Embracing our Past, Shaping the Future

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Just a short 10-minute boat ride away from the main island, Pulau Ubin is a throwback to yesteryears and home to one of the last kampungs (villages) in Singapore. But this rural and rustic island may yet pave the way for the nation’s future in sustainable energy.

By Joyce Huang

W

hen trying to catch a ride from Changi Ferry Terminal to Pulau Ubin, one can immediately get a sense of how life is different from that in Singapore. There is no schedule for bumboat operators to follow. Boats run from sunrise to sunset, and a boat only leaves for the island to the north-east of Singapore once there are a dozen passengers to make a full ride. You will be hard-pressed to find any other commercial endeavour that operates on such flexible terms in brisk and efficient Singapore.

painting_green_2In a way, these bumboats to Ubin island are very much like time machines; transporting you back to the time when villages comprised of wooden houses, the environment was verdant with untouched nature, and everything moved at a much slower pace.

The island has flourished from the mining of granite since the late 1800s, but residents started leaving due to dwindling jobs when granite quarries started to close down in the 1970s. Today, less than 100 residents remain. Some rely on traditional farming and fishing for subsistence, while others tend provision stores, eateries and bicycle rental shops clustered mainly within the main village near the jetty that caters to tourists and local visitors. The quaint boomerang-shaped island is one of the few remaining areas in Singapore that are preserved from urban development. In contrast to the modern and efficient public utilities on the mainland, Ubin residents rely on wells for water and noisy diesel generators for electricity. In October 2013, the launch of a micro-grid test bed initiative provided a cleaner, more reliable, cost-competitive, and, most importantly, renewable energy source.

A micro-grid is any small-scale localised station or stations with its own power resources, generation and loads that can work independently or with the area’s centralised grid (macrogrid). These standalones include fuel cells, wind, solar or other inherently intermittent energy sources. This allows for a more consistent distribution of power should one source fail. By monitoring energy from the solar panels and smoothening out the voltage, Pulau Ubin’s micro-grid tests how far solar energy can penetrate the island and how best to integrate and use this energy. This all goes into assessing the reliability of renewable energy and whether the micro-grid can provide a consistent level of electricity.

Assessing Renewable Energy

Due to the compact nature of Ubin’s main village, as well as the need to improve the villagers’ dated reliance on expensive and pollutive diesel generators, the Energy Market Authority (EMA) saw an opportunity to incorporate a micro-grid test bed near the jetty area of Pulau Ubin. Singapore-based consortium comprising Daily Life Renewable Energy (DLRE) and OKH Holdings was appointed in October 2011 to design, build and operate the test bed. After two years of working closely with government agencies, residents and businesses on the island, the project was officially launched in the fourth quarter of 2013.

Renewable energy sources which rely on the sun and wind are intermittent in nature as the amount of energy produced is dependent on weather conditions. To ensure a stable supply, adequate reserves from conventional power stations must be kept on standby.


 

“The micro-grid test bed is a useful project to enable us to better understand the impact of using intermittent renewable sources on our power system.”

— Chee Hong Tat, Chief Executive, Energy Market Authority


“The micro-grid test bed is a useful project for Singapore to pilot a solution that will benefit residents and businesses on Pulau Ubin,” notes Chee Hong Tat, Chief Executive, EMA. “It will also enable us to better understand the impact of using intermittent renewable sources on our power system. If this project is successful, it will help open up opportunities for Singapore companies to spearhead the adoption of such technologies in the region.”


 

“This test bed showcases how clean and renewable energy can be deployed in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable manner for an off-grid community.”

— Markson Tang, Executive Director, Daily Life Renewable Energy


Currently, about 30 residents and businesses have signed up for the electricity from the micro-grid. Not only is electricity generated cleaner and more reliable than that from diesel generators, it is also powerful enough to support more energy intensive appliances, such as refrigerators, chillers and even air-conditioning. This enables businesses to scale up operations. Furthermore, with the electricity provided at S$0.80 per kilowatt hour (kWh), residents would pay a third less than the S$1.20 per kWh needed to operate diesel generators.

“This test bed showcases how clean and renewable energy can be deployed in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable manner for an off-grid community,” explains Markson Tang, Executive Director of DLRE. During the two years it took to construct the micro-grid infrastructure, measures were taken to preserve the rustic environs of the island. Generators are housed in existing structures instead of building new ones, and underground cables were laid to minimise visual impact to the environment. From the main control centre and energy storage building next to the NParks Information Kiosk, electricity is transmitted via 2km of underground cables to the villagers.

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The rustic appeal of Pulau Ubin has been left intact, despite the latest technology used to support its ecosystem and provide modern amenities to its residents.

