Floating power ships to light up Indonesia?

Dec 10, 2015, 10:03 AM EST
Manado Bay, North Sulawesi, Indonesia
Source: Kaufik Anril/flickr

Indonesia has come up with one (partial) solution to bring electricity to some of its far-flung areas: floating power stations. Tuesday marked the inauguration of the 120MW capacity Zeynep Sultan, the first of five such contracted ships (all owned and operated by Karadeniz Holdings of Turkey). It can run on heavy fuel oil (HFO) -- or LNG, but for the moment that would be pricier-- and has the advantage of being able to relocate when needed.

Attending the inauguration, President Joko Widodo said “Every time I visit regions in Indonesia, I receive similar complaints regarding power outages. This is a crash program that will quickly settle the issue. We have ordered five vessels, which will gradually be coming to the country over the next six months.” The fact that the country is an archipelago, he said, makes power-plant vessels the most suitable electricity generation equipment to meet demand, particularly in remote areas with poor infrastructure.

Zeynep Sultan will generate enough power to supply half of the town of Amurang. “This is a bridging project while we are awaiting the completion of our coal-fired power plant in Amurang. When the power plant is completed, the vessel can be used to supply other areas suffering a deficit,” said Sofyan Basir, president of Indonesia’s state-owned power utility PLN. The ship is expected to start delivering power on December 23.

The other floating power ships will be sent to additional areas facing blackouts: the largest will be a 240MW vessel for North Sumatera, while 60MW vessels will be sent to Kupang, Ambon, and  Lombok. The total electricity to be generated will be 540 MW, a small but precedent-setting portion of Indonesia’s big power expansion plans. The country currently has around 54,000MW in installed electricity generation capacity. But according to the Jakarta Post, while the electrification ratio has reached about 86%, many remote areas report less than half of that level, and regular blackouts are common in many areas. So the government intends to add 35,000MW of additional capacity within five years in order to keep industries running and maintain economic growth.

“After the delivery of five vessels, we should encourage the development of similar vessels in Indonesia. We can establish joint ventures with either Indonesian state-owned enterprises or private firms,” Widodo added. However, State-Owned Enterprises Minister Rini Soemarno said locally built power-plant vessels would have comparatively less electricity generation capacity, of 40-60MW. She added “we are also looking at whether it is possible to use coal to feed the power-plant vessels,” instead of HFO or gas. This is by no means clean energy. Still, the ships’ use of HFO instead of diesel is projected to save PLN (which has agreed to buy the electricity produced by the five ships at $0.12/KWh) $25 million per year.

And this is just the start. In September, Russia's Rosatom Overseas signed a MoU with Indonesia's National Nuclear Energy Agency for studying the construction of floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs). (Russia plans to deploy its first such mass-produced 70MW FNPP in the Arctic in 2017.) Nuclear plants won’t be quick additions to Indonesia’s energy matrix, but they will last for decades generating zero-carbon electricity. (As a further expression of Jakarta’s interest, in October three Indonesian firms also signed a MoU with energy firm Martingale to develop land-based thorium molten salt nuclear reactors to generate electricity.) 

Leasing floating power plants, regardless of what fuel they use, avoids some major hurdles of their land-based counterparts, namely land acquisition disputes, poor supporting infrastructure, and construction that is invariably delayed and over-budget. If these floating power plants live up to their promise, more developing countries will likely follow Indonesia’s example.