Malaysia recently announced it will have its own nuclear power plant by 2021, amidst much protest over concerns regarding safety, environmental impact, and nuclear waste disposal methods. Is nuclear power the only way forward? This here is a consideration of less controversial and readily available alternative green energy sources for Malaysia.
Two decades of controversies – that’s what the Bakun Dam in Sarawak has been contributing to the nation – before the first kW of energy is even generated. Equivalent to the size of Singapore, Bakun, with a capacity of 2400MW, is the largest dam in Asia outside China. The dam was built to meet the growing energy demand in both Peninsular and East Malaysia.
In the original plan, power generated from the dam will be connected to Peninsular via an underwater cable system. However, it was confirmed lately that the proposed underwater cable will not be built as Sarawak decided to keep the power generated from Bakun for use of the state’s industries, particularly the proposed energy intensive aluminium smelters.
Disconnected from Bakun, Peninsular Malaysia now faces a serious challenge in balancing the supply demand for its power in near future. Currently Malaysia generates most of its energy from gas and coal. With the impending depletion of gas supply and fluctuating coal prices, the government expects the current 40% reserve margin for Peninsula to fall to 0% by 2017 if the first generation Independent Power Producers do not get an extension to their contract.
Addressing the need to power up to ensure energy security in Peninsular, the Green Tech & Water Minister, Datuk Peter Chin announced in May that Malaysia will have a first nuclear plant by 2021, an announcement which immediately received strong opposition and condemnations from various parties.
The concern of oppositions for the plan is mainly on the safety and environmental impact of such project, and also the method of disposal of the highly radioactive waste. While those who are for the plan argued that developed nations like France has long been dependent on nuclear power generation and with proper technology transfer, the issue on safety and disposal can be addressed, and that nuclear being one of the cleanest form of energy is the only way to ensure energy security in the nation in the long run.
Without going into the endless lists of pros and cos of nuclear energy - is it really true that nuclear is the only way?
Malaysia, the second largest palm oil producer in the world has more than 400 mills which produce more than 41% of world’s palm oil. In the process, these mills, annually, generate more than 150 million tonnes of palm wastes which come in the form of empty fruit bunches (EFB), fibers, fronds, trunks, kernels, and palm oil mill effluent (POME), which mainly were, until recently, disposed through burning or left unattended in effluent ponds.
Of these wastes, EFB and POME can easily be harvested for power generation. Using EFB as fuel source for power generation, the power requirement for the mills can be met, allowing the mills to be fully independent from the grid, while the excess can be connected back to the grid. An estimate by industry expert valued the potential contribution of power generated by EFB at between 5 to 10% of total energy mix in the country.
In 2006, the oil palm industry in Malaysia generates more than 45 million tonnes of POME. These effluents can be converted into biogas which in turn be used to generate power through gas turbines. Industry estimates power generated from POME could contribute to 5% of total energy needs of Malaysia. For the power that is generated from palm based biomass, the issue to address is on how to grid connect the excess energy to the national power grid, knowing the fact that some of our oil palm plantations are located away from the power grid.
Located near the equator, Malaysia is blessed with consistent day light all year round which can be tapped to support the energy needs of the nation. It is estimated that 6,500 MW power can be generated by using only 40% of nation’s house-roof tops (2.5 million houses) and 5% of commercial buildings alone. Currently the stumbling block for solar is the high cost of the solar panels discourages normal households to take up such alternative. To incentivise, the government must expedite the long delayed introduction of feed-in tariff which allows household or industry, acting as independent power producers, to sell the green power produced back to the national grid.
Discussed were just two forms of alternative energies, closely associated with the main economic activity and climatic condition of Malaysia. We have been involved in the palm oil industry commercially, and at a large scale, since the 1960s. From cradle to grave, our expertise lie along the whole supply chain, and it just make logical sense to leverage on this expertise and expand the use of the alternative energies from the waste from this industry.
As for solar, the world’s top solar panel producers have already set up their facilities in Malaysia, and we are poised to be the world largest solar panel producers after China. We must make full use of the expertise brought in by the technology leaders to help us build up our capabilities in solar power generation. It will be such irony if one day the equatorial Malaysia produces the most solar panels in the world, but has little use of solar energy in our energy mix.
Both palm biomass and solar energy have very high potential to be harvested to contribute to the energy mix of the nation. Nuclear, clean or otherwise, is still highly controversial. Whether or not Malaysia is ready for such energy, due to the high expertise required, still remains uncertain.
What is certain, at least for now, the future of energy for the nation is not doom and gloom if other forms of safer, greener, and less controversial alternatives are explored and promoted. If the government has the political will to promote these alternative energies, the first step should be to remove the 10kW cap imposed on independent power producers taking part in the Small Renewable Energy Production (SREP) programme. That should be a good incentive to encourage more investors to put their money in renewable energy productions.
So, is nuclear the only way to ensure energy security in Malaysia? I think not, at least for now. Sometimes we need not make that quantum leap. Just look closer to us, there might be vast opportunities yet to be explored.
Author’s Note: There will be a NukeOff Info Evening, today at 8.00p.m. – 10.00p.m. at A&W, Taman Jaya.
Related Internet Links:
Recovery and Conversion of Palm Olein-Derived Used Frying Oil to Methyl Esters for Biodiesel - Journal of Oil Palm Research