Singapore Clean Energy and Electric Cars Adoption Too Small, Too Slow

By Mallika Naguran

Singapore, 24 November 2009. Singapore has announced a flurry of new starts and plans related to energy during the event-filled Singapore International Energy Week that took place from 16 to 20 November 2009.

From the S$25 million Energy Research and Development fund, S$130 million Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore to the launch of an Intelligent Energy System to test smart grid technologies. Some S$700 million has been set aside in total out of S$1 billion environmental blueprint to stimulate cleantech sector in Singapore.

It appears that the mighty little “singa” is finally stretching itself awake to redefine itself in the dawn of clean energy (“Singapura” is Singapore’s historical name – Singa means “lion” while pura means “city” in Malay).

Singapura or Singapore as it is now known enjoys fame for its robust infrastructure that includes transportation, power and infocommunications, among achievements in other sectors such as banking and finance, biotech, and petroleum refining. The island city has a developed country status with five million population squished within 710 sq km space.

Fancy a pick up speed of 0-60 km/h in 3 seconds behind Detroit Electric?

Fancy a pick up speed of 0-60 km/h in 3 seconds behind Detroit Electric?

Singapore has aced in many areas: one of the world’s busiest ports, award-winning airports and passenger aircraft carriers. It has been voted as one of the top Asian liveable cities, trusted Asian banking sector (after Switzerland), and more. Really, the list can go on, not to mention a fine melting pot of foods and cultures.

But when it comes to embracing renewable forms of energy sources though, Singapore is terribly late in the game. So far alternative energy sources such as solar or wind power has been deployed by only a handful of private companies, institutions and fewer still by homes.

According to the Energy Market Authority of Singapore (EMA), there is a total installed capacity of 1.1 MWp of grid-connected solar photovoltaic (PV) installations in Singapore, with another 4 MWp being built. 

Examples are the Building and Construction Authority Academy’s Zero Energy Building, Solar Park at Marina Barrage, Tampines Grande, Zero Energy House. Among private residences, there is one at Sentosa Cove and another in Joo Chiat, owned by Christophe Inglin who owns Phoenix Solar. It is interesting to note that most Singapore Government buildings, usually built to high standards, quality and comfort, are not on this list.

The factors that have prevented a higher adoption of solar PV include infrastructural challenges, construction restrictions, lack of integration with the power grid, high cost of adoption and rigid pricing mechanism even for feeding back excess energy into the grid. The present electric pricing and tariffs present little incentives for the harnessing of alternative power sources; they also do not disincentivize the use of fossil-fuel generated power. In Singapore, more than 80% of electricity is generated by natural gas, said to be cleaner than oil or coal-fired power plants.

Singapore’s power grid has to adapt to make way for renewable and distributed energy integration, which is one reason why the smart grid test bed has been announced. When implemented for consumers, the smart grid will also allow the tug and pull of varying demands to distribute energy from peak to non-peak periods. Smart grids are also needed to cradle the supply of electric vehicles.

Smart cities. Only connect.

Smart cities. Only connect.

Dr Michael Quah: Expert view.

Dr Michael Quah: Expert view.

The lethargy of reliance on traditional power grid is finally given a check up. But how soon will this lethargy dissipate?

Singapore is approaching this too cautiously, like a lion afraid of treading on jungle roots because it has been comfortable with a landscaped garden habitat. This sentiment was echoed by a number of energy professionals at the abovementioned energy conference and fair in Singapore.Dr Michael Quah: Expert view.

Pulau Ubin has been chosen to be the basis of this test. The test will take a few years, however, to draw the conclusions that Singapore needs. Another green improvement that Singapore has been mulling over is alternative powered motor vehicles – and for a while, it seems. “I took a few government officers from Land Transport Authority and other ministries to the United States to see how electric-petrol hybrids are functioning there nearly ten years ago,” said Wong Kin Pun of GP Batteries International.  “There was a lot of interest then, but nothing came out of it,” he said.

Kin Pun is hopeful that soon something will come out of the Government’s new green blueprint for the energy sector. “Let’s wait and see where all of this will lead to,” he said.

Common Cents Needed

Having the right infrastructure in place is great. So is having technology that enables new ways of doing things, perhaps quicker, better and cheaper than before.

