Building on-site generation in ASEAN

Distributed generation can help to serve remote locations in ASEAN where fuel delivery is difficult


The impetus behind decentralized energy development in the ASEAN region is gathering pace. Elisa Wood looks at the many opportunities that exist, counterbalanced by the challenges that remain.

A ‘launch and learn’ strategy is not the kind Chip Bottone favours when he participates in an energy project in a new country. The CEO of US-based FuelCell Energy would rather understand the market before venturing into untried territory. He would prefer ‘learn and launch’.

But he knew this would be impossible in Indonesia, a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These countries ” Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam ” can be the land of both opportunity and frustration for international decentralized energy companies. Doing business here often requires a pioneering spirit and a measure of patience. So what drew Bottone to Indonesia?

‘What we saw in Indonesia was a fairly big population ” 150 million people. They had inadequate infrastructure in terms of electricity. They had a growing middle class. They did have natural resources’, he says. But Bottone adds, “They also had lot of things that are not helpful, like corruption and disorganization.”

With long-time South Korean partner POSCO Energy, FuelCell Energy launched its Indonesia project in 2011, as the first commercial stationary fuel cell power plant in Southeast Asia outside of South Korea. The partners chose a highly visible location to create a showcase project that would capture attention ” Ancol Dreamland, a waterpark resort and major tourist destination in Jakarta.

Two years later the 300 kW combined heat and power (CHP) plant is still not in operation, at the time of the writing of this article, but is in the final construction phase. Bottone estimates the same project would take six to nine months to complete in the US.

Still the partners accomplished their goal: ‘It was meant to demonstrate how to interconnect to the grid, what the economics are, what all the approval processes are, what all the permitting processes are ” because they don’t have established policy as other more developed countries have’, he says.

Welcome to the ASEAN countries ” where the potential for decentralized energy is vast but not easy to capture because of bureaucracy, lack of clear rules, and sometimes a dearth of infrastructure and skilled workers.

Growing demand and blackouts

Decentralized energy or distributed generation, particularly from clean energy, remains a nascent undertaking in much of the region.

‘On-site generation or distributed generation is not commonly implemented in ASEAN member countries, which still focus on centralized generation’, says Beni Suryadi, energy policy analyst at the ASEAN Centre for Energy.

But there is no question that the region could benefit from more on-site power. Anywhere there are transmission and distribution grid inadequacies market opportunities for distributed generation open up. And the ASEAN countries have their share of grid inadequacies.

Consider, for example, May 2013. Forty per cent of Luzon Island in the Philippines lost power, including metropolitan Manila, because of power plant failures. Thailand experienced its largest blackout on record in its 14 southern provinces following a lightning strike, and Vietnam saw a 10-hour blackout in 22 provinces, including Ho Chi Minh City because of damage to a transmission line, according to press reports.

Such events are not unusual because the countries have not updated or expanded their power infrastructure quickly enough. The result is ‘a tremendous amount of brownouts and blackouts and tremendous loss of quality of power,’ says Sridhar Samudrala, an assistant professor at SUNY Delhi USA and president & CEO of International Energy Consulting Co.

Meanwhile, the population and economies are expanding and demanding more energy; some areas are becoming electrified for the first time.

ASEAN is the fourth most populated block in the world ” behind China, India and the European Union. Its middle class is growing, and expected to become 65% of the total population by 2030, up from only 24% in 2010, according to a report by Dubai-based investment firm, the Abraaj Group, which invests in emerging economies.

Further, the report says, its population is young and will increasingly demand more consumer goods. The region already has healthy growth in gross domestic product: 5.7% for 2012 and a predicted 5.5% for 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund.

All of these changes and growth require more electrification. And in some areas, demand is dramatically outstripping supply. For example, in Myanmar about 75% of the population is still without access to electricity, and the government says that supply is only about half of projected demand, according to a report Electricity in Myanmar: The Missing Prerequisite for Development, by the Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia.

So with blackouts rampant and central grids slow to improve, it is no surprise that decentralized energy is growing at what Samudrala described as an ‘exponential’ pace.

