Saturday, November 12, 2011

Power for the People: Security implications from importing electricity

While a bright idea, the suggestion that Singapore could import electricity from its neighbours should not cast a shadow over the island nation's goal to be self-reliant in critical resources such as power and water.

The suggestion has already created a buzz among Singaporeans who wonder if all the effort weaning Singapore off Malaysian water will be negated by future reliance on Malaysian or Indonesian electricity.

The buzz was generated by a remark by Second Minister for Trade and Industry S Iswaran on 31 October 2011 when he officiated at the opening of the Singapore International Energy Week.

The minister said that by the end of 2011, Singapore's Energy Market Authority (EMA) would start asking the public for feedback on how electricity might be imported and how electricity from foreign power stations could be sold in Singapore.

As far as is known, nothing has been cast is stone. The EMA still has to mull over feedback from its forthcoming public consultation exercise, so it's early days yet before consumers get to see any new electricity tariff tables.

Observers have noted that a critical element was missing from the minister's remarks: The amount of electricity Singapore may import.

Any assessment on the feasibility of this project from a national security standpoint cannot be written until one knows how much Singapore will rely on foreign-sourced electricity.

For example, there is a big difference between a proposal to bring in 10 per cent of Singapore's average daily consumption and a plan to import, say for example, 30 to 50 per cent of our electricity requirements.

There is a nagging concern that over dependence on foreign-generated electricity may put the Republic at risk should the foreign government decide to flick the switch off for whatever reason.

Singaporeans who lived through the episode when then-Israeli President Chaim Hertzog visited Singapore in 1986 may recall protests by angry Malaysians chanting "Potong! Potong!" (potong means cut in the Malay language) when demanding that the Malaysian government signal its displeasure by cutting off the water supply to Singapore. Back then, about 60 per cent of the water Singapore used in a day was supplied by raw water from the Malaysian state of Johore.

Fast forward to 2011. Singapore's strategy for developing four National Taps - expanding local water catchment areas, reprocessing waste water from sewers as NEWater, setting up desalination plants and importing water from Malaysia - has reduced our vulnerability to such theatrics.

Importing electricity is not the same as importing fuel for power stations. So while 80 per cent of the electricity generated in Singapore comes from natural gas fields in Indonesia, such reliance can be hedged by importing the same fuel source from another country. This explains why Singapore is investing in a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal with an in-service date set in 2013. When fully operational, LNG tankers from other suppliers could dock and unload the fuel, which will then be piped to powerplants here.

Singapore learned the hard way how raw materials for its economy, such as sand and granite, are vulnerable to what can be politely termed as supply disruptions. Though it may sound illogical to ship sand/granite from farther afield when there are quarries closer at hand, such extraordinary measures are an Economic Defence measure to hedge against undeclared embargoes. The policy of diversifying the sources of supply has been reinforced by stockpiles comprising giant pyramids of sand/granite set up around Singapore that are intended to help local industry withstand supply disruptions for a certain period of time.

The rice stockpile with four months' worth of the grain is another example of Economic Defence in action.

We also have a petroleum stockpile and an ammunition stockpile of warshot - both of which are best not discussed here. Just know that we have it.

Turning the spotlight on importing electricity, it may sound astonishing that a country that can think out of the box (NEWater) and plan years ahead before imported water from Malaysia runs dry in 2061 would lose its strategic foresight when it comes to electricity. This is not how the system we know plans for the future.

These are the likely scenarios regarding electricity imports:
First, the amount of electricity Singapore may import is likely to be small, possibly in the low teens percentage-wise or even less. Such access is a hedge against unforeseen systemic failures in Singapore's national grid. For example, a turbine fault could cause a localised brownout and the extra boost from a foreign power station would then serve as a lifeline during such situations.

Second, the EMA's public consultation trial balloon could underline the importance of maintaining a level of national self-reliance in power generation.

With the inherent perils of relying too heavily on neighbours who may flick the power on or off, this may advance the argument for a powerplant fuelled by clean energy with the capacity to meet current and projected demand (for example, by the desalination plants) for years to come.

That source of clean energy would be - you guessed it - a nuclear powerplant.


Anonymous said...

the malaysian govt has openly declared numerous times in the past few years (this has been widely reported in the malaysian media) that it is going to build, initially, two nuclear power plants to be put in use by 2021 - one of the nuclear power plant, you guess it, will be build in southern johor, very near to Singapore.

Anonymous said...

The authorities lost their strategic foresight wrt energy needs when they privatised the grid and selling off the assets to various private enterprises, most of which are owned by our neighbours' GLCs.

Anonymous said...

An import limit of 600 MW is already in place today for electricity imported on a commercial basis. Although electricity is currently not imported on a commercial basis 600 MW equates to less than 10% of peak demand. Sufficient safe guards seem to already be in place based on lessons learned from Singapore's water journey.