What the Singapore Government has to start thinking about seriously is how to translate a test bed into market place. With regards to electric vehicles, it is not just a question of researching if efficiencies are gained, or if physical infrastructure is adequate, it is to put in place measures to stimulate demand and prevent stumbling blocks.

Albert Lam: No need for studies.

Albert Lam: No need for studies.

In the case of hybrid vehicles in Singapore, the only form of incentive that exists to encourage this greenish motorcar is a 40% tax rebate. Owners of such vehicles are still subject to the slew of disincentives of driving the car on the roads similar to petrol-fueled motorcars. This includes paying more to use designated roads that are subject to congestion through the Electronic Road Pricing scheme. They also pay hefty parking fees.

There is only one electric car registered in Singapore to date, and 1,999 hybrid cars out of a total of 550,455 passenger cars in 2008, forming 0.3% of total passenger car population. Only 4 cars run completely on compressed natural gas or CNG while 2,440 run on bi-fuel CNG in Singapore. Singapore has only five CNG refueling stations.

Not a single bus is powered by electricity in Singapore.

In Europe, free parking is offered for electric cars. Other forms of carrot: removed or reduced road tax, free car servicing and the accessibility of electric charging stations even at home. Free parking in England has been such a success that the City of London axed this incentive in a bid to curb congestion!

Detroit Electric offers battery lease as a cost reduction feature as batteries are expensive components of an electric car. The incentives in these cases do not just concern dollars and cents, but convenience. “You also have to remove the psychological burden of owning electric cars,” said Professor CC Chan, President of the World Electric Vehicles Association, pointing out that it is not just dollars and cents, but conveniences that play a big part in making communities comfortable with the idea of a new generation car.

Even the need for a pilot to test electric cars on Singapore roads has raised eyebrows. Albert Lam, Chairman and CEO of Detroit Electric, told Gaia Discovery that at the Singapore Electricity Roundtable, he and a Renault executive exchanged looks when David Tan, EMA’s deputy chief executive, announced the study programme. “There isn’t a need for testing of these technologies as they already exist and are proven. A longer wait would mean some technologies studied today could be obsolete tomorrow,” said Albert.

This $20 million study is a three-year programme. By end of 2013, the Government reckons it will then comprehend the robustness of electric vehicles, explore how electric vehicle owners can sell back unused power to the electricity grid and measure their carbon footprint.

The cautious approach, however, bodes a roadblock to fast rollout and competitive marketing of electric cars. David Tan announced that the Singapore Government would be piloting with Japanese carmaker Mitsubishi with its 50 i-MiEV model and some cars from Renault-Nissan in 2011 – a figure said to be too small by industry sources. He also told the media that electric cars would be commercially available by 2020.

Snail pace indeed. China, instead is revving ahead. It has set a target to have at least 10% of cars running on alternative fuels by 2012. “By then, the car population in China will grow from 9 million to 12 million,” said Albert Lam, “and we are talking about 1.2 million electric vehicles.” Detroit Electric is planning to introduce 500 electric cars each to Singapore and Hong Kong. He also intends to build a "Detroit Experience Centre" here to educate consumers.

To stimulate the demand of cleaner cars, China has recently announced a government subsidy scheme of up to 50,000 yuan ($7,300) for the ownership of hybrid cars and up to 60,000 yuan ($8,700) for electric cars. It is part of the Government's $373 million plan to promote low carbon transport over the next five years.

The Swedish Electric Mobility Initiative predicts that there will be more than half a million electric cars in Sweden by 2020. How many cars in Singapore I wonder will be powered by green and clean energy in comparison? There are no concrete figures set by the Singapore Government in this regard, and no targets to define the percentage of electric cars that could sip energy from a plant powered by clean, carbon-free source. "There are no targets for renewable energy (adoption) in Singapore. We just have the intention," said David Tan.

The International Advisory Panel on Clean Energy that met during the Singapore International Energy Week commended Singapore for setting its navigation towards a greener path. It however recommended that Singapore move quickly to capture the opportunities from the potential of electric vehicles, smart grids, green buildings and districts, and waste-to-energy. The panel also recommended that Singapore develop systems integration as a differentiating advantage and develop a framework for commercialising Singapore’s expertise in sustainable development.

Perhaps Dr Michael Quah’s observation is most appropriate to sum up this piece. “Technology is absolutely necessary but totally insufficient,” he said, referring to change needed in many quarters, including regulatory framework and free market play, for renewal energy to surge ahead on full throttle to become reality.