Singapore’s Future in Solar PV

Energy Studies Institute organized a one-day conference which brought together experts from government agencies, research institutes and solar companies on a common discussion topic of the future of Solar PV, internationally, regionally and locally.

The IEA started the day with a comprehensive discourse on the trends in solar energy for the next few decades, outlining the fastest growth in capacity of both solar and wind energy in countries like China, Japan and USA. Outside of Europe and in emerging economies like Africa, there has been significant reduction in cost of capital, allowing speedy expansion of solar. Key elements to success in solar include good financing and PPAs (Power Purchasing Agreements).

The presentation was substantially flavoured with insightful statistics and figures backing up the predictions: Projection of solar energy growth of 400 GWp to 500 GWp by 2020 and 560GWp by 2025 to meet climate change objectives. And with conservative calculations, to reach 16% of energy market in 2025. However, further actions are needed for the estimations to be precipitated. For example, system integration, policy framework and financing as well as government setting aside long-term targets to help finance, distribute and facilitate uptake of solar in a larger scale.

Solar leasing is a crucial way of encouraging the uptake of solar installations. Through shifting of risks and financial burden of capital costs to the lessor, building or house owners have an added incentive to join the game. Not only are the modules financed by investors, lessees get to reap rewards of harvesting solar energy by being green with zero or low cost.

Currently in Singapore, town councils are managing the solar leases with HDB flats and paying for the power generated at lower than retail rate. The latest tender awarded Sunseap with 38MWp for 680 HDB flats and HDB-owned buildings with the cost fully borne by the developers.

The situation in Singapore
Phoenix Solar came in to shatter myths hindering solar developments in Singapore, busting old-aged tales of how intermittency will cause solar power to be unreliable to deploy on national scale. Blessed with plentiful rain throughout the year, intermittency during days of storm can cause intensive drop in aggregate output. However, data showed that the average monthly fluctuation is around 20% which was claimed to be an insignificant cause for worry. Now, installation of solar panels is decentralised and diverse across Singapore, totaling around 9 MWp. It was predicted that solar could contribute up to 2 GWp by 2025 (1/3 of total demand in Singapore) and 600 MWp by 2020, as grid parity has already been achieved ($0.23KWh for solar and $0.21KWh for gas).

Singapore is particularly blessed with government support and efficacy in facilitating the growth of solar industry locally. In countries such as Thailand, hindrances such as lack of government funding, prohibitive rules and inefficacy in pushing out key projects remain as reasons for falling behind. For example, inflexible rules such as the need for a factory license before installing a solar panel with 10KWp capacity occludes solar PV installation on residential roof tops.

The top three PV Success factors include having i) a good business model, ii) cost of equity, debt and construction capital and iii) refinancing and/or exit plans. One of the ways to achieve ii is to get investments. Though solar PV is already traded as a commodity in the markets and repackaged as financial instruments globally, Singapore does not have a large enough pool for securitization. Thus, one of the ideas which sprang up in the conference was to make Singapore a secondary market for the region.

From a regulator’s standpoint, their role was to reduce as much barriers as possible for solar to enter Singapore’s market. Energy Market Authority reduced the number of days from 27 to 7 days to join the power grid locally. It also created a 1-stop PV information sharing website for people to exchange ideas and knowledge. To hedge the problem of solar intermittency affecting stability of power in Singapore, the Intermittent Generation Threshold (IGT) has been set. Basically, this implied the maximum amount of solar energy produced which does not incur additional cost to carry on the existing system. The IGT is now 600MWp (previously 350MWp).

The Future of PV
Due to the unique constraint of land area in Singapore, there needs to be innovations in the usage of solar PV as an energy source. These are already present and are in stages of testing and development, including: floating PV panels (5KWh by Phoenix Solar), using Pulau Semakau as a PV bed as currently they are using diesel to generate power for waste facilities, and Building Integrated PVs (BIPVs) whereby solar panels are placed vertically on buildings like windows. However, some challenges like time-sensitivity of BIPVs and high installation costs remain to be resolved. Without subsidy from government, solar companies need to think of ways to build business models which will thrive in an island with a small land area, in order to propel a faster growth of solar industry here.

Energy capacity and energy parity

According to the ear-pleasing Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2014 report by IRENA, there’re plentiful reasons why anyone in the right mind would be rooting for renewable energy in coming years. Data has irrevocably shown that even without financial aid or incentives, renewables are successful in playing catch-up with costs of traditional fossil fuels. Take some time to chew on these figures:

  • In many countries, including Europe, onshore wind power is one of the most competitive sources of new electricity capacity available. Individual wind projects are consistently delivering electricity for USD 0.05 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) without financial support, compared to a range of USD 0.045 to 0.14/kWh for fossil-fuel power plants
  • The average cost of wind energy ranges from USD 0.06/kWh in China and Asia to USD 0.09/kWh in Africa. North America also has competitive wind projects, with an average cost of USD 0.07/kWh
  • Solar PV module prices have dropped 75% since 2009 and continue to decrease.
  • When damage to human health from fossil fuels in power generation is considered in economic terms, along with the cost of CO2 emissions, the price of fossil fuel-fired power generation rises to between USD 0.07 and 0.19/kWh.

