The Tanjong Pagar Centre – currently the tallest building in Singapore offering office spaces, luxury residences, a five-star hotel and urban park, all in a single structure – integrates a photovoltaic pergola at the entrance. It features 850 amorphous silicon photovoltaic glass modules with a semi-transparency factor of 10 per cent and a power capacity of 125 kWp (kilowatt peak). That’s over 2,600 square metres of solar panels seamlessly hidden within the building’s glass structure. The panels are the largest implementation of this brand new solar cell technology in Singapore. In fact, according to iGlass Asia Pacific, the company that represents the Onyx Solar photovoltaic glass, it’s one of the largest urban solar panel systems built in Singapore. Business development manager David Yim estimates the panels power 7,000 lights each day in the building, producing roughly 125,810 kWh of electricity in a year. It solves one problem that NUS Energy Studies Institute research associate Anton Finenko foresees will be the biggest challenge Singapore faces in its pursuit of renewable power: space.
Land. Singapore’s one most finite resource is our Achilles heel in our hope to combat climate change and secure our energy sources for the future. Land is needed (or at least, rooftops are needed) to host solar panels that could generate power for our grid. But like everything else in the country, guidelines, regulations and concerns of maintenance are all factors that combine to make the typical developer or property owner reluctant to adopt solar tech. Add to that the complexity of selling energy generated, and it’s unsurprising why, despite our island’s sunny profile (we receive on average 160 hours of direct sunshine a month), we’ve yet to see a significant push toward renewable energy. Sunseap, a solar energy provider, highlights this challenge. “Singapore is faced with the challenge of land scarcity, in terms of land space and rooftop area. In other to increase the rate of production, it is imperative to look for creative ways to work around this challenge,” the company points out. “Some examples include floating solar systems on water bodies, solar deployment on offshore islands, and mobile solar farms on unutilised land. Sunseap has started Research & Development (R&D) as well as test-bedding for these deployments.”
All that is about to change, however, thanks in part to moves by both the private and public sectors. Recently, the Economic Development and Housing Development Boards announced the Solar Nova project, which aims to aggregate and connect solar energy providers with demand across government agencies. This year too, solar energy distributor Sun Electric received the first renewable energy retail licence from the Energy Market Authority (EMA). This was followed by Sunseap, which won the first phase of the Solar Nova initiative to develop over 76MWp of solar systems across the island. This month will see the issue of the next tender for Solar Nova 2, which will offer up another 40MWp of installations for solar energy providers to build.
According to the EMA, we’ve seen a 10-fold increase in the generation of solar power to a height of 99.4MWp (at maximum sunlight irradiance, the amount of energy generated per hour). This is largely due to a push by the private sector to ramp up adoption of solar panels across private residential and commercial buildings such as the Tanjong Pagar Centre, though few have considered the transparent PV units.
Standard solar panels are still the most effective, according to Finenko, because they follow the Sun’s path and are able to maximise their energy production capacity. Whereas solar glass panels that can only be positioned in one way is limited in their ability to harness sunlight in spite of their large surface areas. They also need to be positioned in a East-West direction, which poses space and constructional challenges.
To add to that, the EDB highlights that Singapore is rather forward thinking even compared with a city like New York. The latter has plans to generate 100MWp of solar power on public buildings and spur installation of another 250MWp more on private buildings by 2025. We are targeting to achieve that by 2020 and have in fact raised the intermittent power generation threshold from 350MWac to 600MWac, pending future development.
Renew, Reduce, Recycle
These mantras of our time have become much more urgent in the light of new information. Earlier this year, the world passed the 400 parts per million concentration of carbon dioxide, well beyond the safe limit of 350ppm. Aside from the adverse consequences that we’re all familiar with by now, they also pose a threat to food security because agriculture is inextricably tied to weather conditions. Certainly, farming economies are going to need assistance and new technology to address the issues as they emerge.
Another research finding warns that summer Arctic sea ice will disappear completely in just 30 years, well within our lifetimes. The consequences will be devastating.
Governments and individuals across the planet face a greater urgency to act as never before. The challenge of overcoming the glut of oil and natural gas coming out of the OPEC states, Iran and America is immense.
“Low prices are discouraging the move towards renewable energy sources,” explains Dr Fatih Birol, the director of the International Energy Agency. “At the same time, that also means there is a continued reduction in investments from the sector, something that we can expect to see for the next two quarters.”
And now, with a new American president who is pro-oil, and who has dismissed climate change doom and gloom reports as a hoax, America’s domestic non-renewable consumption and production is likely to rise while its efforts towards renewable energy may well slide, even when solar power is the cheapest energy source in the market today, before tariffs. (Natural gas remains the most common fuel source for electricity generation around the world.)
A surprisingly active proponent of the renewable energy market is China. The country is today the world’s largest producer of solar panels and aims to radically change its energy production from a coal-based, dirty energy to clean, renewable sources. Highlighting the significance of energy security, it has explored numerous renewable energy forms from wind, to water, to solar. It is, in fact, the world’s greatest producer of wind, solar and hydropower today. Admittedly, coal isn’t about to disappear from its energy mix completely, but the country intends to reduce reliance on coal by half, while making up the difference with renewables. By 2020, China expects to be generating 15 per cent of energy from renewable sources. By comparison, Singapore is aiming for five per cent by 2020. We currently stand at 3.2 per cent.
