Friday, January 29, 2016
Singapore must choose alternative energy source before LNG supplies run out
Many Singaporeans do not know or care to know that more than 90% our electricity is generated using liquefied natural gas (LNG).
In time to come, Singaporeans ought to know or will be forced to discover that the Natuna gas fields in Indonesia that is the main source of our natural gas will start running dry.
Estimates vary but even the most optimistic projections give the Natuna gas fields a lifespan of 30 years before supplies run out.
Thirty years is a short span of time needed to regear a national grid the size of Singapore's to accept a new fuel source.
This is why the Singapore LNG Corporation (SLNG) was set up in 2010 to import LNG from alternative sources like Qatar. It's a hedge that provides some measure of business continuity to LNG deliveries should supplies from Natuna be disrupted for natural or man-made reasons.
Options boggle the mind: Renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, water or nuclear energy? Or opt for the tried-and-tested, albeit non-environmentally friendly sources such as coal or oil to fire up electricity-generating turbines?
Among the renewable sources, perhaps the most contentious choice for Singapore is nuclear energy.
Nuclear power is admittedly a potential tripwire for public anxiety, anger or objection that could unsettle Singaporeans. It is one of those topics with no fence-sitters: One either agrees that it is safe or it is not.
It is as simple as that?
The nuclear narrative must inform, educate and convince stakeholders that much progress has been made in making nuclear energy safe. For instance, fourth generation (Gen IV) reactors harness the power of the atom differently from the 1970s era nuclear reactors that made world headlines after the near meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, after the earthquake there in March 2011.
Even so, the public information campaign might end up stirring more skepticism when people learn that the world's first user of Gen IV reactors is China. Admit it, such skepticism did spring to mind as the Made in China label has been tainted repeatedly by shoddy manufacturing.
The populist option is to sit back and choose something else.
Singapore cannot dilly-dally too long. It will take time to nurture a critical mass of local talent who can safely operate and maintain nuclear power plants.
What's more, any foot-dragging might see Southeast Asia's first nuclear power plant commissioned in a neighbouring country. Even if we choose to stand still, others will not.
While this may be great news for people fearful of anything to do with nuclear energy, an offshore nuclear power plant would solve none - repeat none - of the environmental concerns that the anti-nuclear lobby routinely touts as talking points.
If forest fires are poorly managed due to corruption and lax enforcement, would you really sleep well at night with a nuclear reactor and the entire supply chain open to mismanagement or sabotage?
Should an accident occur, how long do you think you have before prevailing winds bring the problem right into your home? Probably less than 8 hours for a plant in Sumatra.
Worst-case scenarios aside, one must also contend with the possibility that our energy resilience will be compromised if a nuclear reactor opens for business up north or down south first.
Such a scenario would unfold when spare capacity from the foreign nuke power plant is offered for sale to Singapore's electricity grid at hard-to-beat prices that fossil fuel plants cannot match.
When that day comes, the powers-that-be will find it hard to resist public demands for cheaper energy.
It will indeed prove ironic that as Singapore weans itself of reliance on fresh water from Malaysia, we might someday face the prospect of increased reliance on a foreign source of electricity within the next two decades.
In an ideal and benign universe, there really isn't much to fret about imports of cheap and clean energy.
But honestly, we do not live in that ideal and benign universe.
Posted by David Boey at 1:02 AM