Powering Sarawak with a circular economy
20 Apr 2020
We may have often been reminded about the virtues of recycling — the process of converting waste into new materials and objects.
Time and again, we’d be told that this is the way of the future, an alternative to the conventional waste disposal which aims to save materials and reduce greenhouse emissions.
After all, it is a natural process. All materials produced or “born” in the world will one day meet the “end cycle”, either to be disposed of or “reincarnated” into another product.
Perhaps the same could be said about energy, or at least the substances that could be used to produce energy.
While other countries are looking beyond the usual as their power source, Malaysia is very much dependent on the traditional and conventional power generation using mainly thermal resources of natural gas, oil and coal.
In 1996, the country produced 50,285GWh of electricity. Of the total hours, 58.9% were generated by gas, 18.9% by oil and 8.3% by coal.
In 2016, the usage of coal rose to 42.5% of Malaysia’s generation mix, almost exceeding gas generation as stated in a report by the Energy Commission in 2017.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, coal ash is one of the largest types of industrial waste generated in America. In 2012, 470 coal-fired electric utilities generated about 110 million tonnes of coal ash.
The solution? It is obvious that “recycled energy”, or known as renewable energy (RE), is the solution to reducing the carbon footprint and further cut, if not eliminate, “waste elements” that could severely affect the ecosystem.
Clean RE includes solar, wind, biogas, geothermal, biomass and hydroelectricity.
RE by Sarawak Energy
Sarawak Energy Bhd is a state-owned energy developer and power utility that has been championing RE for the past decade under the Sarawak Corridor of RE — the state government’s strategic plan to accelerate development, with the hydroelectric power plants (HEPs) of Bakun and Murum anchoring the initiative.
The Batang Ai HEP — which commenced operations in 1985 and was developed earlier to form the foundation of Sarawak’s Power Grid — captures the stored energy in a 90 sq km reservoir.
It has been delivering up to 108MW of power to Sarawak’s capital city, Kuching, for over 30 years, home to more than 500,000 customers today.
Along with the establishment of the 2,400MW Bakun HEP in 2011 and 944MW Murum HEP in 2014, they can potentially generate 3,452MW or about 74% of the total generation mix in Sarawak, powering the homes and businesses of 2.62 million people living in the state through almost 700,000 customer accounts.
The state is expected to generate an additional 1,285MW of renewable, reliable and affordable energy when the Baleh HEP in Kapit, central Sarawak, comes on stream by 2026.
Sarawak is certainly well-positioned to be at the top of the chain. After all, the island of Borneo, which is surrounded by hilly and mountainous terrains, is blessed with high rainfall.
The annual average rainfall in Sarawak is 3,830mm, much higher than Peninsular Malaysia of 2,420mm or even Sabah (2,630mm).
As described by Sarawak Energy group CEO Datu Sharbini Suhaili in his opening speech at the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Forum (SAREF) 2019 held from Dec 10-11, 2019 in Kuching, the state has two seasons — “rain, and more rain”.
However, drought may occur, and Sarawak Energy is also developing its indigenous natural thermal resources like gas and coal to provide energy security and to cater for current and future demand.
A balanced generation mix is necessary for energy security and effective development in the state which will increase the standard of living of the people in Sarawak.
Coal has traditionally been the one of the main sources of electricity supply in many parts of the world and this is not going to change in the near future. Even though Sarawak has the largest coal reserves in Malaysia, coal-fired power generation only forms about 14% of the generation mix.
As part of its longer-term response to the reduction of emissions to minimise the impact on the environment, the energy developer is committed to low emissions coal technologies research. Notwithstanding that, at SAREF 2019, Sharbini announced that Sarawak Energy had probably built their last coal-fired power plant.
The Benefits of Renewable Hydropower
There is an ongoing argument about whether an HEP can be considered a producer of clean energy.
Currently, RE production in Malaysia stands at 6%, according to Sustainable Energy Development Authority of Malaysia, or SEDA.
Hydropower development has also been linked to deforestation issues.
Sharbini, however, is of the opinion that hydropower is one of the best RE for the country, especially in Sarawak, due to its geography and topography.
He said hydropower is not only renewable, but naturally circular in the ecosystem.
“Hydropower generates electricity from water collected by the reservoir from the sky. The water drives the hydroelectric turbine, and flows back to the sea before evaporating — which makes it renewable and a truly circular part of the economy,” he said at SAREF 2019.