‘The current grid is unable to expand at the level of growth in the ASEAN countries and therefore the industrial, commercial, and residential customers are opting for small- scale generation and creating mini grids’, he says.

Coal use to grow

Electric reliability is one reason for the ASEAN countries to pursue advanced distributed generation; environmental concerns are another.

Fossil fuels account for 74% of the region’s generation, and about 22% comes from combustible biomass and waste that is inefficient and environmentally unsustainable, according to research by Melissa Low, energy analyst at the National University of Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute.

A 300 kW CHP plant will help power Indonesia’s Ancol Dreamland resort

Demand for coal has grown fastest over the last decade in Malaysia. Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam also are large coal consumers, according to the US Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) International Outlook 2013.

The coming years are expected to bring even more use of coal in the ASEAN countries, even as developed nations like the US begin to curb its use. The EIA forecasts an annual increase in coal consumption of 2.4%. Several new, large coal-fired plants, of at least 1 GW, are coming on line, particularly in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. In Vietnam alone, 36 GW of coal-fired generation is expected to be installed by 2020 and 76 GW by 2030.

Another fossil fuel important to the region is diesel. The region relies on diesel generators to overcome its reliability problems. However, this option can be expensive.

For example, in Myanmar diesel prices were about $1/litre in early 2012, which is the equivalent of $0.30 to $0.35/kWh ” or five or six times the average price charged by the government utility for electricity, according to the Harvard”Rajawali report.

While diesel can be expensive, it is also important to the region because it can mean the difference in ASEAN countries between power or no power, and brings significant changes in quality of life and business operations, particularly in remote outposts.

For countries like Myanmar and Cambodia and remote Indonesia ‘this option is still on the table’, Suryadi says. He adds that great effort is being made to install renewable energy as a substitute, but capital costs and lack of infrastructure remain as barriers.

In a case study, MTU Onsite Energy describes better schooling for children and a rise in small businesses installation in the Indonesian city of Fakfak, following installation of its MTU Series 1600 engines. Fakfak, which has a population of 69,000 people, is separated from other communities by poorly maintained mountain roads, had relied on power from neighbouring towns, which meant blackouts were the norm. The local MTU generators now maintain Fakfak’s 2.4 MWh peak demand.

‘Countries like Vietnam, Lao PDR, India, Myanmar, Philippines, Pakistan and others generate a lot of electricity from diesel, as the grid is unreliable. The private sector companies simply cannot rely on the grid and they are converting to alternative and renewable energy as an option to offset the diesel energy prices’, confirms Samudrala

Renewable goals

Indeed, several of the countries have set renewable energy goals. Thailand, which has the most advanced energy infrastructure in the region, recently announced a new renewable energy goal to build 3000 MW of solar by 2021. The country expects feed-in tariffs (FITs) for distributed solar to spur about 1000 MW of new development. The FIT is designed to attract 200 MW of rooftop solar by the end of this year and 800 MW of community ground-mounted solar by the end of 2014.

Thailand has a goal to expand its renewable energy from 6.3 GW in 2011 to 20.5 GW, so that renewables make up 29% of total generating capacity by 2030. Hydroelectricity now accounts for about 5% of generation, and non-hydroelectric renewables (mostly biomass and biogas) 2%, according to the EIA.

Thailand is the furthest along among the ASEAN when it comes to introducing on-site generation, according to Suryadi.

Its progress stems back to the government’s introduction of the Small Power Producer (SPP) programme in 1992, and Very Small Power Producer (VSPP) programme in 2001. Under the programmes, the state-owned Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand (Egat) was required to purchase power from small cogeneration or renewable projects. Most of the resulting projects were developed by local companies to fulfil their own energy needs.

Looking forward, Thailand plans to continue to add more CHP. From 2012 to 2019, the government forecasts that Thailand will add about 5100 MW of cogeneration, with an additional 1368 MW from 2020 to 2030, according to Smart/Intelligent Grid Systems Development and Deployment, authored by Samudrala and published by the World Alliance for Thai Decentralized Energy Association.

