Don’t leave the so­lar pan­els ‘hang­ing’

Sin­ga­pore has been work­ing hard to ex­plore so­lar panel sys­tems that are hang­ing, float­ing, and “ur­ban,” but is the grid sta­ble enough to han­dle th­ese re­new­able en­ergy in­no­va­tions?

Singapore Business Review - - CONTENTS -

When re­searchers in­stalled a $22,000 so­lar panel sys­tem in a pen­t­house in Bukit Timah, it not only gen­er­ated enough elec­tric­ity to keep 400 50-watt light bulbs run­ning for a day, it also be­came a tes­ta­ment to Sin­ga­pore’s in­creas­ing in­ge­nu­ity in scal­ing up its so­lar pho­to­voltaic (PV) in­stal­la­tions de­spite ge­o­graph­i­cal and fi­nanc­ing con­straints. Sin­ga­pore has be­gun ex­plor­ing the use of “hang­ing” so­lar panel sys­tems like what was in­stalled in the Bukit Timah pen­t­house as well as float­ing PV sys­tems and en­ergy stor­age to over­come the chal­lenge of hav­ing a small land area that rules out the cre­ation of large so­lar farms.

The hope is that th­ese in­no­va­tions will in­crease the vi­a­bil­ity and at­trac­tive­ness of so­lar PV projects as the land-scarce coun­try tries to meet its cli­mate change com­mit­ments and be­come a clean en­ergy hub in South­east Asia.

One of the promis­ing break­throughs on the hori­zon for the Sin­ga­pore so­lar PV in­dus­try are so­called ur­ban so­lar plants. The con­cept sus­pends so­lar pan­els from steel ropes and re­moves the need for large per­ma­nent space, which is in such low sup­ply in the coun­try. More­over, ur­ban so­lar plants are de­signed to be easy to move, so they might be de­ployed to an open-air carpark, then to a new va­cant area when needed.

“In­stalling such a sys­tem over an open-air carpark would not only al­low it to ab­sorb the sun’s en­ergy, but it would also pro­vide shade for cars. In the fu­ture, such sys­tems could also power elec­tric ve­hi­cles,” said

Dr Thomas Reindl, deputy chief ex­ec­u­tive, So­lar En­ergy Re­search In­sti­tute of Sin­ga­pore at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore.

Reindl leads four projects to find out how so­lar en­ergy can be made more vi­able in Sin­ga­pore, in­clud­ing a fea­si­bil­ity study of ur­ban so­lar plants in the coun­try. Work­ing with col­lab­o­ra­tors from or­gan­i­sa­tions such as so­lar en­ergy firm Sun­seap, he has re­ceived $4m in fund­ing from the Sin­ga­pore Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Board (EDB). IE Sin­ga­pore reck­ons that if the ur­ban so­lar plant project is found to be fea­si­ble and scaled up, it could help lower the cost of so­lar elec­tric­ity in Sin­ga­pore, and lead to an in­crease in so­lar power adop­tion.

Ur­ban so­lar plants

To gauge the po­ten­tial of ur­ban so­lar plants, re­searchers in­stalled a so­lar panel sys­tem at a Bukit Timah pen­t­house which gen­er­ates roughly 20 kilo­watt hours of elec­tric­ity a day. Frank Phuan, founder and di­rec­tor of Sun­seap, says such “hang­ing” so­lar panel sys­tems are ideal for highly ur­banised Sin­ga­pore where there is lim­ited space even on rooftops.

“So­lar sys­tems in Sin­ga­pore are al­ways com­pet­ing for space with other equip­ment such as cool­ing tow­ers, wa­ter pumps and pip­ing. [A

So­lar sys­tems in Sin­ga­pore are al­ways com­pet­ing for space with other equip­ment such as cool­ing tow­ers, wa­ter pumps and pip­ing.

hang­ing so­lar panel sys­tem] not only brings tremen­dous ad­van­tages for rooftop in­stal­la­tions, but it also opens new op­por­tu­ni­ties for ex­am­ple in carpark cov­ers or tem­po­rary use of land ar­eas which are not ear­marked for new de­vel­op­ments in the near fu­ture,” he ex­plains.

Yeoh Keat Chuan, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Eco­nomic and De­vel­op­ment Board (EDB)

Sin­ga­pore, reck­ons th­ese new so­lar re­search projects will en­able the coun­try to tap into the fast-grow­ing re­gional so­lar mar­ket and strengthen its po­si­tion as the clean en­ergy hub in Asia. “The re­search into nextgen­er­a­tion so­lar cells and sys­tems, in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with the pri­vate sec­tor, will also en­able Sin­ga­pore to ac­cel­er­ate its large-scale adop­tion of cost-com­pet­i­tive so­lar en­ergy,” he says.

Float­ing po­ten­tial

Another way that Sin­ga­pore is work­ing around its lack of land for so­lar farms is to turn to wa­ter sur­faces in­stead. Late last year, the coun­try un­veiled the world’s largest float­ing so­lar panel test­bed. Masa­gos Zulk­i­fli, Sin­ga­pore’s min­is­ter for the En­vi­ron­ment and Wa­ter Re­sources, says the pi­lot test of 10 float­ing PV sys­tems at Tengeh Reser­voir is the largest glob­ally in terms of the num­ber of sys­tems be­ing tested and the amount it can pro­duce, which stands at a max­i­mum one-megawatt of en­ergy, enough to power 250 four­room public hous­ing flats for a year.

