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CNA Explains: Singapore's energy sources and the future of its electricity supply

Why does Singapore need to import its electricity? Why can't it just rely on solar power?

CNA Explains: Singapore's energy sources and the future of its electricity supply

An aerial view of HDB flats lighted up at night. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: Where Singapore gets its electricity from has been in the headlines in recent months, with the announcement that the country will import electricity from Malaysia and the opening of the largest energy storage system in Southeast Asia on Jurong Island. 

Last Monday (Jan 30), it was announced that Singapore will import 100 megawatts (MW) of electricity from Malaysia as part of a two-year trial, under a joint agreement between YTL PowerSeraya and TNB Genco.

This marks the first time that electricity from Malaysia will be supplied to Singapore on a commercial basis. 

Another agreement to import renewable energy from Laos was inked last year between Keppel Electric and Laos' state-owned Electricite du Laos (EDL).

Last month, Sun Cable – the company aiming to develop a A$30 billion (S$27.6 billion) project to supply solar power from Australia to Singapore via undersea cables – announced it was entering voluntary administration.

Questions asked online include why Singapore needs to import electricity and whether it can rely on solar energy.

CNA looks at Singapore’s power sources and where the country’s electricity could come from in the future.

WHERE DOES SINGAPORE GET ITS ELECTRICITY FROM?

About 95 per cent of Singapore’s electricity is generated from natural gas, which is the cleanest form of fossil fuel, as it produces the least amount of carbon emissions per unit of electricity.

Using natural gas has allowed Singapore to cut the amount of carbon it releases into the atmosphere.

According to government agency website Powering Lives, natural gas will “continue to be a dominant fuel for Singapore in the near future” as the country scales up other sources.

The percentage of natural gas used in electricity generation has increased from 19 per cent in 2000 to 95 per cent today, says the National Climate Change Secretariat Singapore (NCCS).

According to the Energy Market Authority's (EMA) figures, other energy products – including solar, biomass and municipal waste – accounted for 2.9 per cent, followed by coal at 1.2 per cent and petroleum products such as diesel and fuel oil at 1 per cent.

Singapore’s electricity is produced by the combustion of natural gas that is piped from Malaysia and Indonesia, NCCS said.

The country also diversified its supply of natural gas with the opening of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Jurong Island, with plans to build a second terminal to support new industrial sites and power plants.

“This will not only provide critical mass for enhanced energy security, but it will also enable Singapore to be a hub for LNG-related business,” it said.

WHY DOES SINGAPORE NEED TO IMPORT ELECTRICITY?

The short answer is that Singapore lacks natural renewable energy sources, so importing energy allows it to access cleaner energy sources from abroad.

Singapore’s total electricity consumption has increased over the years.

It went up by 5.3 per cent from 2020 to 2021, with all sectors seeing a growth in its electricity consumption. Data from previous years also show a trend of growth.

The EMA has been working with various partners on trials to import electricity, which allows it to assess and refine the technical and regulatory frameworks. Countries involved include Malaysia, Indonesia and Laos.

Last year, Singapore started importing energy from Laos through Thailand and Malaysia, after a two-year power purchase agreement was signed between Keppel Electric and Laos’ state-owned EDL.

This was the first multilateral cross-border electricity trade involving four ASEAN countries, as well as the first renewable energy import into Singapore.

Under the agreement, the Lao PDR-Thailand-Malaysia-Singapore Power Integration Project (LTMS-PIP) will import up to 100MW of renewable hydropower using existing interconnections. 

This is equivalent to about 1.5 per cent of Singapore's peak electricity demand in 2020, enough to power about 144,000 four-room HDB flats for a year.

It will also contribute to Singapore's sustainability goals under its Green Plan 2030 by tapping into the abundance of renewable energy from the region.

Regional power grids can help accelerate the development of renewable energy projects and promote economic growth and bring greater energy security to the region, according to a joint statement released by Keppel, EMA, the Laotian Ministry of Energy and Mines and EDL in June last year.

Additionally, the project serves as a "pathfinder" towards realising the broader vision of an ASEAN power grid, the agencies said.

"To overcome our land constraints, Singapore is tapping on regional power grids to access cleaner energy sources beyond its borders," added the EMA.

