Outrider-For 35 years, Edi Suriani has seen coal dust impact him and his neighbors in his Indonesian village just a few kilometers from the Banten-Suralaya coal-fired plantin Indonesia, is one of the largest in the world.

According to the residents of  Suralaya, there is more air pollution on the island of Java, banana farms are less productive, neighbors and family members are increasingly sick, and local fisheries—once a source of livelihood for many—have collapsed.

“The power plant does not provide benefits to residents. Instead, it kills us,” said Edi.

A recent report from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air linked thousands of hospital visits and more than 1,500 deaths due to pollution from the plant and a negative economic cost of around $1.1 billion.

The Banten plant is huge, with eight units currently producing 4 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, enough to power more than 3 million households for a year. Much of it is being sent to the capital, Jakarta. And it’s growing, with two new units producing two more GW currently being built.

The next frontier of greenwashing

But in the future, says Indonesia’s national power authority, PLN, the Banten plant will be cleaner and greener. That’s because, instead of only burning coal, the Suralaya plant and others across the country will co-fire coal with “renewable” woody biomass and, eventually, “clean” hydrogen or ammonia.

“By implementing co-firing, PLN can quickly reduce carbon emission and increase new renewable energy mix as they do not have to build new power plants,” said Darmawan Prasodjo, PLN’s director, during a press conference. He also said, “Co-firing…will support the government in suppressing carbon emissions in Indonesia to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.”

Across Asia, co-firing is being promoted as a way to make coal greener and part of a clean energy future. But the science behind these claims is highly contested. Scientistsquestion the climate benefits, while analysts at BloombergNEF note the high costs. Furthermore, climate change advocates fear it could harm regional climate coals.

The idea behind co-firing is relatively simple. By blending coal with wood pellets or ammonia, the plant can operate more cleanly and emit less greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, argues the Economic Research Institute for East Asia and ASEAN. This Jakarta-based government-linked think tank supports co-firing as a climate solution.  Moreover, because Asia’s coal fleet is significantly younger than Europe’s or the U.S.’s, it’s being pushed as a way to use an existing asset while also making progress toward a net-zero climate goal.

According to government data shared with local nonprofits, the new Suralaya units are already burning 2-5 percent biomass, alongside at least 39 other coal plants in Indonesiaand several more in Japan and South Korea.

“The biomass they are using is from wood pellets, chips, and sawdust, or waste, like palm kernel shells, rice husks, and urban areas,” said Amalya Reza, the bioenergy portfolio manager at Trend Asia, an Indonesian non-profit. “They have a target of 10 million tons of biomass, and of that, 8 million will come from energy wood plantations.”

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Photo by Melvinas Priananda/Trend Asia