“Float­ing pho­to­voltaic sys­tems, those in­stalled over our wa­ter bod­ies, not only help to over­come land con­straints, but also have the po­ten­tial to re­duce evap­o­ra­tive losses from our reser­voirs,” he says. “Given our geography, so­lar PV sys­tems are a key tech­nol­ogy is Sin­ga­pore’s ef­forts to har­ness re­new­able en­ergy.” Zuk­i­fli adds that float­ing PV sys­tems can be­come more ef­fi­cient by us­ing wa­ter to cool the so­lar pan­els, al­low­ing them to yield more en­ergy com­pared to so­lar pan­els that are too hot. Sin­ga­pore is ex­pected to ex­plore a wider de­ploy­ment of float­ing PV sys­tems if the pi­lot shows them to be eco­nom­i­cally vi­able and en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able.

Goh Chee Kiong, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for Clean­tech of EDB Sin­ga­pore, reck­ons float­ing PV has be­come a global trend in the last cou­ple of years, and that the coun­try would do well to take ad­van­tage of the high in­vestor in­ter­est and mo­men­tum be­hind this tech­no­log­i­cal trend.

“We are see­ing de­vel­op­ments in Ja­pan, China, Europe, the Amer­i­cas as well, Aus­tralia and even In­dia. What this means is that it is a highly ex­portable sec­tor that we want to grow. We are see­ing strong in­ter­est by var­i­ous com­pa­nies want­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the float­ing pho­to­voltaics test­bed in Sin­ga­pore,” he says, cit­ing eight com­pa­nies in­volved in the test­bed, rang­ing from large Ja­panese and Ital­ian cor­po­ra­tions to lo­cal small- and medium-sized en­ter­prises. “The start­ing point is that we want them to es­tab­lish their busi­ness hubs in Sin­ga­pore,” adds Goh. “Af­ter which then they will ex­port the knowhow from Sin­ga­pore, from do­ing the in­no­va­tion right in Sin­ga­pore.”

Ris­ing in­vestor in­ter­est

Ramp­ing up in­vestor in­ter­est and en­sur­ing the fi­nan­cial vi­a­bil­ity of so­lar PV projects are be­com­ing key pri­or­i­ties for Sin­ga­pore as in­ter­est in so­lar PV de­ploy­ment is fore­casted to con­tinue grow­ing, and in­no­va­tions are pre­dicted to keep com­ing.

In­stalled PV ca­pac­ity has surged to al­most 99.4MWP as of the sec­ond quar­ter of 2016, up from a measly 0.4MWP in 2008, the En­ergy Mar­ket Au­thor­ity (EMA) re­veals in a re­cent out­look re­port. The reg­u­la­tory agency reck­ons ad­vance­ments in elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies will bol­ster Sin­ga­pore’s power sec­tor, in­clud­ing the use of re­new­able en­er­gies such as so­lar PV. This is de­spite the ap­par­ent in­ad­e­quate ac­cess to fund­ing for so­lar gen­er­a­tion com­pa­nies.

“The main chal­lenge for so­lar fi­nanc­ing in Sin­ga­pore is the fa­mil­iar­ity of some fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions to the so­lar PV re­new­able busi­ness model and that un­fa­mil­iar­ity tends to heighten the risk aver­sion and lessen com­pet­i­tive fi­nanc­ing terms,” said Camil­lus Yang, vice pres­i­dent, cor­po­rate de­vel­op­ment and finance at Sun­seap.

As so­lar PV pen­e­tra­tion soars, es­pe­cially if Sin­ga­pore in­tends to ful­fill its com­mit­ments un­der the Paris cli­mate change agree­ment,

EMA has ex­pressed con­cern on grid sta­bil­ity. Gau­tam Jin­dal, re­search as­so­ci­ate at En­ergy Stud­ies In­sti­tute of the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore, says that other elec­tric­ity mar­kets have man­aged this is­sue by spread­ing the in­stal­la­tion of th­ese re­sources across large ar­eas – a tac­tic that is not avail­able to Sin­ga­pore.

Un­lock­ing en­ergy stor­age

“For ge­o­graph­i­cally small, iso­lated power sys­tems like Sin­ga­pore, en­ergy stor­age will play a vi­tal role in sup­port­ing higher lev­els of PV de­ploy­ment,” says Jin­dal, not­ing that in 2015, the coun­try opened its elec­tric­ity mar­ket for ESS by al­low­ing them to bid for of­fer­ing “reg­u­la­tion” ser­vice to help cor­rect im­bal­ances caused by load vari­abil­ity.

From fa­cil­i­tat­ing de­mand side man­age­ment to firm­ing up out­put from vari­able re­new­able en­ergy sources, ESS can of­fer many so­lu­tions to gen­er­a­tors, grid op­er­a­tors and con­sumers. This has led Sin­ga­pore to de­velop a new pol­icy frame­work to gov­ern the ap­pli­ca­tion ag­nos­tic in­te­gra­tion of en­ergy stor­age so­lu­tions in its elec­tric­ity mar­ket.

“En­ergy stor­age has the po­ten­tial to rev­o­lu­tionise Sin­ga­pore’s elec­tric­ity mar­ket in the com­ing years; right from en­abling Vir­tual Power Plants to fa­cil­i­tat­ing de­mand re­sponse, to in­creas­ing num­ber of pro­sumers with PV sys­tems on their rooftops,” says Jin­dal. “How­ever, this re­quires that Sin­ga­pore de­velop a solid frame­work that pro­vides in­vestors with cer­tainty.”

Photo credit: So­lar En­ergy Re­search In­sti­tute of Sin­ga­pore (SERIS)

So­lar Pho­to­voltaics Test-bed at Tengeh Reser­voir

Dr Thomas Reindl

Frank Phuan

Yeoh Keat Chuan

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