WHY CAN’T SINGAPORE JUST GO SOLAR?

Singapore is a tropical country, which means sunlight is one resource it has plenty of. The country has doubled its solar capacity since 2020, with more than 700 megawatt-peak (MWp) currently installed.

The country aims to increase solar capacity to at least 2 gigawatt-peak (2 GWp) by 2030, equivalent to powering about 350,000 households a year. This is expected to meet around 3 per cent of projected electricity demand.

Harnessing solar energy comes with its own set of challenges. For example, the amount of sunlight fluctuates depending on changes in cloud cover during the day. Solar panels are also unable to generate electricity at night.

Using solar panels requires space – something Singapore does not have much of. The EMA has acknowledged that there are limitations to the amount of solar energy that can be harnessed due to Singapore's limited land area.

As of the end of the first quarter of 2022, Singapore has a total of 5,455 solar panel installations, of which 3,564 are non-residential. About 48.9 per cent of the total installations are town council and grassroots units, followed by residential installations at 34.7 per cent and non-residential private sector at 13 per cent.

Installations from public service agencies constituted the remaining 3.5 per cent of total installations.

Other innovative ways to overcome the limited land area constraint are being trialled. For example, a new type of floating solar panel system is being piloted on Jurong Island.

Compared to conventional solar panel systems used in calmer water bodies such as reservoirs, the new system is designed to withstand stronger waves and rough sea conditions so that solar energy can be harnessed reliably, said Keppel Corporation in July last year.

Beyond land space constraints, energy storage systems are also being looked at.

Singapore deployed its first utility-scale energy storage system in October 2020, with a capacity that can power more than 200 four-room HDB units for a day.

Last week, the largest energy storage system in Southeast Asia was opened on Jurong Island.

The Sembcorp Energy Storage System has a maximum storage capacity of 285 megawatt-hours (MWh), enabling it to meet the electricity needs of about 24,000 households in four-room HDB flats for one day in a single discharge.

The deployment of the utility-scale facility means that Singapore has achieved its 200 MWh energy storage target ahead of time. Singapore previously announced a target of deploying at least 200 MWh of energy storage systems beyond 2025 as part of the Singapore Green Plan 2030.

THE FUTURE OF SINGAPORE’S ENERGY

In October last year, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong announced that Singapore will raise its climate target to achieve net-zero by 2050 as part of its long-term low emissions development strategy. 

According to EMA, solar energy remains the most promising renewable energy source in the near term for Singapore.

In fact, Singapore achieved its 2020 solar target of 350 megawatt-peak (MWp) in the first quarter of that year. Singapore is also working towards achieving a new solar target of at least 2GWP by 2030. 

Solar energy is one of EMA's "four switches" vital to decarbonising Singapore – the others being natural gas, regional power grids and low-carbon alternatives.

Singapore plans to import up to 4GW of low-carbon electricity by 2035, which could make up around 30 per cent of Singapore's projected electricity supply then.

Steps are also being taken to diversify import sources and ensure back-up supply is in place to mitigate disruptions.

The LTMS-PIP is one of the trials that the EMA has been working on as part of plans to realise a regional power grid.

Another of the four switches is emerging low-carbon alternatives. Singapore is exploring low-carbon technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture, as well as utilisation and storage technologies.

"While such technologies are nascent, the Government is taking active steps including investing in (research and development) through the Low-Carbon Energy Research (LCER) Funding Initiative," said the EMA.

Two years ago, S$55 million was awarded to 12 projects to research low-carbon technologies. An additional S$129 million has been committed by the Government for Phase 2 of the LCER programme.

Over the last 50 years, Singapore has moved from oil to natural gas for cleaner power generation. EMA said it is reviewing emissions standards for fossil fuel-fired generation units. The authority expects to introduce the revised standards in 2023.

It also said it will continue to diversify its natural gas sources and work with power generation companies to improve power plant efficiency.

Under the Singapore Green Plan 2030, Singapore also aims to have best-in-class generation technology that meets heat-rate/emissions standards and reduces carbon emissions, as well as a diversified electricity supply with clean electricity imports.

Source: CNA/ga(mi)

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