IRENA has also brilliantly came up with a very insightful and easy-to-use online tool displaying statistics and data visualisation on renewable energy usage and ranking by region and countries. Stats junkies can start squealing now. Of note-worthiness are sections on country rankings of installed RE capacity (China of whopping twice the amount of USA) and RE tech employment by country (Why’re UK and US so low on their employment numbers?).



Fun Facts

1. What’s the difference between Solar PV versus Concentrating Solar PV (CSP)?

Answer: CSP refers to solar thermal energy through the use of mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight on a small area.

2. What’s LCOE?

Answer: Levelised cost of electricity, a ratio of lifetime costs to lifetime electricity generation.

Singapore removes cap for solar energy supply to grid

Great news for solar! The energy authority decided to remove the 600 megawatt-peak (MWp) cap of solar energy that can be supplied to our national grid.

Why was there a cap in the first place?

  • Softens the impact on the grid in case of unpredictable reduction in solar supply caused by factors such as cloud covers.
  • Reduces the reliance on reserve powers.

Why are they removing it now?

To encourage more generation of solar energy in the Singapore energy market.

What are the impacts?

  • For companies, there may be added costs due to the need for increased reserve capacity
  • Smaller consumers who install solar generation sources will find it easier to be paid for supplying excess electricity they sell to the national grid.
  • Come 2015, consumers can be paid the energy cost of electricity they export into the grid, currently, 25.68cents per KWh directly through SP.

What proportion is the solar energy output in the overall scheme?

  • The total power generation capacity is 10,000 MW which is more than the peak electricity demand of 6,000 MW.
  • Solar output would then be around 10% of total.
  • In Singapore, the only intermittent energy source connected to the national grid is solar. 85% of the energy it uses is generated through natural gas.

Sources: ChannelNewsAsia, abc carbon, pacific light

Solar Powered Roads: A Hoax or Panacea?

Solar Roads are all the rage on the internet now. This couple Julie and Scott from America started a company called Solar Roadways a few years back. They recently turned to indiegogo and got a whopping USD$1.8 million worth of support from plebeians who were equally hyped about their promise to save the world.

I came to awareness of this “tech” first from a friend who posted on facebook, boasting its prowess in making a real difference and even potentially considering working for it in the future. So I got curious and went to check it out. Their indiegogo campaign video “solar freakin roadways” was an excellent marketing feat. It made my heart race, blood accelerate and pupils dilate 10 times larger. As a first-time viewer, I was equally pumped about the idea of saving the world, ending global warming, generating new jobs and rescuing the failing economy – all these just by having solar road ways.

But aside from the incredible media and public attention it attracted, I started noticing that there was no indepth mentioning of the technical feasibility in terms of cost, scalability or implementation of the project. Their pitch for the $1m call was this:

“We asked for $1 million to hire an initial team of engineers to help us make a few needed tweaks in our product and streamline our process so that we could go from prototype to production.”

There was hardly much scientific backup of why this would be a better alternative to the existing solar panels that we see fixed on roof tops, desserts and other open spaces. They claim their version of solar panel to be “smart, micropocessing, interlocking, hexagonal” solar panels. After given $750,000 fund from the Federal Highway Administration back in 2011, all they came up with was a small parking lot prototype.

What about the cost of digging up old roads, putting in the new solar ones and connecting all of the million highways and roads together? How do they transmit the electricity generated from sun to actually power houses or buildings? What exactly is the advantage of these over existing solar systems? If the main goal of the roads is to harness solar power, wouldn’t it make more sense to just build solar panels on totally unobstructed surfaces rather than roads where cars would be overshadowing the panels?

So they tried addressing some of the questions in their FAQ, such as:

How much will your panels cost?

We are not yet able to give numbers on cost. We are still in the midst of our Phase II contract with the Federal Highway Administration and we’ll be analyzing our prototype costs near the end of our contract which ends in July, 2014. Afterward, we’ll be able to do a production-style cost analysis.

If a parking lot is full of cars or a highway has lots of traffic, how are they going to produce any energy?

Traffic jam

This picture is from Orange County, CA during work traffic. The upper six lanes are what we’d refer to as “bumper to bumper” traffic. Even with this congestion, you can see how much of the road surface is still exposed to sunlight. As we travel around the country doing speaking engagements, we see miles and miles of roads and highways with virtually no traffic. So we believe it will have a negligible impact on the Solar Roadway’s overall efficiency.

Sure, but…What if it was this instead?

So essentially, the couple is counting on random piecemeal shots from Google Earth to tell us that there wouldn’t be problem with collecting enough energy to offset the high installation costs, because there will not be much traffic as depicted from this photo. Very dubious-sounding evidence. Sounds more like a dire need to learn the art of data research and analysis to make a more cogent argument. Up to now, it is all talk and little proof. I await their analysis report in the near future and hopefully, their backers would not be disappointed with their investments and that this idea would actually be one that works.