JAKARTA: Indonesia’s president has launched an ambitious program to tap the country’s famed seismic volatility and become the world’s leading producer of geothermal energy, one of the cleanest renewable sources of power available.Indonesia wants to accelerate its economic development but is beset by chronic electricity outages and shortfalls. Its ability to provide industry with the energy infrastructure it needs to expand is one of the country’s most critical challenges.It has also pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade by at least 26 per cent below ”business as usual” levels, making the energy objective even more demanding.In a speech to the World Geothermal Conference in Bali this week, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Indonesia aimed to be the world’s leading geothermal nation by 2025. ”Nations are striving to liberate themselves from over-dependence on fossil fuels,” he said.”And to many countries, including Indonesia, a large part of the solution to that problem is the successful tapping of vast resources of geothermal energy.”Geothermal energy works by pumping water beneath the surface, using the high temperatures below to turn it into steam and drive turbines. It is more or less carbon neutral. Indonesia has 40 per cent of the world’s potential geothermal resources and 265 potential sites for plants, thanks to its string of volcanoes.The underground heat is relatively easy to exploit in Indonesia because it is close to the surface and does not require deep drilling. The country’s geothermal reserves are believed to amount to 28,000 megawatts, or the equivalent of 12 billion barrels of oil. But it taps only 1200 megawatts at the moment.Under Dr Yudhoyono’s plan, 44 plants will be built by 2014, more than tripling geothermal capacity to 4000 megawatts. By 2025, it wants more than 9000 megawatts of geothermal power on stream.”It’s a big challenge,” said Asclepias Indriyanto, the executive director of the Indonesian Institute for Energy Economics. ”It will require collaboration between different arms of the Indonesian government and new regulations.”Getting its notoriously inefficient and insular bureaucrats across different levels of government to co-operate is always problematic, but the main barrier to achieving its geothermal goals is likely to be cost.The first phase of expansion to 2014 alone will cost $12.9 billion.The government wants the money to come almost entirely from private sources, primarily foreign investors. But exploration costs are high and geothermal plants cost roughly twice as much to build as coal-fired power stations, although the continuing operation and maintenance of geothermal plants is cheaper.Almost half of the country’s potential geothermal sites are in conservation forests, although one plant has already been built successfully in a protected zone.The state-run electricity monopoly fixes the price at which power is purchased. Many are calling for the price to be raised for geothermal power.On this front, the government has indicated it is prepared to remove the price ceiling while a new law to come into effect later this year breaks down the monopoly power of the state-owned electricity utility.Indonesia had hoped to fund its geothermal expansion by selling carbon credit offsets, but the collapse of climate change talks in Copenhagen and the apparent demise of a significant, global emissions trading scheme seems to have put paid to that.One possible for solution, at least in the long term, is for the government to pare back its immense subsidies for petrol and re-direct part of the savings into geothermal energy. Its cheap petrol scheme costs the government about $16 billion a year and studies, including one recently by the World Bank, show it favours the rich far more than the poor it is supposed to benefit.