In the Philippines, the country’s Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) in July issued new net metering rules for on-site renewable installations not exceeding 100 kW. And last year the ERC approved a FIT for several renewable energy resources, including run-of-river hydro, biomass, wind, and solar. The final solar FIT of 9.69 PhP/kWh ($0.22/kWh) was far lower than the originally proposed 17.95 PhP/kWh. ERC adjusted the rate to account for falling solar panel prices. The government plans to review the FIT rates in three years or when the nation meets the Department of Energy’s goals.

The Philippines is striving for 100% renewable generation within a decade and hopes to triple its renewable capacity by 2030; it already gets more than 50% of its electric supply from geothermal, biomass and hydro. The Philippines is the second largest geothermal generator, behind the US.

Indonesia, which has about 43.5 GW of installed capacity, gets about half of its power from coal. Nine per cent of its generation comes from hydroelectricity and 5% from geothermal, putting it third place worldwide for that resource. About 70% of the population has access to electricity; the government hopes to expand access to 80% by 2014 and 90% of the population by 2020.

Indonesia has set up a fast-track for power generation development, which includes 10 GW to be completed by 2014 of clean energy sources, such as natural gas, geothermal and other renewable energies. The country also has a FIT for renewables that offers 15-year contracts.

Distributed generation can serve Indonesia in remote locations where fuel delivery is difficult, according to a report, Distributed Generation: Indonesia View Point and Case, by the Coordinating Ministry of Economic Affairs. The ministry also points to non-intermittent decentralized energy ” such as small hydro ” as way to avert line losses and improve voltage regulation and grid stability. Indonesia already has about 20 mini-hydro stations in operation, totalling about 44 kW, and over 700 kW in various stages of development. The country also is pressing forward with an aggressive concentrating solar initiative.

The Future

While many of the countries have renewable energy goals that can help spur distributed generation, it remains to be seen if they can translate goals into reality. ‘All of these countries have excellent renewable energy goals ” on paper’, Samudrala says.

ASEAN countries are trying to better their overall power sector by creating a regional power grid across member countries. The goal is to improve energy supplies so that the countries can both meet growing demand and promote cleaner energy.

Suryadi agrees that ‘the spirit’ of the region favours regional integration as the best way to cope with its various energy problems. This does not mean that the region will operate as one power entity, but it is likely to consolidate into sub-regions to pool indigenous energy resources.

For example, the Mekong Area, (Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Lao PDR) are now working together to develop large hydroelectricity, he adds.

‘The spirit of energy market integration will definitely boost the installation of on-site generation in the region,” he says. “A more open power trade regime in the region will encourage the development of renewable sources such as solar, hydro and wind for power generation through on-site generation. And hence the total cost of meeting region-wide electricity demand will be reduced’.

But Suryadi is not saying it will be easy. ‘The market integration in the region remains a challenging task, especially to deal with the fast growth of electricity demand in all ASEAN member countries.’

FuelCell Energy’s Bottone sees problems as well. ‘The good news is that there is probably demand in those countries. The bad news is they are not organized for it yet.’

FuelCell Energy, which manufactures more than 50 MW of fuel cells per year at its Torrington, Connecticut plant in the US, has continued to expand its influence in Asia. The company in late 2012 executed a series of strategic initiatives with POSCO Energy, including a license agreement under which POSCO will manufacture the company’s complete carbonate fuel cell technology in South Korea and sell them throughout Asia.

POSCO Energy, Korea’s largest independent power producer, intends to produce 140 MW of fuel cell components annually. The company expects to begin manufacturing in early 2015.

But would Bottone tackle another ‘launch and learn’ in the ASEAN region if he had it to all over again? Yes, he says, that is the only way policy and standards will improve and the region’s markets grow. ‘These Southeast Asian countries have a need for a renewable distributed energy strategy, there is no question. The question is when’.

Elisa Wood is a US-based freelance writer, who specializes in energy matters.

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