Tiny Singapore may have a big future in solar energy, thanks to a new initiative based in Australia.
The plan positions Singapore not as a generator, but as a distributor. After all, where could you put a solar array large enough to generate even Singapore’s own electricity needs, let alone the region’s? Even a ten-gigawatt array could only deliver about 20% of the nation’s demand, and that would occupy about a sixth of the island’s entire landmass.
The answer, it seems, might lie in the Australian outback, replete with sun and space. But how might an energy supplier link this resource with its customers?
Sun Cable, a Singapore-based Australian-backed company, has an answer: a 4500km cable, most of it running underseas, that would deliver power from the sun-drenched Northern Territory directly to Singapore.
It’s a hugely ambitious project that’s taken a big step forward after the Australian government granted it “major project status”. It will require AUD$22bn worth of investment, but already the company has backing from mining magnate Andrew Forrest and tech entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes, two of Australia’s leading business figures.
The company hopes that the resulting infrastructure won’t just deliver solar power, but could eventually link up other sources of renewable energy to the Asian market.
“It allows Singapore to be a strategic hub as renewable energy starts to develop,” says the company’s Chief Strategy Officer Fraser Thompson. “There’s no reason why Singapore couldn’t put itself at the heart of the ASEAN power grid, and it benefits from all those ancillary services that come with that.”
‘A fantastic solar resource’
Ultimately, Sun Cable hopes to sell power across the region, but it’s starting in Singapore for a number of reasons. The regulatory environment is favourable, the country has a strong record of innovation, and it also has a need for more renewable sources.
“Singapore has a real imperative to diversify its energy,” says Thompson. “Once the piped gas from Indonesia ends in about 2023 or 2025, you basically have a system which is 95% dependent on LNG. And that comes with a whole set of other risks, not to mention the climate change imperative and carbon reduction.”
Recognising this, the nation state has been experimenting with solar technology in the form of rooftop generation and offshore floating solar arrays. But, Thompson says, the cloud cover in Southeast Asia means that solar panels just aren’t as efficient as in Australia, which boasts some of the best solar energy potential in the world.
According to Geosciences Australia, Australia has the highest solar radiation per square metre of any continent, particularly in the desert regions in the northwest and centre of the continent, where Sun Cable will build its array, which Thompson estimates can produce 31% more energy than a similar one in Southeast Asia.
In the initial phase of development, the first cable would be able to supply some 20% of Singapore’s electricity requirements. Subsequent cables will then be laid to deliver further supply to Indonesia, and then to the rest of ASEAN.
So if Australia is a great place to generate solar energy, and Southeast Asia is a great place to sell it, why hasn’t anybody attempted to connect the two previously? Put simply, it has always been either too technically difficult or too expensive.
Thompson acknowledges that the project wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago, but he thinks it is now – for two reasons. First, because solar has become much cheaper. But secondly – and more importantly – because of what he describes as a “silent revolution” in power transmission.
Advances in High Voltage Direct Current mean that less power is lost between the solar panels in the desert and the powerpoint. At the same time, building the infrastructure is becoming easier because undersea cables can be placed deeper than before as the shipping and marine infrastructure to lay the cables has improved.
Professor Subodh Mhaisalkar, Executive Director of the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University, is enthusiastic about the project’s potential. “It would be incredible if it could be realised,” he says. However, the challenge doesn’t stop at getting the power to Singapore.
He points to the absence of an integrated regional grid that would allow for the broader distribution of power, and to the possibility of competition with other distributors looking to export the sustainable energies generated closer to home, such as thermal power from Indonesia and hydroelectric power from Laos and Sarawak.
And then there are the underlying economic realities. Can Sun Cable, with its large infrastructure costs, compete with power sources that don’t have to build expensive undersea cables? Can it compete with local projects that only need to plug into an existing grid? “It would have to under-bid the current fleet, which may not provide enough revenue for the project to cover its capex,” says Professor Tony Owen, an independent energy expert who previously worked at the Energy Studies Institute at the National University of Singapore.
Thompson thinks the numbers add up, and he’s hopeful the project will be supplying power to customers in Singapore by 2027. If the project is successful, Sun Cable hopes that it will be just the beginning of an export market for renewable energy.
“The grander vision that Sun Cable has is to create a connected grid across Asia that takes everything from the wind assets in New Zealand through to the solar in other parts of Asia, and effectively harnesses that.”
With the region’s overall energy demand growing fast – up by more than 80% since 2000, the solution won’t come a moment too soon.