Bali struggles to keep the lights lit

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Traditional lanterns on Seminyak beach on the tourist island of Bali, Indonesia. September 15, 2016

Citing cultural and religious constraints, Bali Governor I Made Pastika has still not signed off on the construction of the world’s tallest pylons to carry a high-voltage transmission line across the 2.6 kilometer strait separating Java and the power-starved tourist island.

Central government officials acknowledge that Pastika, whose home district happens to be where the 500-kilovolt line comes ashore, has been listening to complaints that the project would impinge on the sanctity of northwest Bali’s sacred Segara Rupek temple.

Pastika can’t stand for a third term, but gubernatorial candidate Wayan Koster, a ruling Indonesia Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) legislator from the same regency, has been speaking out against the project in the lead up to June’s nationwide local government elections.

Hindu traditions and modernity often collide, most notably in efforts by the state-run utility Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) to boost the 1,300 megawatt (MW) power supply on Bali, which is frequently hit by rolling blackouts and falls short of the industry-accepted 30% reserve as demand grows by 10% a year.

Kuta, Bali, Indonesia - November 22, 2016: The main street in the city of Seminyak in Bali during a cloudy day. Restaurants and shops next to the street.

Power lines criss-cross the main street in the city of Seminyak, Bali, November 22, 2016. Photo: iStock/Getty Images.

The over-the-water project would add 1,500MW, or double the amount of power currently supplied by an existing 380MW coal-fired plant, three gas and one diesel-fired station — and a 220MW submarine inter-connection with the Java grid.

While the island has an admirable ability to preserve its culture in the face of an ever-increasing number of tourists, there is a ban on exploiting the island’s 320MW of geothermal potential and height restrictions make the building of public facilities problematic.

Traditional leaders will only give the green light to traffic underpasses, for example, because overpasses allow humans to regularly pass above the height of a temple, making it leteh, or unholy – even if it may not be in the immediate vicinity.

Apart from the nine-floor Bali Beach Hotel, built before the regulation came into force in the 1970s, a combination of aesthetics and tradition ensure that buildings can’t rise above 15 meters, or to the approximate height of an average coconut tree.

If US President Donald Trump and his Indonesian business partner, Hary Tanoesoedibyo, had ever contemplated a high-rise Trump tower in the ongoing redevelopment of western Bali’s seaside Nirwana golf resort, it was never going to happen.

Indonesia-Bali-Nirwana Golf Resort-2018-John McBeth

Sunset at Bali’s Nirwana Golf Resort, April 2018. Photo: John McBeth

The only recent exception to the rule has been the imposing 120-meter-high statue of the Hindu God Vishnu, sitting astride the mythical bird Garuda, which stands on a hill overlooking the Ngaruh Rai International Airport at the island’s narrowest point.

One of the world’s tallest statues, but trailing China’s 170-meter Spring Temple Buddha by a good margin, the US$100 million copper and bronze sculpture is 30 meters higher than New York’s Statue of Liberty and has taken 25 years to complete.

Standing on either side of the Lombok Strait, the two proposed 376-meter-high power pylons are needed to compensate for the sag in the aluminum-coated cable carrying power from the East Java’s coal-fired 4,710MW Paiton power complex.

If the over-the-water crossing doesn’t go ahead, PLN will have to go back to laying a third submarine cable, vulnerable as it will be to ships dragging their anchors in the swift current running through the narrow strait which connects Java Sea to the Indian Ocean.

The six 100MW seabed cables originally laid in 1987 have now been whittled down to two, the main reason why PLN planners settled on the overhead project, which involves 500 smaller towers and covers 220-kilometers between Paiton and a new substation south of Bali’s Gilimanuk ferry crossing.

The Segara Rupek temple aside, cultural and environmental obstacles also stand in the way of the transmission line traversing the West Bali National Park, given the Hindu belief that mountains and forests are sacred because they contain the sources of life.

ULUWATU, BALI, INDONESIA - MARCH 26 : Tourist visit Lord Vishnu statue at the Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park on March 26, 2014 in Uluwatu, Bali, Indonesia.

Tourists visit the Lord Vishnu statue at the Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park in Uluwatu, Bali, Indonesia, 2014. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

It is that which has blocked the development of Bali’s 329MW of geothermal potential, particularly around the highland resort of Bedugal on the edge of Lake Bratan, named after Dewi Danu Bratan, the revered goddess of agriculture.

In 2005, Bali’s parliament passed a resolution rejecting the construction of a new 175MW geothermal plant, saying it would also disturb the spirituality of the nearby 2,300-meter Mt Batukaru, a popular hiking destination.

But that led to something few people ever thought would happen on Bali: the construction of the 426MW coal-fired Celukan Bawan station at Lovina, a beach resort on the northern coast best known for its frolicking dolphins.

Funded, built and operated by China’s Huadian Corp, the plant was commissioned in 2015 to protests from fishermen and farmers who claim it has polluted local rivers, shrunk crops and disturbed the dolphins and other wildlife.

The Bali administration is currently considering plans to add a further two 330MW units to the plant. With few other options on the drawing board, that just may be the price that has to be paid if the overhead transmission crossing is abandoned.

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