Energising the renewable energy sector in Southeast Asia (Opinion)

Written by Shrabana Barua, assistant professor of Hindu College, Delhi University

In 2019, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its report titled ‘Southeast Asia Energy Outlook’. It took note that since 2000 the energy demand, especially in the 10 states comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), had grown over 80%. As a result, for the first time Southeast Asia was on the “verge of becoming a net importer of fossil fuels”. In effect, such non-renewable energy resources comprise oil and gas, though coal remains a cheaper and traditional form of energy for most countries in the region. The challenge then that face Southeast Asia to meet these rising energy demands are two-fold. First, how to make a viable shift to green and clean energy? Second, how to reduce the burgeoning energy import bills? The answer to both these issues need be found by exploring the renewable energy sector.

Like other giant energy (especially oil) importers of Asia, Southeast Asian states need to take care of shifting to cleaner and more sustainable means of energy. The Sustainable Development Goal (number 7) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, lays down the need to achieve affordable and clean energy by 2030. At the current rate of energy consumption based on oil dependency, the region will need 9million barrel per day by 2040. No doubt states have increasingly pledged for net-zero goals of emission, in line with the Paris Agreement. ASEAN has aimed to meet 23% of its primary energy demands through renewable sources by 2025. Data collected from 4 of the ASEAN states in 2016 showed that 22.6% of the region’s final consumption of energy was derived from renewable sources (ASEAN SDG Baseline Report 2020). Surprisingly, Myanmar had topped this list with 60.9% of renewable energy in its final energy consumption. There has definitely been a slow but steady shift to renewable energy therefore.

Among the new age renewable energy sources, solar and wind energy has found a large space in the energy mix of countries. Take for instance the case of Vietnam, where the share of renewable energy has been increasing rapidly since 2018. Renewable consumption in 2020 increased by 128.1% (Statistical Review of World Energy 2021). This has been followed up by an exponential increase of 128.9% in renewable power generation the same year. The 8th Power Development Plan for 2021-2030, that also includes a vision for 2045, has set an upper target of 18.6GW and 18GW of solar and wind energy generation respectively. It had already achieved a 16.5GW solar PV power installed capacity in 2020. Similarly, Indonesia has reached a renewable power generation capacity of 16.8TW hours in the same period. The Cirata solar PV power plant being constructed is to be one of the largest floating solar power plants in the world with a 145MW capacity. It is a move towards Indonesia’s aim of achieving 23% of power generation by 2025 from renewable sources.

The Southeast Asian region has a geographical advantage in this context, for lying in the tropics and benefiting from trade winds (mainly northeasterly). Further, it also has the potential to harness energy from tidal waves, given that most states are ocean bound. In 2015, France- based Sabella SaS and H&WB of Philippines planned to build a 5MW pilot tidal power project. This led to the building of the first Tidal In-Stream Energy Conversion (Tisec) project, San Bernardino Ocean Power Project, in Southeast Asia, with a 1.5MW capacity in 2017. Likewise, Singapore based investment company, ENVIRONTEK, with backup from the United Kingdom and Germany, are seeking to invest in green tidal energy production. 

Yet, the energy needs of the region are growing faster than its ability to make a viable shift on time. There are many reasons for this. For one, the renewable energy sector is capital intensive in nature. A study by Bain & Company (Microsoft) and Temasek Holding (Singapore) done last year, made an estimation that Southeast Asia needs an investment of $ 2 trillion in green infrastructure over the next decade to meet emission cuts agreed upon at Paris. Though renewable energy is projected as cheap, to reach that level requires initial investments and technology, something that the region needs to pump in. 

Currently, China exports PV solar modules to meet most of the region’s demands. But, there is an underlying worry about Chinese dominance in the region at large, mostly for geopolitical reasons. For instance, China, the largest producer and exporter of rare earth metals, a component needed in electric vehicle motor, used its monopoly over resource, against Japan in 2010, during a maritime dispute. Clearly, countries need to diversify not only the energy mix away from non-renewable sources of energy, but also its supply chains. 

Another crucial concern is the volatility with the renewable energy sector. Take for example the issue of grid stability, a variable also of security concern. Most of the energy produced can be regulated through integrated grid system or can be traded, just as done by wind energy leader, Denmark.  But, production is dependent on weather conditions. Therefore, maintaining stability or creating grid integration in the archipelago states of the region will remain a problem. Even battery storage is an underdeveloped area, but it is being explored as having great potential in the next 3-5years. Much as the renewable sector, especially in Southeast Asia has immense potential, more so due to the instability of regions that traditionally are oil and gas exporters. Thus, energy problems of the future need to seek solutions in the renewable sector, while the world must zoom in on regions such as Southeast Asia for exploring its untapped markets.

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