Asean nations must work together to prevent any disruption to clean energy power grid: Expert

The Sembcorp Tengeh floating solar farm is one of the world's largest inland floating solar photovoltaic systems. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Making Singapore's scenario of importing clean energy from its South-east Asian neighbours a reality will hinge on the region's ability to work together to overcome any differences as it taps renewable resources that are spread apart, said an energy expert.

Citing the plan for an Asean power grid to bring together sources of green electricity, Dr Victor Nian, an adviser at independent think-tank Centre for Strategic Energy and  Resources, said regulators will have to iron out regional kinks to prevent potential shortages in imports from disrupting infrastructure here such as data centres and facilities in Jurong Island.

The plan to import renewable energy was cited in the recent Energy 2050 Committee report commissioned by the Energy Market Authority as a way for Singapore to safeguard its energy supplies and cut carbon emissions.

Dr Nian was speaking at a roundtable on energy organised by The Straits Times on whether the surging energy prices might end up costing the earth. It was aired on ST’s YouTube channel and website on Earth Day on Friday (April 22). 

He said: "First of all, who's responsible if there's a blackout or if there are system issues? Second thing, what is the price of that electricity that everybody should pay along the trans-Asean power grid?"

To have a collective regional network, nations must also be willing to collaborate and maintain the infrastructure along the power line, he added.

Dr Nian said: "And the question is, what does it take for everybody along the power line to cooperate always on a goodwill basis and to make sure there would be no disruption of electricity?"

His concerns come amid the Ukraine war that has upended the world's energy system as nations scramble to replace Russian oil and gas exports, driving competition for fossil fuel supplies and bumping up electricity bills. Russia is the world's third-biggest oil producer, after the United States and Saudi Arabia.

As several countries in Europe delay the shutting of their coal plants, this has fuelled worries that the war will jeopardise global efforts to tackle climate change.

Yet the crisis also presents an opportunity to restructure energy flows, with the potential for accelerating countries towards considering cleaner sources of energy, such as green hydrogen, as an alternative, said panellists.

Said ST's climate change editor David Fogarty: "The bottom line is there's going to be a much faster transition, I think, to green energy in some places where there's money to do it.

"The danger is developing countries which don't have the resources or have resources drained from the pandemic, which many of these countries are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, they may miss out on the much needed green transition."

As developing countries have the highest share of greenhouse gas emissions, it is critical for them to get support, he added.

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To hit net-zero emissions by or around 2050, Singapore needs to diversify with renewable energy sources of green hydrogen, nuclear and geothermal energy, panellists said.

They echoed the findings of the Energy 2050 Committee report positing that the Republic can meet this target even in a geopolitically fragmented world.

Currently, the power sector here accounts for about 40 per cent of total emissions.

The report projected that nuclear power could supply about 10 per cent of the country's needs in a future where safer technology becomes commercially viable.

Responding to why Singapore might look at tapping nuclear energy despite a pre-feasibility study concluding in 2012 that it was not possible to do so, Dr Nian said the option was first considered when the Government was searching for a way to decarbonise the power sector while addressing energy security and affordability.

But in 2011, an earthquake triggered nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, spewing radiation in the air.

He said: "Then the thinking was: Well, if the Japanese couldn't make it work, can we Singapore as a newcomer country make it work? And if that's not the case, and if large reactors are just inherently difficult to control, then that is not an option for us."

The prospect of nuclear energy for land-scarce Singapore has grown over the past decade with technology advancements allowing for smaller and safer reactors, he noted.

He said: "They're what we call passive safety, so without doing anything, they would not explode, they would not have the kind of Fukushima effect, as you would normally imagine."

While the cost of renewable energy has gone up due to supply chain issues and higher demand, the case remains compelling since in the long run, these are still cheaper, said Mr Fogarty.

Citing China as the largest renewable energy investor in the world and its plans to invest more in the sector, he said: "This is a good way for China to eventually meet a lot of its energy needs more cheaply rather than relying on the ongoing cost of fossil fuels."

He added: "The biggest problem with fossil fuels, apart from the climate question, is the input costs are always there, whereas sunshine or wind... they're free."

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