Would it surprise you to know that Indonesia, the world’s 4th most populous country, possesses one-third of the total estimated geothermal energy in the world?
Despite its abundance, the country only uses 6% of this energy source, which converts the Earth’s underground heat energy into electricity. When I discovered this, I teamed up with my friend Sang to try to figure out the root causes, existing solutions, and opportunities available in resolving this missed opportunity.
Through the University of Oxford’s Map the System Challenge, we created an infographic and accompanying written analysis, and presented our findings. Our team wound up in 3rd place at the Canadian finals in Calgary, won $500, met a host of inspiring students dedicated to pursuing global issues, and became eligible to apply for up to $10,000 of funding for more in-depth field research on this issue.
The learning experience and professional opportunities that arose from participating in the challenge have profoundly affected my life’s trajectory.
The journey begins
Initially, Sang and I were motivated by the fact that the underutilization of geothermal energy in Indonesia is more than an academic question.
Three years ago, through the momentous Paris Agreement of 2015, world leaders vowed to keep global warming below 2°C this century. Since then, the far more difficult question of how rapidly industrializing countries will sustainably lift their poorest people out of the trenches of often crippling poverty stands to be one of the largest challenges facing our generation. In this light, the issue of geothermal development in Indonesia provides an exemplary case study.
Rapid development in Indonesia has not come without its pitfalls. Air pollution has had severe impacts on public health—6,000 deaths per year are attributed to air pollution from coal power plants, and 88% of all electricity is produced by fossil fuel plants. On top of that, the 60% of people living close to the coasts are at risk of projected future climate change and sea-level rise, which will threaten the livelihoods of farmers and fishers.
Indonesia’s failure to develop its geothermal resources would most likely result in the country’s burgeoning electricity demand being met instead by coal power—exacerbating all of these problems—and disproportionately affecting the welfare of its most marginalized peoples.
In light of all of these issues, Sang and I were mystified: why hasn’t Indonesia taken advantage of geothermal energy, which provides clean, safe, domestic, and reliable electricity?
I’d been interested for some time in environmental and social issues but hadn’t had a ton of opportunities in my science courses to explore these. And so when I heard about UBC’s participation in Map the System, I jumped at the opportunity to participate.
Invaluable learning opportunities
With my teammate Sang completing a dual Honours degree in Finance and Economics over at McGill, I thought our complementary skillsets would help us to approach this problem from a multidisciplinary perspective. We received support and encouragement from UBC’s Centre for Community and Engaged Learning (CCEL) and Sauder S3i, including workshops and one-on-one coaching.
While our research began as a normal research paper would, we were encouraged to get out there and talk with actual experts working on the problem. This was an illuminating experience for both of us. As an introvert, I’ve gained the confidence to talk with new people for the first time—it turns out that even ‘experts’ are usually very enthusiastic to share their experience and insight with relative beginners!
The chance to interview experts, ranging from geothermal scientists and consultants to renewable energy development specialists and UN sustainability advisors, was invaluable.
Through this process, we discovered three main problem areas in Indonesian geothermal development:
The technical barrier to geothermal development lies in the fact that the scientific data necessary to make an accurate assessment of geothermal energy potential at specific locations is limited in much of the country—and that furthermore, the data that is available is often not standardized, increasing the uncertainty in such estimates.
Financially, geothermal energy, while cost competitive with coal over the entire lifespan of the plant—and even oftentimes cheaper—requires a significant upfront cost, similar to investments in the mining industry.
Finally, we discovered political barriers, including the fluctuating regulatory environment surrounding geothermal energy, and the overlapping mandates of various ministries within the Indonesian government over geothermal development, which are often working at cross-purposes and impeding development.
We also found that a wide range of other countries have successfully developed their geothermal resources, including Iceland, the Philippines, and New Zealand—and that most of them have set up a variety of durable, innovative public-private partnerships that have spurred geothermal development in their respective countries.
Drawing on these lessons learned from other countries, we developed recommendations that can enable Indonesia to successfully develop geothermal energy for the benefit of its people.
Applying knowledge on a global scale
Having participated in Map the System, I have become motivated to apply my technical background in the geosciences to renewable energy development in industrializing countries like Indonesia.