Solar power generation capacity in Singapore is likely to exceed 350 megawatts-peak (MWp) by 2020, a national goal, Jasper Wong, the head of Construction and Infrastructure, Sector Solutions Group for United Overseas Bank’s (UOB) Wholesale Banking Group, told Solar Magazine. “By using solar power, companies have the opportunity to transition to a renewable energy source, to lower their carbon emissions and also to reduce their energy costs. In addition, with solar energy costs declining rapidly over the last few years, it has become more cost-effective for companies to explore the use of such energy,” Wong said.
Solar energy investment and capacity deployment could be growing faster, some in the solar industry say, however. “It’s true that Singapore doesn’t have lots of land for project development…The good thing is the government of Singapore is doing its best to drive ‘solarization’ and clean energy in a step by step manner, but if you consider Singapore has 2 gigawatts (GW) of solar power potential and you look at the level and speed of activity—around 200 megawatts-peak (MWp) of installed capacity—progress hasn’t been all that impressive,” Atem Ramsundersingh, founder and CEO of regional distributed solar and clean energy investor and developer WEnergy Global, said in an interview.
“Singapore’s energy policy is to not favor one form of energy over the other, but rather organize supply and demand through a market-based platform, the National Electricity Market of Singapore (NEMS),” Thomas Reindl, Deputy CEO of the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), explained in an interview.
“Given Singapore’s land and water resource limitations, it has been taking pragmatic and measured steps in promoting solar energy as a sustainable renewable energy source,” Reindl said. A long road lies ahead before Singapore achieves those goals, however.
Imported natural gas is used to generate about 95 percent of national electricity supply. All told, just 203.2 MWp/156.4 MWac of grid-connected solar power capacity was up and running in Singapore as of year-end 2018. The vast bulk, 193.9 MWp/149.3 MWac, is categorized as non-residential.
Singapore aims to become a leader in urban solar, proving in reality that it is possible to have major contributions from solar PV, even in a densely built-up urban context and despite the challenges arising from tropical climate conditions. The technologies and solutions developed here can then also benefit other megacities in the tropical sunbelt and beyond. Being a global leader in floating solar is one example for that.
Reindl also highlighted that concerns and commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and stem the tide of rising global mean temperatures prompted the Singapore government to introduce a carbon tax in January. The carbon tax rate has been set at S$5 (~USD3.68) per metric ton of equivalent carbon dioxide emissions (tCO2e) from 2019 to 2023.
Government authorities intend to review the carbon tax rate by 2023 with an eye towards raising it to S$10–S$15 (~USD7.35–11.03). “This will contribute to leveling the playing field in the energy sector,” Reindl told Solar Magazine.
“Political economy plays out in every country. You have to make sure the oil and gas industry in Singapore supports [the carbon tax] effort—oil and gas industry players, including traders, distributors, suppliers, etc. With these types of struggles between interest groups you’re talking about serious shifts in people’s and industry interests,” Ramsundersingh commented.
Reindl drew attention to two particularly important initiatives Singapore’s government is undertaking to boost emissions-free solar energy use.
In order to “walk the talk”, the government is moving ahead with solar PV deployment on their very own roofs. “The SolarNova program’s target is to install 350 MWp of solar power capacity by 2020, predominantly on residential housing blocks, state properties and rooftops of government-owned buildings. This is well underway,” Reindl explained.
Aggregating solar energy demand in order to enhance the economics and make equity investments in distributed solar energy more attractive to equity investors and lenders is one of the program’s principal goals. A second is developing Singaporean workforce capacity so that workers are primed and ready for hiring as private-sector investment and project development kicks in, Reindl added.
The SolarNova program “will see the progressive roll-out of 350 MWp across 5,500 HDB (Housing & Development Board) blocks by 2020, generating an estimated 420 GWh of solar energy annually,” added UOB’s Wong.
This is about 5% of the country’s total energy consumption, equivalent to powering 88,000 four-room flats.
“As an Asian megacity, Singapore will always be space-constrained, which then requires some ‘out of the box thinking’ when it comes to solar PV deployment,” Reindl noted. “One suitable area was determined to be the many reservoirs, which act as rainwater capture and are an integral part of the potable water supply system here.”
As a result, Singapore’s government invested in what’s said to be the world’s largest test-bed for floating solar energy technology and systems in order to assess the benefits and learn how to best scale-up this new technology option.
