As governments and investors in Southeast Asia reassess development plans in light of the pandemic, solar energy may quickly emerge as a key focus for growth.
Last month, Singapore completed one of the largest floating solar energy farms in the world, the latest in a series of solar initiatives in Southeast Asia that have gone ahead despite the impacts of the pandemic.
Located in the Strait of Johor to the west of Singapore, the solar farm consists of more than 13,000 panels across over five acres of floats. The 5 MW installation was built by Singapore’s Sunseap Group and could offset more than 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of Nanyang Technological University’s Energy Research Institute, noted the potential of projects like the new floating solar farm.
“For Singapore to meet our ambitions for renewables deployment, and for the global efforts to reach carbon neutrality in the upcoming decades, such solutions that extend the opportunity to increase our solar output would have great international demand,” he told The Straits Times.
Subodh also noted the major challenges that come with offshore projects, from waves and tides to algae and microorganisms. Floating installations also have to contend with shipping lanes and the need to moor the arrays in place.
The floating farm is the latest of Singapore’s solutions to its land scarcity problem and also follows a series of other innovative solar initiatives, from rooftop arrays to panels on top of buses. The island city-state is aiming to install 2 GW of solar capacity by 2030—enough to power around 350,000 households, according to one estimate, but still less than 5% of Singapore’s total energy supply.
Though Singapore is an outlier in the region in terms of wealth and is a unique context in many ways, its successes around solar demonstrate a number of models that may be more easily replicable across Southeast Asia. Floating installations, whether on lakes, reservoirs or offshore, may be easier to build in some contexts as they don’t require people or governments to give up land and turn it over to developers.
As for rooftop solar, distributed power generation avoids the need for large commitments of land as well as financing. Vietnam has moved quickly to become the region’s leader in terms of rooftop installations and solar power as a whole.
As Southeast Asia takes stock of the long-term economic impacts of the pandemic, a lot hangs on the question of whether and how development will change in the years ahead. For advocates of sustainable development and “green” growth, COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reconsider existing economic plans and chart a more responsible path forward.
Singapore, Vietnam move fast on solar
Southeast Asia is expected to nearly triple its solar power capacity by 2024 to 35.8 GW, according to consultancy group Wood Mackenzie. The region’s growing economies can either continue to build risky fossil fuel infrastructure and unsustainable hydropower or commit to an inclusive transition to green energy.
China, though still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, has taken advantage of the enormous potential for solar and now has more than a third of the world’s solar capacity, at 175 GW, and cities across China have reached solar grid parity, meaning solar power costs as much or less than electricity from other grid sources.
Last year, Vietnam launched the biggest push for rooftop solar in the region, and possibly in Asia as a whole. Of the course of 2020, the country increased its rooftop solar capacity from 378 MW to 9.3 GW, with around 6 GW of this built in December 2020 alone. The push made Vietnam the world’s third-largest solar market in 2020.
The solar rush also came less than three years after the government introduced a feed-in tariff—a mechanism that allows energy producers to be paid for the power they generate. The policy represents a major break from the rest of ASEAN, as most governments have yet to offer comprehensive feed-in tariff or fully integrate rooftop solar into their national grid. Despite this commitment to solar, Vietnam still plans to rely heavily on coal in the years to come, with coal accounting for over 50% of its energy supply in 2030.
As for Singapore, the city state has installed at least 170 MW worth of rooftop solar panels across 1,500 buildings. At the moment, Singapore depends almost entirely on natural gas for power generation—95% as of 2019—having switched to gas from oil over the course of the last 50 years.
Sunseap itself is looking abroad and already operates a 168 MW solar plant in Vietnam. The firm also announced a joint venture in March with the company that operates Malaysia’s power grid, Tenaga Nasional Berhad. The partnership will invest in renewables in Malaysia and import the energy to Singapore.
As Philip Andrews-Speed, senior principal fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute, writes for CNA, “Such projects will reduce the risk of overdependence on hydroelectricity from Laos, the source of low-carbon electricity identified by the Lao PDR-Thailand-Malaysia-Singapore Power Integration Project,” referring to a plan to create a regional power grid with Laos as the “battery of Southeast Asia.”
“Laos’ hydro resources, though abundant, are risky,” Andrews-Speed adds. “Seasonal droughts, climate change, growing domestic demand for electricity and China’s control of the upstream flows together challenge the reliability of this source of clean energy for Singapore.”
The impacts of large hydropower dams on food security, livelihoods and valuable ecosystems have also quickly become untenable.
New backers look to give solar power the bankroll it needs
The region’s biggest public energy investors—state banks in China, Japan and South Korea—have been slow to back renewables. Between 2009 and 2019, public banks from the three countries invested US$9.1 billion in solar and wind energy but invested over eight times that amount in coal and gas projects. A report by Greenpeace in December 2020 found that the market for solar energy in Southeast Asia could be worth US$125.1 billion over the next decade.
Some private investors however, are lining up to support renewables in the region. Singapore’s Temasek Holdings Pte., one of the largest wealth managers in the world, has formed a partnership with BlackRock Inc. to invest in solutions that will bring the world closer to zero carbon emissions. The two established a new firm called Decarbonization Partners that will support startups and technologies that reduce the need for fossil fuels. Temasek and BlackRock have already committed US$600 million to the business and are looking to raise billions more.
“As you look at the transition to greener options, there is obviously a need to address the gulf between the cost of what’s available today and the cost curve of those solutions,” said Temasek CEO Dilhan Pillay Sandrasegara. “That’s why private capital is required, to give these solutions a chance of making it to commercialization, to where the cost curves can be brought down to the levels of non-green options or even lower.”
As Temasek’s US$230 billion portfolio includes Singapore Airlines, the wealth firm is expected to prioritize efforts to find a green replacement for jet fuel.
Tech firms are also turning to solar as they look to power their projects in the region. Sunseap has already secured two “virtual” power purchase agreements from Facebook under which the tech giant will invest in the project and get renewable energy credits in return. The first, signed in October 2020, saw Facebook invest in Sunseap’s rooftop initiative. The second, signed in April, commits Facebook to purchasing energy from the floating solar farm. Sunseap also recently signed a deal with Amazon and began a partnership with Apple in 2015.
The current push for solar has also seen the development of new technologies with significant potential impact if they can be scaled up. One Singapore startup, Solar AI Technologies, has built a tool that automatically assesses the solar power potential of a rooftop using data on sun exposure, available space and estimated costs. The company is using the tool to offer free solar assessments in Singapore and plans to roll the program out across Southeast Asia in 2021.
While most countries in the region can’t commit the same resources to solar development as Singapore, new tools and investment resources will likely see solar power take a more prominent place in regional development as governments find a way forward through the economic uncertainty of the pandemic.