Can ASEAN realise its vision of a green power grid?

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

For Zero Emissions Day, GovInsider speaks to experts on whether the region is on track to meeting its proposed renewable energy goals by 2025, and surveys the key elements that will drive the decarbonisation of ASEAN’s power grid.

Floating solar panels are one way in which ASEAN countries are powering the energy transition. Image: Envato Elements

As of last year’s United Nations climate summit, eight out of the ten ASEAN countries have pledged to go net-zero within the century. The region is targeting a 23 per cent share of renewable energy in its energy supply by 2025, which will necessitate the ramping up of renewable energy projects as well as regional power trade agreements.

Is the region on track to meeting its goals? Noah Kittner, who researches energy grids at the University of North Carolina, tells GovInsider that though the region is moving fast, investment will need to increase to match and exceed these targets.

The key renewable energy projects that are in development may not be operational in time for 2025, and more financial investments will be needed to make these projects a reality, says Marc Allen, co-founder of a start-up that supports enterprises in decarbonising, Unravel Carbon.

Though the current proportion of renewable energy making up ASEAN’s energy supply is unclear, the development of three key elements will determine the path forward for ASEAN’s pivot to renewable energy: ambitious projects, cross border trade agreements, and essential infrastructure.

Renewable energy projects

First, the region needs to invest in ambitious and reliable renewable energy projects that can run at high capacity and be scaled up. Kittner says that as hydropower resources have been facing climate stress and lessened generation capacity, this necessitates investments in high-capacity projects focusing on solar and wind energy.

Thailand’s northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani is home to the world’s largest hybrid solar-hydropower project, spanning the breadth of 70 football fields. The 145,000 solar panels floating on the surface of the Sirindhorn reservoir, coupled with the attached hydropower dam, can generate up to 81 megawatts of peak power, which can power up to three provinces in eastern Thailand.

The country’s floating solar farms are amongst the “most innovative globally and are inspiring places to reconsider land use and energy system design,” Kittner says. Such farms can serve as models for the rest of the world, he suggests. It is the first of 16 floating solar farms planned in the country, which promise to save on land costs.

Allen adds that the technology involved with floating solar panels is cutting edge, and the applications developed in Thailand “could be deployed globally when commercialised”.

Likewise, Vietnam has made major strides towards generating renewable energy, becoming the world’s tenth-largest producer of solar power as of 2021. The Economist reported that the share of solar-powered electricity in Vietnam skyrocketed “from practically nothing to nearly 11 per cent” in the four years leading up to 2021.

Kittner notes that a key area to watch will be Vietnam’s potential offshore wind development projects. Vietnam’s draft Power Development Plan (PDP8) highlights wind energy as a key priority over the next few decades. The country is home to 3,000 kilometers of coastline and winds that blow from 5.5 to 7.3 meters per second, providing ideal conditions for a power-up in wind energy.

A McKinsey report highlights that though Vietnam has the potential to rival wind power giants such as Germany, the technical complexity as well as the financial burden of wind farms may have held the country back thus far.

One step forward, two steps back: cross border trade agreements

Energy trade agreements can support small countries like Singapore, which lack the capacity to generate renewable energy on a large scale, to meet its net-zero goals by 2050. Likewise, such trade agreements can facilitate the flow of investments to countries that have the resources to build renewable energy projects.

ASEAN will need to align policy frameworks on the trade of renewable energy, Allen says. While renewable energy trade in the region has been gaining momentum, recent decisions to limit renewable energy exports have thrown a sustainable ASEAN power grid into question.

In May, Indonesia’s Minister of Investment, Bahlil Lahadalia, emphasised that the country does not plan on exporting renewable energy to ensure that domestic needs are met first, according to Antara News. Last year, Malaysia’s energy ministry decided to disallow the export of renewable energy to Singapore.

Nevertheless, 2022 marked a significant step forward for renewable energy trade in the region. Singapore has begun importing renewable energy from Laos through Thailand and Malaysia in June, reported CNA, marking the first renewable energy import into Singapore.

Kittner highlights that though such agreements are important, it is difficult to come to “fair and favorable terms for all parties”.

Infrastructure will be key

Finally, to realise the vision of a renewable ASEAN power grid, countries will have to invest in building critical infrastructure, such as connections between national grids and storage projects that can store excess energy for future use.

When it comes to electricity transmission networks, look no further than Thailand. Sitting at the crossroads of Southeast Asia, the country’s energy grid currently serves as a key conduit for Laos’ export of energy to Singapore. Its energy strategy has the potential to “facilitate more efficient and low-carbon trade in electricity across countries,” noted Kittner in a piece on the East Asia Forum.

The development of storage technologies will be critical in supporting a transition to a low-carbon energy grid that is resilient in the face of variable weather conditions. With energy storage technologies such as batteries, energy grids will not need to rely on backup power supplies run by fossil fuels “when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow”.

This would require ASEAN to develop region-wide research networks and knowledge sharing hubs, Kittner says. One such body is the ASEAN Centre for Energy, which facilitates multilateral cooperation on energy policies and programmes, functioning as a knowledge hub and a think tank. Most recently, they organised the 2022  ASEAN Energy Business Forum, which put ASEAN policymakers in conversation regarding national energy goals and strategic partnerships.

Though the region has made significant progress in developing renewable energy projects, the critical infrastructure and the trade agreements needed to facilitate cross border trade, the ASEAN power grid still remains a work in progress. With any luck, the power integration project between Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore will be a harbinger of further regional cooperation, rather than a blip on the system.