Photo of TuasSpring power plant from Hyflux's website

Singapore can generate way more electricity than it needs, so why is nuclear power even on the table?

The discussion around whether or not Singapore should consider nuclear power for its energy needs has resurfaced from time to time, and it appears that the government’s stand on the matter has evolved over the years.

To give you a general idea, here’s a quick look:

2007 – PM Lee unequivocally said nuclear is out of the question for Singapore.

2008 – Wikileaks documents show the then-Deputy CEO of the Energy Market Authority, Lawrence Wong indicating to the US embassy that Singapore isn’t completely ruling out nuclear power.

2010 – Straits Times reported that the government is preparing for nuclear power and they even conducted a pre-feasibility study on the matter.

2012 – The International Advisory Panel to the Ministry of Trade and Industry advised the government “to keep all options open” in meeting the island’s future energy needs.

2014 – The government announced a special panel and $63 million fund to build core of 100 nuclear experts in Singapore.

2017 – The government says it will be further exploring alternative energy options, including nuclear.

The crux of this evolution in the government’s stance is that Singapore’s energy needs have been steadily on the rise. The Singapore’s Population White Paper in 2013 projected that Singapore’s population will hit 6.9 million by 2030 – thus increasing the demand in energy. So naturally, the government wants to ensure that Singapore is able to produce enough energy for the population.

The islands power generation sector is actually mired in overcapacity

However, it might surprise you to know that Singapore is already able to produce much more electricity that it is currently using. In the first quarter of 2018, Singapore recorded an electrical generation capacity of 13,614.4 megawatts (MW) while peak demand was only about 7,000 MW on average. That means Singapore is only using about 52% of the total energy it can produce – leaving 48% of capacity unused.

The associate director at IHS Markit’s power, gas, renewables and coal practice Chong Zhi Xin said in April 2018 that the overcapacity can be traced back to the high prices in 2012 which led to generation companies adding new capacity.

Singapore’s four major power plants – Senoko, Pulau Seraya, Tuas, and Keppel Merlimau Cogen – generate enough electricity for the island. However, plenty of additional capacity is contributed by other Cogens such as Sembawang and others in the petrochemical industries. For example, those in the petrochemical industry require steam for heat and the by-product of that can be recovered to generate electricity. That additional capacity is what put’s SG in the carbon negative bracket – the excess capacity.

This over capacity was also highlighted by the Director of Market Development and Surveillance Department of the Energy Market Authority (EMA), Ms Dorcas Tan on an ST Forum on in January 2019 (‘Why electricity retailers’ rates are better‘). She said that the low current low prices offered by electricity retailers are due to over-capacity. Basically, production capacity exceeds demands.

Not only is there an excess of capacity, the growth of power demand has been weak as well as Singapore’s growth slows. And whatever new demand there is for power is already being met by growing solar generation as more industrial users pursue energy efficiency, said industry players as reported by Business Times Singapore.

Just to be clear here, Singapore is not producing much more electricity that it’s using. In 2017, Singapore generated approximately 52,225.8 GWh of electricity. Consumption in that same period was 49,437.2 GWh, which is 94.7% of energy generated that year. However, Singapore’s generation companies can produce about 48% more electricity than it is currently putting out. And anyway, though Singapore is capable of generating more electricity, there’s nowhere to store it.

Solar not currently enough

With that in mind, the question is why is Singapore even considering nuclear power when we know the energy sector is operating at only 52% of its total capacity? Surely if Singapore needs more power, the government should be looking at how they can get energy companies to operate at peak capacity instead of turning to nuclear power?

A decade after PM Lee insisted that nuclear power is out of the question for Singapore, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in June 2017 that Singapore is looking into two alternative energy sources – nuclear and solar.

According to EMA’s report on Singapore’s Energy Statistics 2018, solar accounts for 0.8% of Singapore’s total capacity. That’s approximately 109 MW on average, which is only 1.5% of Singapore’s peak demand. So clearly, solar alone (at the moment) is not nearly enough to meet Singapore’s energy needs.

So why doesn’t Singapore just focus on developing Singapore’s solar power capacity, then? Sure, solar farms require a lot of space but with recent advances in solar generation technology, Singapore could shift a significant amount of its energy reliance onto solar with the use of solar glass panels that could replace regular glass on tall structures – there’s no shortage of high rises in Singapore. That would do a lot in reducing Singapore’s carbon footprint.

So why nuclear?

In an 2017 article published on ST, Mr Lim Soon Heng, managing director of EMAS Consultants LLP makes the argument for that Singapore is ‘woefully’ short of renewable energy sources. There’s no potential on the island for hydro, wave, tidal, or geothermal energy production. Wind is out of the question as strong winds only occur in monsoon months and it takes too much space. He also noted that solar power cannot be counted on to carry the entire weight of Singapore’s energy needs (he made no mention of the recent developments in solar technology).

In his article, Mr Lim asserts that ‘nuclear is safe’ and that ‘fears about radioactive waste and reactor meltdowns are founded on ignorance’.

To prove his point, Mr Lee compared the statistics of deaths (per trillion kWh) caused by nuclear power plants and with that of oil, natural gas, and solar plants. Nuclear power plants (NPPs) have caused 90 deaths per trillion kWh (including Fukushima and Chernobyl) while the other plants have caused 36,000, 4,000, and 440 deaths respectively. The low rate of rate is ‘all the more remarkable’ said Mr Lee, considering half of the reactors surveyed are older than the average hydrocarbon power plant.

Addressing the issue of space – international guidelines require a significant land buffer around nuclear power plants which Singapore doesn’t have – Mr Lim proposed the use of floating NPPs like those in the US and Russia.

So if we take Mr Lim’s point, in order for Singapore to succeed in its commitment to the Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions by 36% of its 2005 levels by 2030, Singapore needs to seriously look at where it gets its energy from. And he seems certain that nuclear power is the way forward.

However, DPM Teo said in 2017 that Singapore is already among the 20 most carbon-efficient countries in the world, which means the country produces low levels of carbon emissions for every dollar of GDP (gross domestic product) generated.

So carbon-efficiency is not the biggest issue for Singapore at the moment. Judging by the statistic, energy production efficiency is the critical problem right now. If Singapore can make full use of its generation capacity, its overall carbon efficiency would reduce as well.

Perhaps the strong support for nuclear has to do more with its commercial potential for Singapore rather than its energy potential. A 2011 New Asia Republic article wrote that Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) wants to promote investment by foreign firms that offer nuclear-related products or services to develop its own domestic capabilities in the area.

This comes from the Wikileaks documents which revealed the government’s vision for the EDB and their intent to develop Singapore as a base for nuclear technology related products and services in Asia.

And with the extra energy being generated, Singapore could very well start selling excess energy to neighbouring countries like Indonesia or Malaysia. It’s a great commercial potential that would entice investment by foreign firms.

Now let’s go back to the original question: Why is Singapore even considering nuclear power when it hasn’t dealt with the obvious issue of overcapacity in energy generation?

Shouldn’t the government be looking at ways to increase carbon-efficiency by reducing capacity or looking at ways to increase the capacity of solar power instead? Singapore’s a relatively sunny country. Surely there’s huge potential for solar power here, especially when countries like Germany and Italy are able to generate 6% and 7.6% respectively of their total energy capacity from solar power alone.