 million metric tons of biomass in 2023, a 71% increase from 2022, as it seeks ways to cut emissions.
  • In Indramayu, locals fear coal plants are endangering public health.

INDRAMAYU, Indonesia – A veil of smog hangs over Surono and Umru’s home as relatives and neighbors stream inside to greet the couple. Amra welcomes the new arrivals over lunch while family members and friends congratulate the delighted couple on the birth of their second child.

Outside the village of Tegal Taman, here on the northern coast of Indramayu district on Java island, a thin layer of soot has settled on the roof of a family home.

“The presence of dust like this is normal, it has been there for a long time since PLTU started operating,” Surono told Mongabay Indonesia.

PLTU 1 Indramayu is a coal-fired power complex that became operational in 2011. Operated by PJB, a subsidiary of state-owned electricity utility PLN, the plant’s three units supply 990 MW to the PLN-owned Java-Bali grid.

The factory chimney is a local landmark, surrounded by rice fields, less than 2 kilometers (1.2 mi) east of Sorono and Omru House.

In more than a decade since the power plant went into operation, farmers have complained of declining rice productivity, fishermen say their catches have dwindled, and parents believe their children are increasingly falling prey to respiratory infections.

Dust removal

Indonesia is the world’s largest coal exporter, and the national grid relies on local supplies to generate two-thirds of the archipelago’s electricity.

However, President Joko Widodo committed in a report to the UNFCCC to reduce Indonesia’s greenhouse emissions from a baseline scenario of 31.9% before 2030.

Most of these planned emissions reductions will be borne out by changes in the land-use sector, such as restrictions on the development of carbon-rich peatlands. However, a significant share of Indonesia’s international commitments depend on the transition to renewable energy.

Local farmer Dolmoyne, along with members of the Indramayu Coal Smoke Prevention Network (Jatayu), a grassroots civil society organisation, have protested the PLTU 1 plant on several occasions since 2015. He said things got worse after the plant carried out what is known in the industry as co-flaring – Replace some of the coal you burn with organic materials that are considered “cleaner.”

“After using biomass, the dust became denser,” said Dolmoen, who hails from the nearby village of Mekasarare.

The group objected to environmental permits linked to PLTU 2 Indramayu, a planned 1,000 MW extension, which was canceled after the project’s Japanese lenders withdrew their support for its construction.

Three days after Mikasarare farmers staged a demonstration against the extension of PLTU 2 in December 2017, armed plainclothes police kicked down the doors of homes in Mikasarare in the middle of the night, taking three farmers to prison.

Farmers and farmworkers who are members of the Indramayu Coal Smoke Prevention Network (Jatayu) have protested several times since 2015. Photo by Rabul Sawal/Mongabay Indonesia.

Coal to Newcastle

Around early 2020, PLN began working on plans to reduce emissions from its coal-fired power fleet by adding biomass to coal burned in the boiler.

“Planners are betting that they can slowly increase biomass power generation by using coal, a strategy that would extend the life of old, underutilized coal units while at the same time claiming credit for increasing the renewable energy mix,” the Energy Institute Economics and Financial Analysis analyst wrote. (IEEFA) Putra Adhijuna in a 2021 research paper.

PLN recently reported that it consumed 1 million metric tons of biomass across 43 coal units during 2023, an increase of 71% year-on-year. The type of biomass used is not specified, but in Indonesia the material depends on the location and includes sawdust and household waste.

Trend Asia, a Jakarta-based civil society organization, conducted research on the biomass supply chain for the Indramayu Coal Plant. The researchers found that the sawdust was purchased from the surrounding areas of Cirebon, Kuningan and Subang, as well as sources around the Indramayu area.

Andanto KM, spokesman for the terminal operator PJB, downplayed the implications of the data on respiratory problems contained in the public health report for the period from April to September 2022.

“The public health impact does not appear to be at a critical level,” Andanto wrote in a text message.

The impact of biomass emissions on surrounding populations is not well understood in Indonesia due to the newness of the biomass industry. A study in Thailand of two small energy plants burning rice husks found that local residents reported greater incidences of ill health than those living further away.

“People living near biomass power plants have higher and persistent respiratory illnesses and health symptoms,” concluded Chodchawal Guntarawjit of Naresuan University in northern Thailand.

Research published in 2018 in International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Healthfound a prevalence rate of between 20.7 and 31.6 cases of ill health per 100 people in the affected population.

Some rice crops are yellow and dry long before harvest.
Residents’ paddy fields near PLTU I in Indramayu are in an unhealthy condition. Some rice crops are yellow and dry long before harvest. Photo by Rabul Sawal/Mongabay Indonesia.

The analysis by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), a non-profit organization founded in Finland, concluded that burning biomass may worsen air quality due to the release of ammonia. Research by CREA and the Jakarta-based Basic Services Reform Institute found that air pollution levels in West Java, where Indramayu is located, were high enough to lower life expectancy in Indonesia’s most populous province.

The researchers found that air pollution could cause 10,500 premature deaths and an economic cost of $7.4 billion.

There is no conclusive evidence of a link between respiratory diseases and co-combustion with biomass in West Java. However, anecdotal testimonies from people living in the shadow of the Indramayu coal plants indicate widespread concern about these health risks.

Recently, a one-year-old child was taken to a health facility after experiencing breathing difficulties. The child was treated successfully, but the family fears PLTU 1 may be the cause.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that about 19,000 Indonesian children under the age of five die every year from preventable pneumonia, a respiratory infection.

In the middle of the day when the wind picks up, the air outside Sorono’s house improves. But in the late afternoon, Sorono likens the smoke from a coal plant to a diesel engine burning too much oil, and to an old bus crawling up a steep hill and coughing acrid smoke over everyone.

“Lately, the dust has gotten dirtier,” Sorono said.

Banner image: PLTU 1 Indramayu, which previously used entirely coal, now mixes it with biomass. Calling the government an “energy transition” effort does not solve the environmental problems plaguing residents. In fact, residents felt the smoke column getting denser and affecting them. Photo by Rabul Sawal/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by the Indonesian Mongabay team and first published here On our website Indonesian website It’s January. 30, 2024.

Experts see red on Indonesia’s planned green investment sign for coal plants

Agriculture, air pollution, biomass burning, coal, crops, environment, environmental law, fossil fuels, governance, health, pollution, rice

Asia, Indonesia, Java, Southeast Asia, West Java

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