Commentary: Southeast Asia wants to love wind energy but shouldn’t bank on it
But even solar energy looks like a better deal, says Kavickumar Muruganathan.
SINGAPORE: Tropical Southeast Asia long had plans to harness the power of the winds to propel the next phase of their economic growth.
In 2015, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) set an ambitious target of securing 23 per cent of its primary energy from renewable sources by 2025 with energy demand projected to grow by 50 per cent.
This was an upgrade to the 9 per cent target set in 2014.
Apart from solar, there is good reason to think wind energy could make a big part of this mix where in Southeast Asia, coastlines stretch as far as the eye can see.
Yet, despite the region’s wind energy potential being immense, nations have been slow to harness this wealth of clean energy. Instead, piecemeal wind projects sprouting across Southeast Asia have come to dot the landscape.
Experts have estimated that Vietnam has, for instance, has a 309 gigawatts (GW) technical potential for offshore wind. However, it is only targeting 6GW to be supplied by 2030 – less than 2 per cent of its potential.
FUNDING THE WIND REVOLUTION
Part of the hesitance stems from wind energy projects remaining an expensive proposition where most Southeast Asian countries have access to cheaper energy sources. Indonesia, for instance, is the world’s largest exporter of coal and can also tap on geothermal energy, being situated in the volcanic Ring of Fire.
Wind energy projects can cost anywhere between US$1.4 million for a 800 kilowatt project and up to US$4.2million for a 3.5 megawatt (MW) project for the wind turbines, environmental works prior to commissioning, the distribution grid set-up and transportation to the project site.
A 3.5 MW solar project would cost only half as much, and will cost less over the years as solar panels get cheaper.
Southeast Asia is expecting 100 million more people from 615 million in 2014 to 715 million in 2025, according to an ASEAN Centre for Energy report.
Leveraging clean energy can be a good way for ASEAN countries to meet their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) towards global climate action while supporting this rising middle class, without which the region’s power generation-related carbon emissions could increase by 84 per cent by 2025.
Countries in this region already have a renewable energy portfolio dominated by solar energy and hydropower, and are demonstrating leadership in setting audacious aims for clean energy.
Indonesia has committed to reduce its emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels and to source 30 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 for example.
The boom in infrastructure financing in Southeast Asia might provide some lift. Banks, who have a critical role in climate change mitigation, see a huge opportunity in financing renewable energy projects in ASEAN.
Within ASEAN, green financing supply is expected to hit US$40 billion by 2030. Sustainability and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)-linked loans and green bonds have been gaining traction over the last couple of years in Southeast Asia.
Singapore bank DBS has already financed three solar energy projects, one geothermal energy project and two wind energy projects to date.
With regulatory agencies like the Monetary Authority of Singapore shifting towards the rollout of financial institutions guidelines on sustainable financing, projects in clean energy as a whole may see a lift.
As new long-tenor debt securitisation instruments and bond markets mushroom to give institutional investors a share of this new pie, funding may also be less of an issue.
THE DEBATE OVER OFFSHORE AND INLAND WIND TURBINES
Of course wind energy is not for every Southeast Asian country, not least the archipelagic states like Indonesia and the Philippines with fragmented electricity grids that require laying underwater cables to connect islands to gridlines which will impose additional financial costs and risks environmental degradation.
Unlike conventional forms of power generation such as coal, solar and wind energy are best captured in areas away from obstructions like buildings. Islands that are not inhabited are good areas to capture strong solar and wind intensities.
However, as they are fragmented from city centres, they do not have direct access to national grid systems to transmit the energy captured.
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The greater worry is if inland turbines generate backlash from communities living in close proximity, in the same way Germans fell out of love when these towering 200m fans created an eyesore for residents.
Offshore turbines may be a better solution to take the political sting out of clean energy A single 6 MW floating wind turbine can generate enough electricity to power about 4,000 homes.
But these are expensive to install, susceptible to damages during storms and typhoons, and could affect marine life.
Additionally, wind turbines have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years, whereas a natural gas plant can last 30 to 40 years. To build and decommission a 1 GW fixed-bottom wind turbine will cost approximately US$1.2 billion across a 25-year lifespan excluding yearly operation and maintenance costs of about US$100 million.
All these make the pursuit of wind energy look unattractive when dirty energy alternatives are cheaper and more abundant. Even solar looks like a better deal.
While still in the early stages of implementation, recent projects have shown promise for floating wind turbines in Asia.
A 100-hectare wind energy farm in Sidrap, the region’s largest, was only recently inaugurated by President Joko Widodo in 2016.
Though it can only generate a modest 75 MW, a miniscule amount compared to Indonesia’s projected additional 35,000 MW target in that five-year period, the project has been seen as a milestone in the country’s efforts to seriously develop wind energy.
Vietnam emerges as a more advanced player in this field. The country has 14.7 GW of wind energy capacity either in operation or in the pipeline – with experts estimating this could double by 2030.
The adoption of wind energy also offers clear environmental, economic and social benefits, including job creation, reducing air pollution and tackling climate change.
A prime example of this is the 54 MW Pililla wind project in the Philippines completed in 2019. Before the coronavirus, the project drew 13,000 visitors.
It also provides about 130,800 households with energy while reducing 110,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and saving about 130 million litres of water yearly.
THE PROSPECTS FOR WIND ENERGY
There is little reason why Southeast Asia cannot catalyse greater investments in these areas to promote attract private sector funding, knowledge-sharing and smart solutions will support this march towards a clean and secure energy future for Southeast Asia.
While much has been said about the prospects of wind energy in Southeast Asia, a more realistic scenario is for each country to pick a mix of renewable energy sources combined with grid infrastructure reinforcements and technological innovation that keep pace with their energy needs, geographical strengths and cost concerns.
Kavickumar Muruganathan is a sustainability and supply chain professional in the renewable energy sector. He is also a lecturer at TUM Asia.