Meet the stewards of Singapore’s green scene. In the face of a climate crisis whose repercussions are felt even in tiny Singapore, these environmental heroes are stepping up to lead change in the field of conservation and sustainability.
In 2016, the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (Seris) unveiled its floating solar test bed at Tengeh Reservoir. The 1 megawatt-peak (MWp) installation was the world’s largest buoyant solar photovoltaic (PV) test bed at the time. Initiated by the Economic Development Board and Public Utilities Board (PUB), the project evaluated the economic and technological feasibility of deploying large-scale floating solar PV systems on reservoirs. Seris took ownership of the site, managing everything from the design of the systems to conducting research on their efficacy.
According to PUB, the test bed showed that some of the floating solar PV systems performed up to 15 per cent better than a conventional rooftop solar power system in Singapore with minimal impact on water quality and wildlife. This paved the way for a larger 60MWp floating solar farm at Tengeh, which opened in July this year.
Dr Thomas Reindl, who is deputy CEO at Seris, led the groundbreaking project. “It brought fame to Seris and Singapore,” he says. “We are now perceived as one of the leading institutes in that area. World Bank Group approached us to write two reports on floating solar, a market report and a handbook for practitioners. Those eventually became the standard literature for floating PVs.”
As the head of the test bed, he also spoke at numerous global conferences, workshops and webinars on the topic, earning him the title, “Mr Floating Solar”.
Thomas spent almost his entire career on climate action. In the early 1990s, he interned with Siemens Corporate’s R&D labs in Munich to improve existing products and develop next-generation solar cells. He joined a business consultancy during his PhD research and then moved to Singapore in 1998 for Siemens Solar and stayed for four years before heading home to Germany.
With Asia becoming the epicentre of solar energy, Thomas returned to Singapore, this time for Seris. In the last 11 years at the national applied research institute, the floating solar test bed is one of his major career milestones. “Land constraints in Singapore will always be a challenge,” he explains. “One of the biggest opportunities is floating solar, be it on some of the inland reservoirs or in near-shore areas.”
Singapore has approximately 450 MWp of installed, grid-connected solar capacity today. The government’s goal is to hit 1.5 gigawatt-peak (GWp) by 2025 and beyond 2 GWp by 2030, which would meet about 4 per cent of the current annual electricity demand. “The aim is ambitious but achievable, especially considering that solar PV systems can be deployed much faster than any other major electricity-generating technology.”
He adds that the country will benefit from a thriving global supply chain in solar PV, which led to 130 GWp new additions in 2020 worldwide, despite the pandemic. In addition, Singapore is looking to import solar electricity alongside other renewables, such as wind and hydropower, from the region. Seris is also exploring vertical solar systems on the facades of buildings to overcome space constraints.
All of this is documented in the seminal strategic paper, titled “Update of the Solar PV Roadmap for Singapore”, which Thomas helmed. A collaborative effort across the research community and industry, it outlines the technical potential and challenges of solar implementation. “The key was to understand and balance the various interests,” he elaborates. “This not only includes the balance between technology options and economics but also between competing use of spaces, visions and aesthetics.”
Costs and aesthetics are the two common barriers surrounding solar PV. “The generation cost of solar electricity for larger installations here is now below the wholesale electricity price and will reduce further, reaching about 4 to 5 cents per kWh in 2030 for new systems. A solar system hardly has any maintenance, and the ‘fuel’ is free. Most system costs are upfront, which requires proper financing to provide the initial capital.”
“Whether solar panels are ‘ugly’ is subjective,” he adds. “We at Seris are working on technologies to make solar panels resemble conventional building materials, be it marble, wood or bricks. Then no one will have an excuse.”
There is another challenge in harvesting solar power: clouds. Thomas and his team had assessed the impact of the variability from solar generation on the power grid and found no critical concerns until 2030. “However, for 2050, a further review is needed to ensure grid resilience, particularly for strong reductions in solar power output during extreme weather events.”
As for the environmental footprint of using solar energy, Dr Reindl clarifies: “Few process steps in solar cell and panel manufacturing use toxic materials, which are well contained and follow the highest standards. The same applies to the end of life of solar panels. Seris and other industry players are working on suitable recycling methods for reusing parts of the solar panels and regaining some of the precious materials used.
“Plus, the ‘energy payback’ – the time it takes to generate the same amount of energy used in manufacturing, transport and deployment of an entire solar energy-based system – is in the range of one to two years, which is short compared to the technical lifetime of solar PV systems of 25 to 30 years.”
Thomas thinks that Singapore could become a world leader in “urban solar” through innovative PV technologies, including the use of Solar+, in which PV systems are combined with other technologies for additional benefits. “This could, for example, be the combination of solar with urban rooftop farming or air conditioning systems, whereby excess solar energy can generate more cold water, which is then used for cooling the building.”
(Image of Dr Thomas Reindl: Fashion Direction: Johnny Khoo | Art Direction: Audrey Chan | Photography: Joel Low | Fashion Styling: Jacquie Ang | Hair: Jimmy Yap/Kimistry, using Dyson | Make-up: Wee Ming, using Chanel | Photography Assistance: Eddie Teo)
This story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.