Singapore: Cautious solar outlook at International Energy Week

The statement came during his opening address of the third International Energy Week, held from October 27 to November 4 in Singapore.

However, he did say the island is willing to lend its space, resources, know-how and services to help the cause. "We have developed the Clean Tech Park as the first eco-business park in the region. This park will be the focal point for large test-bedding and demonstration of system level solutions," said Lee.

He went on to say: "Green power is still more expensive than fossil fuels. It tends to be intermittent in nature and low in power density." He also fears that green power lacks the scale to replace more than a small proportion of fossil fuel use.

Despite this, the government has attracted the Renewable Energy Corporation (REC) to establish an integrated solar plant in the eastern part of the island. It is also looking to encourage more companies to "plug into this vibrant ecosystem and research network, to develop energy solutions not just for deployment in Singapore, but also for export regionally and globally", to quote the Prime Minister.

Lee added that Singapore was an "alternative energy disadvantaged country", which raised quite a few eyebrows. After all, the one asset Singapore is blessed with, in abundance, is sunshine.

Although he has not written off solar energy or its potential for the island as of yet, questions were raised regarding the slow progress of Singapore’s plans for powering the island via sunshine. After all, neighboring Malaysia will be pushing for its feed-in tariffs for solar energy next year.

Additionally, the island is teeming with solar-knowledge via research and development, through the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS), and the efforts of the CleanTech department and their cooperation with the Housing Development Board to start installing local residential estates with rooftop solar panels, are helping to integrate the technology.

Lee replied: "Even if we install solar panels on all the housing apartment buildings in Singapore, we can only produce about ten percent of our island’s energy. The silicon roofs will not suffice. It is an issue we have to address.”

He added: “Solar is still some way from grid parity. I am sure it will improve and we will be in a better position hopefully someday.”

Furthermore, he highlighted the problems solar markets in countries like Germany and Spain experienced when their feed-in tariffs were altered. He clearly stated that he did not want that to happen in Singapore.

One has to mention, however, that the installed cost of solar systems has significantly fallen in the last two years. Solar energy has become highly bankable, due to the cost reductions enhancing the levelized cost of energy (the average cost of every unit of energy produced by a generator across its entire lifetime, brought back to the value of that unit of energy determined at the time of the analysis): this methodology is used by the U.S. Department of Energy. It is also important to consider that there are places where solar grid parity has already been reached, such as California.

Nevertheless, from another point of view, Lee merely expressed his fears in investing into something that is relatively new and rather hip at the moment. What the Prime Minister has been worrying and stressing about is the economics related to energy supply – just like all government heads with the heavy responsibility of energy sustainability on their shoulders. He also talked about his wish for a regional grid, which ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) can benefit from.

What he failed to address however, was the immense potential of solar energy: the potential of the Singapore solar module that SERIS is working on, tailor-made for the tropics; the potential of the peoples’ support for solar power and not nuclear energy, which is still an open option for Singapore in the future. Indeed, Lee said that if the technology crosses to a point where it can be sustainable and there is a better way to dispose the waste, Singapore could well see a nuclear power plant installed in his lifetime.

The solar advocates could have gotten a little disheartened at the pessimistic start to the conference. However, the Clean Energy Expo has dedicated itself to looking at solar power commercialization, financing and technologies. Perhaps, the somberness will sober up and start looking sunnier. Meanwhile, the sun is shining and my solar bag is successfully charging my mobile phone, cementing my own belief in the power of the sun.