Sunny outlook for renewables

Singapore is disadvantaged when it comes to renewable energy sources due to its size and location, but that hasn’t stopped the city-state from becoming the Asia Pacific hub for solar anyway.

Sheltered by neighbouring countries, Singapore’s surrounding seas are calm, and so are the skies. But with limited land, no major river systems or geothermal sources, the city-state’s pickings for renewable energy are slim compared to its bigger neighbours.

Despite this, Singapore has managed to develop a renewables market by tapping on the roof of buildings for solar energy and by recycling its resources, said speakers at the International Green Building Conference held in Singapore earlier this month from 2 to 4 September.

Dr Thomas Reindl, deputy CEO of the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore, noted that Singapore and other countries in the tropical belt receive the equivalent of one barrel of oil per square metre of solar energy per year.

But for many years, this energy could not be effectively harnessed due to the high cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) and storage systems. In recent years, however, that cost has dropped dramatically and solar energy has reached grid parity as a result. That is, the cost of electricity from solar energy is less than what people pay for grid power from conventional energy sources, said Reindl.

The solar industry in Singapore has been riding on that cost reduction. In 2007, the industry was tiny, with less than 10 solar companies active.

Today, Singapore has become the solar hub for the Asia Pacific region, with close to 50 solar companies of varying size operating here.

Some of these are major international players that have set up joint ventures or even established their headquarters locally, with an eye to using Singapore as a base for developing Asia-centric solar energy solutions.

Their businesses run the gamut from smart grid technology to energy management systems, to advanced metering infrastructure, to electric vehicles, and many others.

And there is a booming market for their products and services: energy usage in Asia is soaring due to rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, even as governments grapple with air quality issues caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Reindl observed that the presence of these innovators and vendors, however, is not sufficient to drive the widespread adoption of solar energy.

Barriers still exist, the key one being the lack of awareness. Ask the average person on the street what solar energy is and they will only have a vague idea of how it works, he said. Even those who are aware of solar energy have no idea what systems they can install on their own rooftops.

Fortunately, this barrier is relatively easy to overcome, said Reindl. Awareness can be raised by setting up accessible platforms where people can learn about solar energy. Seris hosts the National Solar Repository of Singapore, for instance, which tracks and benchmarks solar photovoltaic systems in the country among other functions.

Similarly, methods of analysis are available to help building owners – both residential and commercial – gain a better understanding of how they can best use their rooftops for solar energy.

Other challenges exist. Solar energy may potentially destabilise the power grid as it is intermittent in nature, noted Reindl. Hence, it is vital to ensure that all the distributed solar systems around the island efficiently and reliably feed into the power grid.

Singapore also faces the problem of space restrictions. To address this, private and public institutions are testing new solutions, such as the installation of solar energy systems in port facilities and train depots. The national water agency PUB is even test-bedding floating photovoltaic systems in reservoirs.

“The PUB is very keen to halve energy dependence in water facilities over the next 10 years,” observed Goh Chee Kiong, executive director of cleantech for the Economic Development Board. Floating solar energy systems can help meet this target.

Goh, a long-time proponent of clean technology, also suggested that Singapore should leverage its strengths as a financial and commercial centre to help solar companies around the region raise capital and connect with operations and maintenance resources.

He listed four drivers that will keep the solar sector here growing over time: Firstly, a commitment to R&D and innovation. Secondly, being a location for testing and development. Thirdly, raising capital – providing access to venture capitalists and a good financing structure; and finally, the availability of talent.

The future could be one in which resources are found and converted efficiently at source.

Allan Lim, CEO, Alpha BioFuels 

Recycling waste to get energy

Besides drawing on renewables, Singapore and its neighbours in Asia can also look into the waste-to-energy industry, said speakers on the second day of the conference held at Marina Bay Sands.

For instance, incineration plants here already double up as electricity generators, and their smaller cousins, biomass generators, are slowly gaining a foothold around the region.

In Singapore, one company - Alpha BioFuels Mx System – is recycling used cooking oil into biodiesel.

Its chief executive Allan Lim, told the audience: The truck that delivers your new IKEA sofa may well run on biodiesel created from the waste oil they had previously used to fry the same chicken wings you ate at their cafeteria.

“The future could be one in which resources are found and converted efficiently at source,” said Lim, pointing to technologies that already allow composting, water recycling, and small-scale biodigestion of food waste within buildings.

Biodiesel has the advantage of being usable in many vehicles and equipment without requiring modifications. And as with solar energy, the cost of producing it has been falling.

More importantly, though, its production has become cheaper and more convenient over the years – factors which Lim says significantly affect the adoption of waste-to-energy solutions.

“They should be able to carry their waste oil down into the basement (where the system is installed), pour it in, press a button, and leave to do other things. Two hours later, they come back and collect the biodiesel which can be instantly used elsewhere,” he shared.  

“A used material people have discarded could be rejuvenated within the same location…once people buy into this, they will be more accepting of other ways of getting their energy.”

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