SERIS designed and built floating solar, or floating PV (FPV), test-bed and carries out R&D there. FPV is catching on in countries across Southeast and East Asia, including in China and Thailand. Singapore’s solar R&D institute is playing an active role in creating a region-wide FPV community.
In addition, Singapore’s national water agency, the Public Utilities Board (PUB), in June announced it aims to seek out “private sector participation to deploy a 50-MWp floating solar PV system on a national reservoir by 2021,” Wong pointed out. “The floating solar energy system will eliminate the need to emit 28,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year it is in operation—the equivalent to removing 6,000 cars off Singapore’s roads,” he said.
WEnergy studied the feasibility of installing rooftop solar and FPV spanning 11 reservoirs across Singapore, advised government authorities and produced a road map for deployment. “It’s good to see PUB has issued a tender for 50 MW of build-own-operate FPV in one reservoir. It’s not that aggressive, but it’s a good start,” Ramsundersingh said.
The contracting process is a bit complex, however, according to Ramsundersingh, with the builder and owner of an FPV farm receiving a fixed rate for energy produced over 20 years. “PUB invites you to install solar on a reservoir then sell some of the electricity directly to customers and some via the grid to PUB. But there are all kinds of grid fees associated with that…Basically, you become a utility. You have to sell to PUB and whatever excess power needs to be sold to other customers of Singapore PowerGrid.”
Most of Singapore’s grid-connected, non-residential solar power capacity is classified as “Non-Contestable,” which, under Singapore’s recently introduced NEM, means that consumers pay for electricity according to government-owned transmission-distribution utility SPGrid’s regulated tariff, or rate, schedule. The other 67.0 MWac is categorized as “Contestable,” which means that electricity consumers can choose the producer from whom they purchase their electricity.
“A total of 108,000 residential accounts and 9,500 business accounts were able to exercise this choice of electricity provider,” international market research consultancy Capgemini found in a study released in November 2018.
The Open Electricity Market will be extended to the rest of Singapore from Q4 2018, allowing the remaining 1.3 million accounts (mainly households) to choose their electricity provider and tariff plan.
When it comes to emissions-free, renewable energy resources, solar is Singapore’s number one, and effectively only real, option.
In Singapore, we have limited renewable energy options. There are no hydro resources, our wind speeds and mean tidal range are low, and geothermal energy is not economically viable. Solar energy remains the most viable renewable energy option for Singapore when it becomes commercially viable.
—according to Singapore’s Energy Market Authority (EMA), the national industry and market regulator.
Solar industry participants and proponents point out that solar energy is already commercially viable in Singapore, and has been for quite some time, more so if you factor in the human and environmental health costs of fossil fuel use, including rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and global mean temperatures. And Singapore certainly doesn’t lack in solar energy resource potential. Located in the tropical sunbelt not all that far from the equator, Singapore enjoys an average annual solar irradiance of 1,580 kWh/m2/year, EMA points out.
Singapore reached “grid parity” for larger solar power around 2013, explained SERIS’ Reindl. “The levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) for solar PV in Singapore to date ranges from ~SGD 8.5cents/kWh (~USD0.063) for a large, MW-scale factory roof to ~SGD 15cents/kWh (~USD0.11) for a small residential unit,” he said.
Solar PV energy is also cost-competitive with the wholesale, National Electricity Market (NEM) “Uniform Singapore Energy Price” (USEP), Reindl pointed out. “This, however, is dependent on future oil and gas prices, as solar electricity competes with conventional power generation, which, for the case of Singapore, largely comes from gas-fired power plants.”
Singapore began its long march towards energy market liberalization, or privatization, more than two decades ago. Efforts continue today, most notably with the November 1, 2018 launch of the Open Electricity Market, which is intended to spur introduction of innovative, cost-effective, sustainable energy alternatives and further break up state-owned monopoly power generation by opening up private sector opportunities to enter and compete in the energy market.
Today, Singapore Power (SP), which remains wholly-owned by the government’s Temasek investment fund, consists of four major operating subsidiaries.
Aiming to spur solar energy growth, Singapore’s government and R&D organizations early on zoomed in on rolling out rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems across the nation’s extensive stock of public housing developments. That has since extended into building-integrated solar PV research and development.
