Why Java’s recent blackout illuminates a big problem

At risk of hurting investor confidence, Indonesia needs to do something about its electricity troubles

Adeline Tinessia

Development | Asia, Southeast Asia

9 August 2019

The dark in Indonesia’s largest cities highlights a deep infrastructural issue, writes Adeline Tinessia.

As the sun sets on the city of Bandung, it is eerily and unusually dark. The usual hustle and bustle of Indonesia’s third largest city is noticeably missing. The only light there is to see comes from the grand hotels and the large malls. This view is repeated in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.

On 4 August 2019, Java experienced a mass blackout, affecting parts across the island, all the way to Bali.

The blackouts had devastating consequences on the most populated island in Indonesia.

In the nation’s capital Jakarta, its newly built MRT stopped operating suddenly, resulting in four trains being stuck underground. Passengers had to be evacuated by the emergency services.

Traffic lights failed to work, toll gates were affected and hospital generators were pushed to the limit. Even online applications experienced disruption as Internet banking came to a halt. Chaos embroiled Java on what should have been a peaceful Sunday.

The state electrical company, Perusaha an Listrik Negara (PLN) claimed that the disruption was in the ‘backbone electricity system’ that covers Java and Bali. The company admitted that there were inefficiencies in its working system, and that the process was slow. This is reported to be the biggest blackout in Indonesia in the past two decades, and PLN told Indonesians to expect more blackouts in the coming days.

This case paints a bleak picture about Indonesia’s infrastructure.

Indonesia has been ticking infrastructure boxes under Jokowi presidency; with new airport terminals and improved public transportation, the president was seen to be the infrastructure man.

Yet, it seems that the most basic infrastructure is yet to be up to scratch.

More on this: Tackling terrorism and religious extremism in Indonesia

Indonesia’s electricity system is known to be unstable, with the occasional short blackout an expected part of life. But the nation has been slow in its uptake in renewable energy, and in fact is increasingly focusing on its coal plants.

The recent island-wide blackout has revealed that energy reliability has not improved.

What are the potential issues to rise if Indonesia does not improve its electricity infrastructure?

Firstly, it is a potential health security issue.

Hospitals were dramatically affected by the blackouts. Relying on generators to power their health services, the result of such a long blackout was the conundrum of hospital staff prioritising parts of the hospital that most needed the electricity. In fact, there was a reported case where officials from a hospital in west Java were frantically looking for fuel to power their generator.

Was the safety of patients in jeopardy? The government did not think so, but it is hard to believe that. With telephone signals also badly affected by the outage, it is easy to imagine that someone needing an emergency response would have had difficulty accessing health services.

Electricity is now a basic necessity for most Indonesians living in Java and for it to work well, it has to heavily rely on the infrastructure.

Similar to Australia, banking is now electronic, shopping is online and food is ordered via applications. In the advent of a blackout, such services are disrupted. There were reports of difficulty in using credit cards to pay for goods, accessing banking online, and even cash withdrawals. Banks told their customers to visit banks for accessing cash.

Such disruption is destabilising.

With large amounts of people unable to access their funds, fear erupted and that can destabilise the economy. As a security issue too, it has been noted that when the lights go out, crime rates go up.

On top of this, the blackout reflects poorly on Indonesia and hurts investor confidence.

Indonesia is a growing economy and relies heavily on foreign investment to fuel its economy. Yet, an inadequate electricity infrastructure can negatively impact on an investor’s choice.

It was perhaps lucky that the blackout occurred primarily on a Sunday, a day off in Java, where offices were shut and many businesses were closed. If this have happened on a weekday, services would have been hit extra hard with factories relying on costly generators. It would have had a much greater economic impact.

For investors provided with a choice of where to conduct their business,  this event could sway their inclination to invest in other parts of Southeast Asia where there are more stable electrical systems.

Indonesia must pay greater attention to its electricity infrastructure if it wants to ensure the safety of its people and the stability of its economy.

Significant investment must be made to upgrade its system to accommodate the ever-growing population and the rising middle class. It must consider diversifying its electricity source; on another note, Jakarta has been suffering from its worst pollution level, which has severely impacted on the health of the locals.

Having more renewable energy sources will better prepare the nation with energy that is infinite, as well as reducing pollution levels.

Indonesia is already hampered by the fact that it is a large archipelago, providing electricity to all of its people is a difficult and costly process.

However, to ensure long-term sustainable development across Indonesia, as well as demonstrating sturdiness for further investments, Indonesia needs to tackle its infrastructure problem better.

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