Testing the waters for ESS deployment in Singapore

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Testing the waters for ESS deployment in Singapore

Singapore aims to optimise its solar capacity by complementing it with storage. How exactly does it plan to do this given the safety, space, and economic considerations alongside ESS?

In the first quarter of 2020, Singapore achieved its 350MWp solar target. Following this success, the island-state aims to have at least 2GWp by 2030 to power 350,000 households, which it plans to achieve through deploying 200MW energy storage systems beyond 2025.

A few weeks ago, Singapore’s first utility-scale 2.4MWh energy storage system (ESS) was deployed in Woodlands, together with distributed ESS at electrical switch rooms for five Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks in Punggol, through a partnership among the Energy Market Authority, SP Group, National Technological University, Sunseap Energy Ventures, and Wärtsilä.

ESS is a flexible technology that can help balance renewables in Singapore.

Nicolas Leong

“ESS is a flexible technology that can help balance renewables in Singapore,” says Nicolas Leong, Energy Business Director, North & South East Asia at Wärtsilä, the technology provider for the facility. With energy storage, excess energy can be used even when the sun doesn’t shine. Yet, this is just a testbed to evaluate the performance of energy storage for use in Singapore’s hot and humid climate in the long haul.

Frank Phuan, CEO at Sunseap Energy Ventures, which commissioned the project, explains that this pilot is to create a precedent for energy storage in the country, like the first drawing on a white wall. “But I believe this will pave the way for a mass deployment of energy storage in Singapore, just like how the very first solar leasing project we did 10 years ago paved the way for more solar deployments here,” he adds.

The pilot project uses Lithium-ion batteries as storage. The most widely used in today’s market and the most economical, Li-ion battery is also considered the most viable technology for ESS in Singapore in the short- to medium-term. Singapore is land-scarce, and space is very precious, the very same problem for a more aggressive solar deployment in the country, and so Li-ion batteries are more ideal for stationary ESS. While there may be other technologies, like flow batteries and hydrogen, to gain traction in the coming years, Leong believes Li-ion will continue to dominate the market in the next five years. This domination will be driven by an increasing demand in electric vehicles, as well as energy storage and so the price, which is already declining, will continue to fall.

There are, however, safety concerns on the use of batteries for ESS as they tend to catch fire. Wärtsilä understands this and assures that the testbed facility is safe for installation even in highly urbanised areas, like Punggol and Woodlands. The ESS, according to Leong, uses Wärtsilä’s smart energy management system GEMS, and GridSolv Max, a containerised energy storage solution for safe and fast deployment.

This testbed shows that a 2.4MWh ESS can fit in a standard 40-foot ISO container. For Singapore to deploy more of this project in the future, it has to secure locations for ESS installation. Phuan notes that there are options like in green or brownfield districts, underground spaces, or offshore islands. But all these will just increase costs, as the ESS may not be factored into the site design or additional safety measures (better ventilation and access to fire engines) had to be in place or undersea cables may be needed.

Thus, the most probable solution is tapping existing diesel generators in Singapore’s buildings, Phuan suggests. “Many building owners we work with are unwilling to deploy additional space for ESS because they don’t have the area.” But the majority has, per regulations, diesel gen-sets that come with a diesel tank and are used as backup power whenever disruptions in the main grid occur. Yet, these diesel gen-sets are underutilised because Singapore’s grid is relatively stable. Still, these generators or “white elephant” as Phuan calls them, take up space and incur a cost for regular checks and certifications.

Sunseap believes the diesel gen-sets can be the perfect location to fit future ESS, and it has moved forward with this opportunity by starting a company called Sunseap V (Virtual) Power. “Our proposition is a system where we can go in and take over these diesel gen-sets and operate them remotely, thereby, using it to participate in Singapore’s energy market when there’s a need to balance the grid,” Phuan explains. But this does not take away the original function of diesel gen-sets as backup power, as what it does is just add a secondary function or reuse an otherwise underutilised asset. Once this is successful, the diesel gen-sets will then be replaced with ESS.

“The low-hanging fruits in ESS deployment in Singapore are data centres,” Phuan asserts. Identified as both energy and carbon clusters, data centres have a massive opportunity to become new locations for ESS installation. Recently, there is a moratorium to pause the building of new data centres in the country given Singapore’s limited carbon budget. Hence, green data centres can address this moratorium. Their diesel gen-sets can be replaced with ESS, and then hospitals and airports can follow suit.

Meanwhile, it cannot be denied that the cost of ESS deployment is huge. But the way to overcome this is to look at the bigger picture. Energy storage can optimise the whole system, reduce carbon emissions, and save fuels, which ultimately lead to more savings. “If we look at the CAPEX itself, we will of course always compare with coal or gas; instead, we have to look at overall cost savings,” encourages Leong.

Solar and energy storage go hand in hand, and Singapore’s ESS facility is anticipated to get the country closer to its shift to a cleaner energy future. We look forward with anticipation to see whether this initial project will pave the way for greater ESS deployment in Singapore and across Southeast Asia.

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