The Thinker: Indonesia’s Coal Rush
Last winter, the Chinese government mobilized thousands of soldiers and reservists of the People’s Liberation Army to the port of Qinhuangdao, the shipping point for more than half the country’s coal, in northeast China. Their collective mission: to help load and supply imported coal to avert massive power outages.
Amid a summer heat wave, China, which relies on half the world’s coal supply for 70 percent of its energy, is again in bad shape — even as it simultaneously mines coal and imports it at record levels. The Railway Ministry has deployed trains nationwide as 20 regions have instituted rations to cope with a power deficit far above that of Japan’s after the March tsunami.
All this is a plus for Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, which already exports more coal to China than any other nation. But Beijing’s increasing focus on innovation, economic sustainability and the environment means that thermal coal, or steam coal, will allow coal companies in Indonesia even more profits as China heaves further into the 21st century. Thermal coal is used for power generation, and Indonesia has more of it than any country in the world.
China is now the world’s leading consumer of coal — bringing in some 200 million tons of it at last year — since importing began four years ago, despite having the third-biggest reserves on the planet. But China’s domestic coal market faces serious hardships; each one drives up import demands, all contribute to a long-term drop in production.
Payloads from distant Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, for example, face ramshackle highways: a 100-kilometer, two-week-long traffic jam filled with coal trucks just outside Beijing last year was nothing if not a reminder. Record mining fatalities — some 80 percent of the world’s total with 3,000 deaths annually — are also prompting authorities to shutter mines by the thousands. At the same time, according to Beijing’s China Coal Research Institute, four-fifths of all Chinese coal fails to meet national industrial standards.
But for a country building a new power plant weekly, with the world’s largest carbon footprint, the environment and energy efficiency are a priority. This is underscored in Beijing’s 12th Five-Year Guideline, a policy mandate dating back to foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. In it, the Communist Party of China now emphasizes economic and environmental sustainability, including further use of thermal coal — both high-grade and low in sulfur.
This is excellent news for Indonesia. China, in fact, is predicted to more than double thermal coal imports to 200 million tons by 2015, up from 90 million tons this year, as 39 percent of the world’s increase will come from Indonesia. By 2030, global coal production is projected to reach seven billion tons — 5.2 billion of it being steam coal. Thermal coal, thus, is set to outstrip the value of all other Indonesian export commodities — well above other types of coal, minerals and natural gas.
Straddling the “Ring of Fire,” Indonesia is to geothermal power what the Persian Gulf is to oil — with 40 percent of the world’s thermal coal. This is an energy source used by 70 other countries and is considered highly sustainable. Indeed, thermal coal is already considered one of the most prized commodities on the planet.
China’s trend isn’t entirely new. In recognizing its value in reducing acid rain and greenhouse gases while increasing the efficiency of its coal-fired power plants, China has greatly surpassed the United States in its “clean coal” capacities. Developments include the 2008 establishment of a $73 million thermal coal research facility by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and British Petroleum. And Beijing has acquired 41 patents on thermal coal technology in the last 30 years.
Not only the European Union, Washington, too, has partnered with Beijing. It has done so in particular via China’s Thermal Power Research Institute, a leading research organization that has licensed technology to a US clean coal energy initiative. Previously scrapped due to high costs, the project was revived with $1 billion from the Obama administration in 2009.
This demand equals a win-win for Indonesia’s thermal coal companies — and, by extension, Indonesia, thanks to its low-cost work force and shipping industry. In May, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono officially announced a $468 billion economic master plan for 2011 to 2025 that some have called “ambitious.” His wish may have already been granted.
Joseph Kirschke is an American freelance writer in Jakarta.