Indonesia's Outages Spur Outrage

Power outages in Indonesia's capital of Jakarta and parts of Java, which left tens of millions without electricity for up to eight hours, have sparked public criticism of the performance of the state-owned State Electricity Company (PLN), which has a monopoly on supplying power to the community and which is subject to frequent blackouts and hit by widespread corruption.

The outage, which stranded commuters in the city’s new subway system, shut off traffic lights and interrupted a wide range of other services including shutting down ATMs, has generated wider criticism of the government under President Joko Widodo for the country’s lack of service and decrepit infrastructure across the board, which remains shambolic despite the billions of dollars the government has poured into construction and development since the president came to power in 2014.

Reportedly top administration officials said they were thanking their luck that the breakdown hadn’t occurred prior to the April 17 election, or it could have cost them the government.

How the politics will play out remains uncertain. Nonetheless, widespread protest has been directed at the government under President Joko Widodo, who reportedly lost his temper and screamed at PLN officials. He demanded to know why the utility had no backup plan given its history of blackouts and warned publicly that “Things that can cause this big event should not happen again in the future.”

The blackout hit Jakarta and the surrounding satellite cities Bogor, Depok, Bekasi, and Tangerang. It has been described as the most extensive since 1997.

Alvin Lie, a member of the country’s ombudsman's office, said his organization is conducting an independent investigation and plans to summon PLN officials in the near future to demand an explanation of the slow blackout mitigation, the state monopoly’s monitoring and security system, and accountability in electricity procurement.

The office is likely to consider reviewing PLN’s monopoly in the supply and distribution of electricity to the public with the possibility of breaking it up, Lie said. Indonesia’s electricity system is one of the world’s most complex because it has to flow through thousands of islands across the country.

"PLN might later only take care of the transmission, while the distribution is through other (operators), for example the private sector," Lie said.

Indonesia actually has no problems with electricity supply. Public electrification has reached 97.05 percent of the population. However, the utility is often criticized for being wasteful, monopolizing the electricity system while distribution is poor and officials are allegedly involved in corruption scandals.

The Indonesian Minister of Home Affairs Tjahjo Kumolo, for example, in a statement in 2016 said PLN should not monopolize the provision of electricity given the inadequate quality of service, as evidenced by the many complaints, especially from those who live outside of Java, who frequently endure sudden, long-lasting blackouts. His waring wasn’t taken.

In April 2018, the Audit Board Indonesia (BPK) reported that PLN had wasted more than Rp1.60 trillion (US$112.1 million over the use of solar or high-speed diesel (HSD) for its five Mobile Power Plant (MPP) units. PLN argued that diesel fuel was used because there is no supporting infrastructure to deliver gas to those power plants.

Recently, PLN was in the spotlight because its former president director Sofyan Basir was named a suspect and suspended from office by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) for taking a bribe from Johannes Budisutrisno Kotjo, a shareholder of Blackgold Natural Resources Ltd in return for the right to develop a US$900 million coal-fired power plant known as PLTU Riau 1.

In a public release, PLN stated that Sunday's blackout was caused by technical problems so that redundant electrical circuits did not function, resulting in the failed power transfer from east to west, leading to electricity tripping out across all power plants in the central and western sides of Java.

"What we did not anticipate before was the disruption of two circuits at the same time. This is what we will investigate further," said acting president director of PLN, Sripeni Intan Cahyani. The investigation will take the next two to three weeks. Sabotage is not expected. He said the outage was due to technical problems.

Sripeni said PLN plans to use operational costs to cover compensation for residents affected by blackouts. Based on PLN's calculations, his party must pay out Rp839 billion (US$58.7 million) in compensation for Sunday's blackout that impacted at least 21.9 million customers.

However, the blackout has caused various reactions from the public, which can be seen from discussions on social media, mostly disappointed because the government is considered to have failed to protect consumer rights. Some residents still felt power cuts until Tuesday.

The blackout paralyzes business activities and public services including the operation of electric trains (KRL) and subways (MRT). The video circulates showing one of the MRT who was in the tunnel stop and the passengers inside were evacuated. Losses are predicted to be trillions of rupiah, given that more than 70 percent of the money supply in Indonesia is centered in Jakarta (data from the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry). Small businesses are predicted to be the most affected parties because not all of them can afford to buy a generator as a backup when the power goes out.

"To be honest we are rather difficult to calculate the number of losses. However, if viewed from the number of business sectors and public services affected then (the loss) could reach trillions [rupiah]," said Deputy Chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (Kadin) Jakarta Sarman Simanjorang.

The Indonesian Consumer Community (KKI) in its statement said power outages had caused consumer losses, such as transportation disruptions, water supply and telecommunications. Other KKI reports show that there are other more specific impacts, such as fish mortality in ponds and damage to breast milk (ASI) stored in the cooler.

Sarman said this incident reflected the vulnerability of electricity supply when technical disruption, which was feared could affect business certainty. "This incident will also have an impact on investors' distrust to invest their capital in Indonesia," Sarman said.

As if reading public disappointment, the President responded by visiting the PLN central office in Jakarta to warn its officials so that the same event would not be repeated. He was accompanied by several ministers, but without the head of BUMN Rini Soemarno, who was performing the pilgrimage.

"In a large management such as PLN, in my opinion, there should be governance to deal with risks that are likely to occur," Jokowi said with a cold face to Sripeni.

Jokowi considers that PLN's board of directors and managers should be able to calculate the risk of electricity distribution and have an emergency plan if at any time a blackout occurs. The blackout had occurred among others in 1997, 2002, 2005.

Along with the many public protests, Jokowi was urged to rebuke the BUMN minister, as well as to replace the board of directors at the PLN. "I agree that the president is angry with PLN directors, and I support the president to completely overhaul the PLN Board of Directors," said Gerindra Party Deputy Chairman Arief Poyuono.

Photo Credit: Jakarta Post