Studies have also shown that only 2% of the total land area in Sarawak will be used once all the identified hydro projects are implemented.
The three dams in operation have affected less than 1% of Sarawak’s total land area.
The view was also shared by panels in the subsequent dialogue at SAREF 2019, titled “Circular Economy”, featuring Tom Szaky, the CEO of TerraCycle Inc — a private company which is also a champion in recycling industry based in the US.
Also present at the dialogue was Global Reporting Initiative’s Asean Hub regional head Michele Lemmens.
Szaky, while not ruling out the impact that might be brought by large HEPs, said “externalities exist in all circumstances”.
He said people should also be reminded that traditional power mixes, like fuel and fossil-based sources, would create more harm to the environment.
Lemmens said it is also pertinent to strike a balance between power production and the environmental impacts as part of the move towards RE.
“It is important to understand how far your contribution is impacting the products and services that you are delivering.
“It comes back to the various goods that you are producing, going across the environmental, social and governance aspects. We need to see it holistically,” she said.
Currently, large HEPs are yet to be recognised under Malaysia’s national RE agenda. This means Sarawak’s contribution through Bakun, Murum and Batang Ai is not factored in.
Should large HEPs (with capacity of more than 100MW) be accepted, it will boost Malaysia’s RE portion to up to 23%, surpassing the target set earlier.
Processing Water into Hydrogen
Sarawak Energy’s effort in pushing the RE agenda does not stop at hydropower development.
In May last year, the energy developer and power utility launched a pilot hydrogen production plant and refuelling station as part of Sarawak’s research into greening the transportation sector.
The facility is the first of its kind in South-East Asia.
The establishment of the research centre is in line with the state’s direction to explore Sarawak’s potential in developing and commercialising hydrogen and fuel cell applications.
Currently, Sarawak Energy owns two hydrogen-powered Hyundai Nexo SUVs, while Sarawak Economic Development Corp (SEDC) owns and operates three hydrogen-powered buses, of which the latter have been plying the roads of Kuching since January 2020. These vehicles are utilising the refuelling station at the research facility.
The construction and operation of the hydrogen production plant was undertaken by Sarawak Energy in collaboration with Linde EOX Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of Linde Malaysia Sdn Bhd. The Linde Group is among the world’s leading industrial gas and engineering companies.
The collaboration provides a platform for knowledge-sharing, while boosting the transfer of technology.
Sarawak Energy also has four electric cars and 24 electric scooters that are part of their corporate fleet, and has free plug-in recharging stations at the head office.
Fuelling Vehicles with ‘Water’
The production plant is able to produce up to 130kg of hydrogen per day, and is capable of supporting and fully refuelling up to five fuel cell buses and 10 fuel cell cars per day.
Fuel cells for transportation are deemed environmentally friendly as hydrogen has zero carbon emission, with only water and heat being the only by-products.
Explaining the technology to the media, who took a ride on the SEDC bus, the team from Sarawak Energy described the technology as another circular economy system that will become relevant in the world.
“The production of hydrogen from water involves three major phases — water treatment, gas production and compression process to the storage system,” the team said.
“First, the feed water goes into the water treatment system, where it is demineralised. In the second phase, water is electrolysed, where oxygen and hydrogen are separated. The hydrogen is then purified and compressed before being stored for fueling.
“Throughout the process, oxygen will be released back to the air, which will be very clean for the environment.
A hydrogen vehicle is powered by fuel cells and they are equivalent to an internal-combustion engine.
In an internal-combustion engine, power is produced by using fuel, namely the compressed hydrogen from the tank, rather than petrol or diesel.
However, unlike an engine, a fuel cell doesn’t burn the hydrogen. Instead, hydrogen is fused chemically with oxygen from the air to make water.
The whole process is like what happens in a battery. Electricity is converted and used to drive an electric motor which drives the vehicle.
“As a result, the only waste product — as seen at the bottom of the car — is water. Water would then evaporate into the sky. That’s why this is also considered a circular system,” the team said.
The Hyundai Nexo SUV generally could travel about 100km on a kg of hydrogen with a maximum fuel tank capacity of 6.3kg, while fuel/km for buses would depend much on passenger load.
Still, the buses could travel between 300km and 400km with a full tank of 20kg hydrogen at a time.
Only nine litres of clean water is needed to produce 1kg of hydrogen. Now, that’s rather economical and very green, isn’t it?
Source: The Malaysian Reserve