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Solar systems key to S'pore's renewable energy development

The Business Times by MATTHEW PELOSO

WITH 2018 designated as Singapore's Year of Climate Action, there has been significant progress made in the detailed strategies of mitigation and adaptation as set out in the republic's 2016 Climate Action Plan. Among the methods of limiting greenhouse gas emissions is the introduction of a carbon tax set to kick in next year.

A carbon tax is a common tool used to control the amount of earth-warming greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. About 67 countries and jurisdictions - including China, the European Union and Japan - have implemented or announced plans to implement such a scheme.

This carbon tax will be levied on 30 to 40 large emitters in Singapore that contribute 80 per cent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions - mainly from petroleum refining, chemicals and semiconductor sectors. For households, the carbon tax is expected to push electricity and gas expenses up by 1 per cent on average.

While the carbon tax is likely to be effective to a certain extent, there are other measures which should not be neglected, for example the development of other energy sources.

Currently, some 95 per cent of Singapore's electricity is generated from natural gas. The remaining 5 per cent comprises a mix of coal, petroleum and solar energy, which accounts for about 2 per cent. However, Singapore's potential for solar energy generation remains much higher.

With high average annual solar irradiation of about 1,500 kWh/m2, which is 50 per cent more than in temperate countries, solar photovoltaic (PV) is a key renewable energy option for green electricity in Singapore. Beyond that, solar energy is the only energy source that Singaporeans do not need to import from another country.

By building our capabilities in harnessing solar energy, Singapore can develop an alternative source of energy that is not only free but also a natural resource that can be fully created and shared by everyone in Singapore.

Recognising the potential for growth in the solar energy sector, Singapore is aiming to increase solar deployment from the current ~110 megawatt peak (MWp), to provide around 650MWp of electricity by 2020. By 2030, it is estimated that renewable energy could potentially contribute up to 12 per cent of Singapore's peak electricity demand.

That said, there are some existing limitations to deploying solar energy on a large scale in Singapore. For one, Singapore's small physical size, high population density and land scarcity limit the amount of available space to install solar panels. In addition, the presence of high cloud coverage across Singapore also poses challenges.

Recent advances in solar technologies have addressed some of these concerns. Amidst limited land space, solar energy firms have developed rooftop solar systems which tap onto unused rooftop space, allowing building residents to utilise the energy generated while still keeping costs low, as these systems tap on existing electrical distribution lines.

Yet, this has introduced another set of limitations, as some residents might not want to use solar power. In the case of commercial buildings, tenants might require substantial alterations to infrastructure to utilise solar energy. Their property leases may be shorter than the solar contract period, and power generated during non-operating hours would be wasted.

These challenges force a new approach, which would offer greater flexibility to building owners and Singaporeans alike, giving them the choice to generate or utilise solar energy without limitations.

Today, Singapore is the first country with solar energy available on the national grid and accessible to anyone, even if they do not have the roof space, by trading clean energy from rooftop to electricity consumers. This is achieved through Sun Electric's technology, which efficiently and accurately tracks the amount of clean energy generated from these roof tops, and subsequently provides our solar energy to electricity users on the power grid.

For example, we have jointly developed the SolarRoof programme with industrial landlord JTC . This allows the solar energy generated at 27 of its buildings to be fully exported to the national power grid. Under the 15-year contract, the solar panels generate up to 5MWp of electricity and were plugged into the national grid in July. By 2020, the programme targets to generate 120MWp of electricity as more rooftops get deployed.

At the same time, digitalisation within the industry poses new business opportunities. As an industry which has traditionally been rather "low-touch" in terms of customer interaction, apart from the monthly billing cycle, the rapid digitalisation within the industry is creating space for greater communication between electricity providers and its customers. The island-wide launch of the Open Electricity Market, for example, will provide greater choice and transparency for customers and allow solar energy to be made available to anyone within Singapore.

In anticipation of this launch, Sun Electric will embark on its "Our Power" campaign, where we encourage Singapore to utilise clean energy generated on our own rooftops by offering electricity users and rooftop owners the ability to share in the benefits of solar power generated across Singapore's rooftops.

With these developments, there is great potential for solar energy to be a key contributor to the local power system. To realise this potential, it is critical for each player within our energy ecosystem to work closely together to ensure solar power is easily and readily available. This means the market should continue to open solar energy firms to tap onto Singapore's existing infrastructure such as power meters and data registries for greater efficiency and transparency. Regulators must also work with private players within the industry to address regulations in the power sector, and drive further innovation within the industry.

With firm support and cooperation within the industry, Singapore will be able to fully develop our own solar energy resources, making it truly Our Power.

  • The writer is CEO and founder of Sun Electric.