Singapore Samples Solar for its Silicon & Semiconductor Strengths
Green energy in public housing is getting a boost, as the Housing Board wants to double the current capacity by launching its largest-ever single solar panel scheme. In a tender that closed this month, the HDB called for a company to own and operate panels in the eco-town of Punggol, offering to buy the electricity produced for 20 years. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last year that Singapore is focusing on solar energy because it taps the country’s strengths in electronics, silicon and semiconductors. He said this could give the country another avenue of economic growth.
The Straits Times (25 May 2011):
Green energy in public housing is getting a boost, as the Housing Board wants to double the current capacity by launching its largest-ever single solar panel scheme.
In a tender that closed this month, the HDB called for a company to own and operate panels in the eco-town of Punggol, offering to buy the electricity produced for 20 years.
The panels, or sheets, will be put up on 85 blocks and can produce 2 MWp (megawatt peak) of energy when the sun is fully out. Such an amount of energy can meet the power needs of five four-room HDB flats for a month.
But the electricity produced will not be for home use. Rather, it will be used to power lights in common areas, lifts and pumps, among other things.
The tender is part of the HDB’s $31 million, five-year scheme to test-bed solar energy in 30 precincts.
The silicon sheets – called solar photovoltaic panels – harness the sun’s energy, turning it into useful electricity, while emitting none of the greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that are produced by burning fossil fuels.
They are seen as green energy options that may cost more in the short term but offer long-term, environment-friendly benefits for everyone.
The scale of the latest project is comparable to the total installed solar photovoltaic capacity in Singapore currently: about 3.57 MWp for both residential and non-residential installations.
The HDB is in the midst of putting up more panels on 30 blocks in Jurong, Aljunied, Telok Blangah, Bishan, Ang Mo Kio and Jalan Besar. For this batch, one block’s solar panels will generate enough energy from a day’s sunlight to power common area services like lights and lifts for a day.
There are also solar-energy testing programmes in Tampines, Bukit Panjang, Marine Parade, Serangoon North and Wellington Circle.
Asked about the environmental benefits and cost-savings of the latest project, an HDB spokesman replied: ‘HDB is currently evaluating the tender and will announce the results at a later date. Hence, we are only able to share more on this solar initiative when the details are finalised.’
Another difference in this tender is the proposed business model. Previously, the HDB bought the solar panels and hired contractors to install and maintain them.
The current tender, on the other hand, is seeking a business model called solar leasing, in which the HDB buys only the electricity.
Solar leasing is not uncommon elsewhere, such as in the United States, but this is the first time it is being tried in Singapore.
The HDB did not explain why it is trying out this model, but industry players offered a few reasons.
‘This is more experimental. The HDB is testing the mechanism,’ said Mr Christophe Inglin, managing director of solar energy firm Phoenix Solar.
He said leasing can be attractive because users may not want to deal with buying and maintaining the panels in the same way a tenant of a house may not need to fret over furniture.
It is new here, however, so companies are cautious – only three firms had bid for the tender, with two bids in the $9 million range.
Another challenge, industry players explain, is that Singapore does not pay above-market rate for people to feed excess renewable energy back to the grid.
In many countries, this practice – called a feed-in tariff – is an incentive for people to install renewable energy in their homes and offices, as they can recoup some costs by selling spare energy to the grid.
And in the case of HDB blocks, installation is costly and difficult because many blocks are irregularly shaped and have a small roof area for panels.
Asked if the HDB’s solar-leasing tender will set a precedent for other companies and builders, Phoenix Solar’s Mr Inglin replied: ‘In the future, as prices of solar panels come down, it could certainly be an incentive for corporate entities to, say, lease their rooftops to companies for solar panels.’
Since 2008, the price of the panels has fallen by half. Still, electricity from solar panels is currently about twice as expensive as electricity from the grid.
Benefits and limitations
Why is Singapore investing in solar energy now?
Experts say possible reasons could be declining costs and growing worldwide demand.
Solar energy has become cheaper over the last decade and prices are likely to fall further with advances in technology, said Mr Christophe Inglin, managing director of solar energy firm Solar Phoenix.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last year that Singapore is focusing on solar energy because it taps the country’s strengths in electronics, silicon and semiconductors. He said this could give the country another avenue of economic growth.
What are the benefits of using solar energy?
Using the sun for electricity cuts down on the need for fossil fuels, which will become more expensive as the supply dwindles, say experts.
Solar power is also better for the environment as burning fossil fuels to create electricity results in pollution.
What are its limitations here?
Solar power now requires 20 to 30 times as much land as a gas plant to produce the same amount of power. This makes it less attractive for land- scarce Singapore, said the Energy Market Authority (EMA).
It estimated that even if all of Singapore’s accessible space was covered with panels, solar energy would contribute, at most, 10 per cent of the country’s electricity needs.
Another obstacle is price. Electricity from solar panels is still twice as costly as electricity from the grid, although costs have fallen in the last decade.
The EMA said more research and technological improvements in the panels are needed before solar energy can be commercially viable.