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Harnessing the Heat of Indonesia’s Volcanoes

The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa killed some 40,000 people, and for centuries Indonesians have lived under constant threat from the 400-plus volcanoes that dot the country’s 18,000-odd islands. Now a project by Chevron in Java is taking advantage of those smoldering mountains. The U.S. oil major has drilled 84 wells to a depth of two miles beneath the rainforest to tap not crude or gas, but steam. The vapors, which reach 600F, spin turbines 24 hours a day, generating electricity for Jakarta, a city with a population of 9.6 million.

Chevron is about to get some competition. General Electric, India’s Tata Group, and other companies are building geothermal projects in Indonesia, and the investment ultimately may add up to more than $30 billion. The companies are responding to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s promise in February to boost government subsidies for clean energy. Former Vice-President Al Gore has called Indonesia the first potential “geothermal superpower.”