Yeo Kim Dek, business development manager at the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore (SEAS), an independent non-profit focused on driving adoption and awareness of sustainable energy sources, highlights two key issues in Singapore’s drive towards a greater renewable energy mix: energy storage, as well as fossil fuel prices.
“There is a different set of challenges when too much renewable energy is fed into the grid. Larger countries are able to store renewable energy due to their geographical advantage of having a mix of renewable energy choices and to aggregate generation. Affordable energy storage is the real barrier to renewable energy reaching the next stage. To boost this in Singapore would require a rise in fossil fuel prices. While we do already have a few solutions for the financing of solar systems here such as solar leasing which does not require adopters to come up with capital upfront for the installation of solar systems, these models hinge on electrical tariffs in
Private enterprises, surprisingly, differ in opinion with the SEAS with regard to energy storage. The founder of Sun Electric, Matthew Peloso, doesn’t think that it’s an important aspect to consider. “Storage would require one to generate more energy than the grid can currently sustain and we are still far away from that. I think what’s more important is driving efficiency and innovation in the market, lowering the costs of electricity generation from solar energy and providing a more open market set-up for solar leasing as well as retailing renewable energy,” he explains.
He points out that compliance and technical as well as policy issues were some of the challenging areas for what is essentially a new business for Singapore. “We had challenges in implementing and monitoring net metering and a net metering programme is difficult to implement in a city set-up, but that was what the Housing Development Board had promoted and there was success in that system in other countries. A lot of them came from residential home developments and subsidies in Australia, Canada and Germany via tariffs helped to spur that adoption. But Singapore doesn’t have subsidies. And that’s best for competition because prices will keep dropping, which requires us to innovate on technology fronts. So we had to figure out a financial model and also technical developments to ensure there was no breach of contract, et cetera.” Sun Electric had aimed to generate and retail 20MWp worth of energy by the end of this year, something that Peloso tells us was achieved well before his target.
“We’re going to be turning on a few roofs, and selling that energy off, and keeping this going now that we’ve sold off all 20MWp of energy,” he points out. “We have customers coming in every week to sign up for clean power.” That is an encouraging trend.
Come 2018, the energy market in Singapore will become thoroughly liberated. “Everyone who uses energy can choose who they want,” Peloso notes. “The timing is pretty good,” he opines. One view shared by both experts in the field and companies is the need to guard against over-regulation.
Dr Sanjayan Velautham, the executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Energy, speaking at the recent Energy Access Forum during Singapore International Energy Week, highlighted that in rural parts of Bangladesh, micro-grid systems offered the most affordable solutions to the consumer even when factoring in the cost of grid expansions, but in order to do that and encourage the local population to adopt micro-grids, the government made the bold move of not regulating companies generating less than certain volumes of energy. It propelled massive growth.
In the same vein, both Peloso and Finenko, and Sunseap are of the same opinion that de-regulating the market allows for private sector competition and innovation to perform best.
“In the past we didn’t have the ability to measure energy usage. States set up the grid with utility providers and a tariff that was regulated to ensure energy providers would still be profitable and the world has hung on to that model. Singapore has been de-regulated since 2003,” Peloso clarifies. “States regulate power providers to bring them under safer control against potential hazards like fire should the equipment not be properly maintained. In Singapore, the market is open enough to allow providers to go in and figure out how to solve problems with technology.”
One example is the Off-Site Power Purchase Plan, where a company can buy solar power from a retailer such as Sunseap or Sun Electric, and they would then attribute the energy consumed back to the utility grid via the solar systems they already possess across the country. This was how Apple was able to meet its company’s compliance on being fully powered by renewable energy sources around the world with its base in Singapore, which includes a corporate campus and an upcoming retail store. Sunseap, which has solar panels and generators on over 800 buildings in Singapore, generates around 50MWp and Apple consumes 33MWp of that capacity.
One thing that nearly everyone we’ve spoken to agrees on is the relative ineffectiveness of a carbon tax, one that’s currently being discussed in the United States. Most view the tax as a temporary measure, and others consider it an unnecessary placeholder to renewable energy, which they agree would continue to fare better if more research and investment were put in. “Carbon taxes make fossil fuel usage more expensive, yes, but they don’t relieve the need for carbon-based fuels in the first place,” comments an energy insider, who asked not to be named.
Finenko believes Singapore might one day generate up to 20 per cent of its energy from solar power and he’s cautiously optimistic that it could be more. It really depends on the consumer, in his opinion.
“I think people generally are happy to adopt solar power, and with the complete liberalisation of the market in 2018, residents will be able to decide for themselves. If it isn’t going to cost more [or significantly more] and if it isn’t going to disrupt their way of life, people will go for it,” he opines. But his greatest concern is still the lack of land space. Here, growing land is a little more difficult than changing mindsets.