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Power diversification in Singapore

Even as Singapore moves towards greater self-reliance in water supply, it is looking to ensure a secure and stable supply of energy ironically, in part, by importing electricity from its neighbours. But there are limits to such imports, stressed top energy official Lawrence Wong.

“The issue would be about system security, power systems stability. Whether or not, (or) when we import electricity from our neighbours, how much do we import and how do we make sure that the imports do not destabilise our energy system,” Mr Wong, the chief executive of the Energy Market Authority, told Today.

“So there is a margin - it shouldn’t be too high but there’s a certain margin in terms of systems stability within which we can allow electricity imports.”

In its report in February, the Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) had recommended that, in the medium term, the Government should consider coal and electricity imports to diversify energy sources. “The import of electricity is an option which can free up valuable land in Singapore,” it said. “It could also allow us to tap on the significant renewable energy potential in our region, such as in the form of hydro-electricity or geothermal power.”

Mr Wong said the Government has not ruled out coal and electricity imports as possibilities “in the medium to long term”.

He noted the “environmental concerns” surrounding coal as an option, such as “whether or not there are new technologies that would allow us to use coal while keeping to environmental requirements or safeguards”.

Short to medium term: It’ll be a gas

In the short to medium term, however, more of our power will be gas-generated. These days, about 80 per cent of the island’s electricity is from gas while the remainder “comes from largely oil-fired steam plants and, to some small extent, the waste incineration plants”, Mr Wong said.

The infamous blackouts of 2004 and 2006 drove home the undesirability of having the bulk of gas supply piped in from neighbours.

In June 2004, a disruption in piped gas from Indonesia’s West Natuna affected 300,000 homes here and caused $6 million in economic losses over two hours.

A 45-minute blackout in December 2006, triggered by a glitch in Malaysian supplies, left 70,000 homes and businesses without power.

The Energy System Review Committee formed after the 2004 incident proposed that Singapore supplement its imports with liquefied natural gas (LNG) - which, because it can be shipped from countries far away, reduces reliance on neighbouring sources. Work began this year on an LNG terminal, due to be ready in 2013.

“When that happens, it’s quite likely that … more than 80 per cent of our electricity will be generated by gas,” said Mr Wong.

“We have a good system today, designed to make sure that we maintain systems stability. For example, all of our gas turbines are required to have the capability to operate on two different types of fuel. Not just gas but liquid fuel - diesel.

“And the power companies are required to have 90 days of liquid fuel stockpile, so we are able to ensure that, if there’s a need, our power companies can hot-switch quite quickly, from gas to liquid fuel and make sure that electricity continues to flow without any disruption.”

Going solar or nuclear?

The ESC report also recommended, for the long term, that Singapore support innovation and investment in renewable energy and study the feasibility of nuclear energy.

Asked about the nuclear feasibility study announced by the Government this year, Mr Wong said it is “to see whether nuclear can be an option for Singapore in the long term and we are still in the process of doing that study”.

And while the clean energy industry is expected to contribute $1.7 billion to GDP by 2015, don’t expect the island to be powered by the natural elements anytime soon.

“We have no wind, no geothermal, no hydropower … Solar energy is a potential source but even with solar, we have limited land for the deployment of large solar plants … so it will be part of the fuel mix but I don’t think it will make a very significant amount.”

This might sound counter-intuitive to the layman in tropical Singapore. But other experts have pointed out the supply of solar energy can be unreliable if there’s heavy cloud cover.

Said Mr Wong: “Both coal and electricity imports would have more significant scale than, potentially, solar power, because they can provide baseload generation and they’re not intermittent.”

Singapore’s overall approach of pursuing a range of energy options is in line with international trends, Mr Wong said. “Globally, countries are generally taking a diversified approach.”

Kicking off today is the third Singapore International Energy Week, which will see more than 10,000 participants - up from last year’s 5,000. Jointly organised by the EMA and the Energy Studies Institute think-tank, the conference will see, among other things, the mapping of strategic projections for energy technology in South-east Asia.

“Technology road-maps basically give an indication of the time horizon for which different types of technologies would become viable, or a sense of how potential technologies will evolve,” said Mr Wong.

For instance, one would get a clearer view of the ways in which solar energy can be harnessed “and the time frame for which these technologies would evolve and mature, and potentially become cost-effective”.

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