Towards a Sustainable Future

At the launch of the micro-grid test bed, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Home Affairs, and Trade & Industry, S Iswaran, said, “The learning points from the test bed will help to enhance our ability to manage intermittent energy sources. It will enable Singapore to maximise the amount of solar and other forms of renewable energy we can deploy when those technologies become commercially viable. This in turn will contribute to our longterm goal of diversifying our energy mix and moving towards a sustainable energy future for Singapore.”

Today, Singapore relies on imported natural gas for most of our energy requirements. Though Minister Iswaran acknowledged that renewable energy sources can “only potentially supply five to 10 per cent” of overall energy demand, he stressed that it is “important to study these options so that we are ready, on a technical point of view, to incorporate them as and when they become commercially and economically feasible”.

Beyond the Pulau Ubin test bed, EMA is also investing efforts in projects that smart energy, renewable energy integration, high efficiency inverters and smart grid control, with the aim of developing robust, cutting-edge solutions that can be quickly adopted and implemented. Similarly, the Housing Development Board (HDB) is also test-bedding solar photovoltaics in housing estates such as Ang Mo Kio, Sengkang and Buangkok. These are solar panels which produce up to 5MW of electricity in optimum conditions. This electricity powers lights in corridors and common areas, lifts and water pumps, among other things. On top of this, more test bed projects like these are on the horizon. Platforms such as the Singapore Energy Summit, part of Singapore International Energy Week, help promote the growth to bring other types of renewable energy sources to the fore.

As more Singaporeans become concerned with issues concerning sustainability, local policy makers and businesses can look to undertake more developments and opportunities in the energy sector. As Thomas Bon, Managing Director of OKH, puts it, the micro-grid test bed on Pulau Ubin is a good start, “a demonstration of our Singapore-based companies’ capabilities in smart-grid engineering-procurement construction that will support our regionalisation plans to develop and promote remote area power utility services as a sustainable business model”.

While sustainable energy is the way forward for any socially-conscious community, it is especially heartening to see how such initiatives can be cleverly and unobtrusively woven into the charming authenticity of the limited natural spaces available in Singapore. Success that comes with such initiatives will surely spur more of the same endeavours.


 

“The learning points from the test bed will help to enhance our ability to manage intermittent energy sources.”

— S Iswaran, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Home Affairs, and Trade & Industry


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Special care was taken not to disrupt the natural and authentic look and feel of Pulau Ubin Island when the test-bed was set up.

Despite the technological arrival of its micro-grid, Pulau Ubin still retains its rural charms. It is perhaps most visible in the public’s fight against the destruction and urbanisation of the island that provides a glimpse into how our country has become more forward-thinking when it comes to conservation. Though slated for land reclamation in 1992, the rich ecosystems of the Chek Jawa Wetlands were only discovered in December 2000. Subsequent increased public attention and appeals from nature-lovers led to a review of its reclamation plans. After careful consideration and extensive consultations with scientific experts and relevant government agencies, it was announced in 2001 that reclamation works would be deferred.

To protect the fragile ecosystems at Chek Jawa and allow visitors to enjoy it, the government invested S$7 million to put in place a sustainable visitor management plan for the wetland area. In 2007, under the management of NParks, Chek Jawa unveiled new amenities for visitors to safely conduct their own tours within the 100 hectare wetlands. The amenities include a visitor centre with a viewing jetty, over 1km of boardwalks with educational panels, and a 21m viewing tower to observe tree canopy and birdlife. Visitors who prefer a guided walk can participate in one-hour tours organised by NParks.

These pre-scheduled tours are led by volunteer nature guides and run only when tides are low. The intertidal flats are best explored when tides are 0.5m and below, when more marine life are visible.

Another novel way to experience and learn about Pulau Ubin’s ecology is to go on a kayaking tour. Asian Detours offers half-and full-day kayaking expeditions through its subsidiary Sea Expeditions Centre of Southeast Asia (SECSEA) (www.secsea.com). From kayaking through mangroves to manoeuvring through the creeks that meander through Pulau Ubin, these adventures in eco-friendly kayaks led by experienced guides allow participants an intimate experience with the island’s natural greenery and wildlife.

For those who like more involvement in the conservation of the island’s natural beauty, SECSEA also organises mangrove clean-ups. Dubbed the Grassroutes project, these mangrove clean-ups started when volunteers and SECSEA crew took it upon themselves during their regular expeditions to remove trash and debris from the mangroves, which is otherwise impossible without access by kayaks. By ensuring an educational process in their activities, SECSEA views it’s endeavours as ultimately contributing towards a long-term solution for the sustainability of the environment.

 


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