Singapore is also looking to spur adoption of lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery energy storage systems (BESS), which are proving they have the ability to store and dispatch electricity much more efficiently and effectively than traditional coal and natural-gas-fired “peaker” power plants. Key to spurring adoption, the sharp drops in the cost of Li-ion BESS, in particular, is enhancing the economics, and feasibility, of deploying energy storage capacity to the point where systems are being installed as a substitute for peaker power plants in a growing range of markets around the world.
“With the significant decline in the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of more than 70% since 2010 across the globe, the supply of solar energy has become more cost-competitive,” Reindl pointed out. “In addition, the lower cost of lithium-ion batteries, which are used to store solar energy given the intermittent nature of such power, has also enhanced the cost-competitiveness of solar.”
Singapore’s FPV test-bed extends and expands on these initiatives, as does its Pulau Ubin microgrid test-bed and Experimental Urban Micro-grid@Singapore Institute of Technology. Microgrids often incorporate solar PV and battery energy storage capacity, along with adaptive smart grid technology and networks.
“The future power system could be increasingly decentralized, as the costs of adopting solar, energy storage systems and smart grid technologies decline,” EMA says. “EMA has been working with local industry partners and academia to understand the potential of micro-grids for Singapore’s future energy system.”
A leading Singapore-based and regional banking group, UOB is actively engaged in solar energy finance in a variety of aspects and at a variety of different levels. “UOB is focused on creating sustainable value for our stakeholders and is committed to working with our clients to support the development of sustainable cities and communities,” Wong told Solar Magazine. “We support companies in meeting the region’s infrastructure needs in areas such as energy, transport, environmental management and smart buildings.”
Wong cited the following as illustrations of UOB’s activities in the sector:
In addition to land constraints, at times overly burdensome regulations make for a solar energy market and industry that’s less open and less competitive that it could be in Singapore, according to Ramsundersingh. Reticence on the part of commercial and industry (C&I) property owners and managers to switch from the reliable fossil fuel-based energy resources, technology and distribution networks they know has proven to be another obstacle to solar market growth, as has opposition on the part of the fossil fuel industry, which plays a large role in Singapore’s economy.
“You must determine what is the best business model for the private sector to come in and build large-scale solar capacity. It’s a complicated environment, regulations are strict and Singapore is one country in a global market. In Singapore, every transmission line or cable needs to be underground. The cost of transmission and distribution will be pretty high,” Ramsundersingh highlighted.
“If you manage to find low-cost capital, good investors and an excellent construction company, you may be able to earn some sort of single-digit return. When global players think about where to allocate capital, there may be more attractive countries, even given Singapore’s advantages.”
Commercial and industrial property owners and managers in Singapore have been reluctant to invest in and deploy solar, Ramsundersingh pointed out. “People in Singapore are used to reliability, comfort, and a level of luxury, so why take the risk?”
Singapore has a lot of huge manufacturing buildings in the west, east and north. There’s lots of rooftop space and low-level buildings, but by and large industrialists and commercial property owners don’t want to take on the risk of investing in solar energy systems.
Research has shown that it is possible to earn double-digit returns in the 12–15% range from electricity costs savings solar energy investments yield in Singapore, but the government needs to be more aggressive with its policy-making, say by partly covering transmissions and distribution costs of project development, in order to convince commercial and industrial sector players to invest, according to Ramsundersingh. Another possibility would be for the government to build out the basic energy infrastructure at sites and then earn the investment back from project developers over time.
All that said, “SERIS is confident that Singapore will achieve the targets of 350 MWp by 2020 and 1 GWp beyond 2020, so there is ample room for growth,” Reindl said. Besides its space constraint, he cited two other challenges, which SERIS and other R&D institutes, such as the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and ERI@N are addressing.
“One is PV grid integration. Due to the tropical climate conditions, the solar resource is highly variable due to frequent changes in cloud cover. At the same time, Singapore has one of the most stable power grids in the world, which cannot be jeopardized,” Reindl explained.
Therefore, SERIS and others work intensively on developing suitable mitigation measures for the integration of a growing number of highly distributed PV installations into the electric power system, such a solar forecasting, storage technologies and demand-side management.
A second challenge is the result of being located in a tropical, hot and humid climate, which takes a heavy toll on electric and electronic equipment, reducing their useful lives, Reindl continued.
SERIS and other leading R&D institutes are working to resolve this issue as well so as to ensure PV systems installed in tropical climates last as long as those installed in temperate climates, Reindl concluded.