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.

Think haze.

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.


Freddie Lee said...

I think solar power by photovoltaic cells is out of the question. Singapore simply do not have the large surface area required for the amount of energy generation by direct sunlight to power the city. Maybe a combination of several giant wind powered generators along with solar panels that covers almost the entire Singapore island and some offshore installations that do not pose a hazard to shipping could be considered, but probably an unlikely reality. The best alternative is nuclear power. The 1000 MW Advance Pressurized Water Reactor (APWR) from Westinghouse would be the best choice. It has the latest technological improvements from the earlier models that's being used in China and Korea and many parts of the US. There is really nothing to fear from the concept of a nuclear powered system of generating heat to boil water to drive steam turbines to spin electrical generators to make electricity. Of course the primary concern here is safety considerations especially with the primary systems within the containment, fuel and spent fuel handling and storage. The monitoring and protection systems are well designed with several redundancies to ensure that operators are presented with extremely reliable information of the status of the plant throughout its operating range from startup to shutdown. Existing fossil power station engineers and operators can be easily trained to include nuclear power which strongly advocates strict adherence to correct operating procedures and guidelines from the NRC. The plant/s can be located on a reclaimed offshore island. We may have no other choice in the matter if we are to stand alone in the search for sensible alternative energy to power the nation in the near future. I have worked in nuclear power plants and its safeguards and protection systems and I know it is a safe bet.
We have to live with fission for a bit longer. Nuclear fusion still a long ways to go.
Fred Lee

Relac 1234 said...

In late 2010/early 2011, the government was already in the process of preparing the public for nuclear power in Singapore and there was some talk in the Singapore parliament on this which fortunately (or unfortunately for the nuclear power vendors) was interrupted by the Fukushima incident.
I agree that nuclear is a good option BUT ONLY if you have a large land mass for your country where you can afford to lay waste to one portion of it should a nuclear accident occur.

Singapore does NOT have that luxury.

You mention that if we don't do it, others will and perhaps place their stations near to Singapore.

The chance of nearby nuclear stations in other countries will not be that great because Johor state is reasonably heavily populated, and so unlikely that a nuclear station will pop up in Johor state itself.

For Indonesia though they could build a station in Riau islands but it is too far and separated by water from their major cities that require the power.

I am sure the Singapore Govt will have the good sense to know that low chance of nuclear accident does not mean no chance (to paraphase the good saying from the Police force) and all it takes is for a once in a life-time accident to take place, and the whole of Singapore will be no more livable. (We have seen many events nowadays that should not have taken place but did e.g. Orchard Road flooding - so best not to tempt fate).

tragickingdom said...

We simply have no choice but to bank on one or more of the small nuclear reactor designs out there maturing within this decade. Fortunately for us, the nearest operational nuclear reactor still looks to be in Java or Vietnam within the coming 10 years. Our immediate neighbour up north is not likely to have anything up and running within the next 15 years, although I suspect if they can, they will build one at Kota Tinggi.

David Boey said...

@Relac 1234,
The two Level 7 nuclear disasters - Chernobyl and Fukushima - had a footprint many times the size of Singapore. At the height of the Chernobyl disaster, food exports from some European countries hundreds of km from ground zero were not allowed to be imported here.

So the scale of a "once in a lifetime" nuclear incident will impact us even if the plant is many miles across the horizon.

Am keen to hear your take on the point about national resilience in energy supplies.


Jakey said...

"Green buildings" with solar panels remain a near future possibility in the high rise CBD area. Of course the cost of such installations might not appeal to the building owners.

I really think there's no choice in the matter, but is Singapore pumping out enough Physics graduates and post-grads in the relevant fields? Or it would be a case of what we see in universities now with most top positions and post grads being imported. I won't argue against having locals but from what I've heard supply(that meets the requirements) cannot be met.

The biggest impediments are thus Public Perception and Human Resources. All others can be solved with the typical Singapore ingenuity but these two are harder.

Relac 1234 said...

Yes, food exports of those European countries were banned but the countries were still livable (as they only had transitory air contamination) and eventually recovered. It is different when you are at ground zero with soil (as well as soil water) and structure contamination - you basically lose your whole county/country forever (or until such time that the ground radioactivity dies out which we all know will take more than a lifetime).

I do not have a magic bullet for the national resilience problem (else I would be a minister instead).

All I do know is that there is no nuclear solution that is zero risk and any vendor that claims so is probably just basing on computational simulation and certain assumptions and has not had a chance to prove the design fully in a real disaster [earthquake, tsunami, terrorist attack, typhoon, tornado (which are starting to appear in this part of the world due to climate change), giant solar flare, fallen satellite/meteor strike etc and most scary of all human error]. Anyone who knows the theory of engineering reliability will know that the more complex the system is with many interconnected parts, then the chance of 100% reliability is close to impossible.

If you want to press me for some possible alternatives to nuclear energy, then could consider:
- buy land in Australia (say, near one of its LNG terminal ports) to have solar farm to generate methane and ship to Singapore. LNG is mainly methane and I suspect can use the LNG infrastructure to liquefy and ship methane and use it to generate electricity. Since all these already in place, the incremental cost is not as much as other solutions where may need to build transport/transmission/power generation infra from scratch.
- geothermal power as Singapore geography is supposed to have excellent heat flow for such power. Also geothermal overcomes some of the space limit that solar, wind, tidal has in the Singapore context
[perhaps all the above are already part of the plans in place?]

Relac 1234 said...

Just to add on to my earlier alternatives:
- Ethanol solar farm (using microbes and/or fast growing plants) probably cheaper than methane solar farm as ethanol's natural state is already liquid form and hence, save costs/energy in the initial liquefaction and its maintenance during transport and storage till actual use. Also, no necessity for farm to be near one of the few LNG ports as ethanol can be handled by any normal port.

All the alternatives are of course not financially viable now in the current low oil price environment. However, the problem is when oil price eventually recovers, the reaction time will probably be not sufficient if no preparation is done beforehand.