Cutting emissions by tapping the sun

Singapore plans to curb its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and is moving to meet the target by tapping more of the sun's energy.

Solar power usage here has gone up almost 30-fold since 2009, statistics from the Energy Market Authority (EMA) show.

Total installed solar photovoltaic capacity rose from 1.5MW in 2009 to 43.8MW at the end of last year.

"This is the equivalent of powering around 14,000 four-room HDB flats for a year," an EMA spokesman said. There are now 886 solar installations here, most of which are for non-residential use, for instance, at the Singapore Sports Hub.

Experts believe solar energy can pave the way for countries to cut emissions, as electricity can be generated without burning fossil fuels.

Professor Armin Aberle, the chief executive of the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore, said: "Globally, solar is by far the largest renewable energy source, and the technology has advanced so much, in both efficiency and cost, it is clear that solar can contribute enormously to mitigation of climate change."

Solar energy is the most promising renewable energy source for Singapore, said EMA. Yet, currently, it accounts for less than 1 per cent of the country's fuel mix.

The goal is to ramp the figure up to 350MW by 2020. EMA said this would meet about 5 per cent of peak electricity demand.

Executive director Subodh Mhaisalkar of the Energy Research Institute estimated carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by 160,000 tonnes a year if the target is reached.

To this end, a slew of initiatives have been launched, including the Government's SolarNova programme, which aggregates solar demand across government agencies.

Under the scheme, the Housing Board, for instance, has committed to a target of 220MW, by generating power through solar panels at some 5,500 blocks.

In December last year, a deal was struck in Paris to steer the world away from catastrophic climate change. Singapore pledged that its greenhouse gas emissions would peak around 2030, at the equivalent of about 65 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, even if the economy grew. It would also be greener economically, cutting by more than a third the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to achieve each dollar of gross domestic product.

Energy efficiency must also be stressed, said Prof Subodh, as only 5 per cent of peak electricity demand can be met by solar.

Prof Aberle said one obstacle to installing solar panels in Singapore was the lack of free open land. To tackle this challenge, he suggested designing new buildings in a more "solar-ready" way and using offshore floating solar systems.

Research and development could also help. A team here has created a solar cell that can capture more of the sun's energy.

Prof Aberle, one of the project's lead researchers, said: "There are good prospects that the city-state will house more than two gigawatts of solar systems in 2030, which would cover more than 5 per cent of Singapore's annual electricity needs in a clean, sustainable way.

"By 2050, the nation's solar share will already be in the 10-20 per cent range."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2016, with the headline 'Cutting emissions by tapping the sun'. Print Edition | Subscribe