Energy analysts and state-owned electricity company PLN itself warned as early as 2000 of a looming power-supply disruption in Java and Bali due to the absence of additional power infrastructure since the 1997 financial crisis and the significant increase in demand for power as the economy began to recover. However, no one expected that parts of East Java would suffer blackouts as early as last week.
What made the situation even more worrisome to industrial enterprises is the ambiguous explanations provided by PLN and the Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Purnomo Yusgiantoro.
They persistently denied there was any crisis, asserting that the supply disruption was only temporary due to technical problems at several major power stations in Java that cut down the supply capacity by between 600 megawatts (MW) and 800 MW.
But one finds it quite hard to accept this explanation because when several hydropower plants in Java lost more than 60 percent or 1,260 MW of their total capacity due to the lack of water supply during the dry season last July, PLN was not forced to impose rotating power blackouts.
One plausible reason could be that the losses in supply capacity at power stations and in transmission and distribution lines could have been much bigger than those claimed by PLN.
Judging by the PLN estimate early last week that the peak load in the Java-Bali region was only about 13,250 MW, there should have been a reserve margin of more than 40 percent to meet the 600-800 MW supply shortfall because PLN's total capacity in the region is more than 18,610 MW.
Normally only a minimum reserve margin of 30 percent is required to avert power disruption during the peak-load period. A reserve level lower than the minimum could plunge parts of Java into darkness during the peak-load time.
The troubling question then is whether PLN's power reserve margin could have been much smaller than the minimum 30 percent.
Whatever the case, the situation is quite worrisome indeed.
PLN's explanations about the technical problems that caused several double-cycle power stations in Java to lose 600 MW of their total supply capacity also raised big questions. It said the technical problems occurred because these plants had been forced to use fuel oil, rather than natural gas, most of the time.
Are PLN engineers so technically incompetent so as not to anticipate these problems with proper maintenance work?
Whatever the real reason behind the disruptions, rotating power blackouts in several industrial areas in East Java are raising great concern because electricity is so vital to the economy.
This problem once again is raising big issues about PLN's peak load management, maintenance system and the efficiency of its transmission and distribution lines.
True, the power monopoly, overburdened with mountains of debts caused partly by the melting of the rupiah, simply does not have enough resources even to expand its transmission and distribution networks, let alone construct new generation stations.
But power-supply disruptions should not have occurred had PLN established good cooperation with captive power suppliers in Java, which have an estimated 6,800 MW in reserve capacity. This captive power generation was built mostly in the early 1990s when industrial growth outpaced power infrastructure development so that many industrial companies, faced with frequent power shortage, built their own power units.
PLN and the government has thus far resolved price disputes with 20 of the 27 independent power producers that were licensed in the early 1990s, but many of them will come on stream only within the next three to four years. PLN itself is building a new power station with a capacity of 850 MW at Muara Tawar in West Java but this one too is only expected to come on line next year.
The power-capacity level will thus remain dangerously low, making industrial users in Java and Bali highly vulnerable to supply disruptions.
It is therefore more imperative than ever for PLN to improve its peak load management, maintenance system and cooperation with captive power suppliers to avert major power blackouts during this critical period until enough additional capacity comes on stream to increase the power reserve margin much higher than the minimum 30 percent.