Brunei Darussalam sharpens focus on renewable energy

While abroad Brunei Darussalam might be best known for its substantial hydrocarbons reserves, at home authorities are turning their attention to more “green” forms of energy, including solar. However, compared to some of its South-east Asian neighbours, the Sultanate has set more modest goals and has been slower to develop alternatives to oil and gas.

Selling power to the national grid

In September, the minister of energy, Pehin Dato Yasmin Umar, announced a plan to introduce a feed-in tariff scheme to promote the use of solar power, which will allow individuals and businesses to sell the electricity they generate back to the national energy firm.

Speaking at the opening of a workshop on policies, feed-in tariff frameworks and best practices for grid-connected solar photovoltaic projects on September 9, the minister said such a system would help reduce consumers’ power bills, encourage the use of renewable energy and promote a wider acceptance of efficient energy use.

Later, on the sidelines of the conference, the minister said that while many things needed to be done before the scheme could be implemented over the next 18 month to two years, the programme had much to offer both consumers and the national economy.

The government flagged the possibility of developing a feed-in tariff system at the beginning of the year, with officials suggesting Brunei Darussalam could adopt the scheme as a means to improve energy efficiency. However, it was not until the September workshop that a proposal was fleshed out and a time frame presented.

To support take up of the programme, the government is considering a number of incentives, including low-cost loans to consumers to fund solar panel installation, which could then be paid back using earnings from electricity generation.

According to the minister, the feed-in scheme would be complemented by the development of smart-grid infrastructure, which uses digital technology to help balance supply and demand using two-way communication, improving efficiency and reducing energy consumption. A smart-grid system can, for example, advise consumers to lower their consumption at peak-demand times. The minister added that since this would be a major investment, private sector participation was a possibility.

Greater use of renewables could cut carbon footprint

A study conducted by the World Bank shows that, on a per capita basis, Brunei Darussalam is one of the top electricity consumers globally, ranked seventh behind Iceland, Trinidad and Tobago, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The Sultanate also has one of the broadest per capita carbon footprints outside the Gulf region, with emissions per person amounting to almost 21 tonnes, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Most of Brunei Darussalam’s electricity is produced by gas-fired power stations, though there is some use of diesel generators in rural regions, mainly as a back up to the central grid. The only renewable facility is the 1.2-MW Tenaga Suria Brunei solar plant in Seria, commissioned in May 2011, representing around 1% of installed capacity. The minister of energy told local press in August 2012 that the plant is “a small but important first step in the development of renewable energy sources”.

The Sultanate has set a target of 10% of electricity production from renewable sources by 2035. Other countries in the region, however, are aiming much higher. Thailand’s Alternative Energy Development Plan 2011-21 targets 25% renewable energy and 2000 MW of solar power capacity. A number of projects have already come on-line in Thailand, bringing its installed solar capacity to well over 100 MW.

In Malaysia, a US-based firm, SunEdison, announced in July that it is investing RM170m ($39m) to build two solar plants, with a combined capacity of 15 MW, while the government there is aiming for 1250 MW of renewable power capacity by 2020. Meanwhile, ASEAN, of which Brunei Darussalam is a member, has committed to 15% renewable energy by 2015, a deadline that is fast approaching.

While it seems unlikely that the Sultanate could meet the overall ASEAN target, movement forward on both a feed-in tariff scheme and smart-grid infrastructure suggests that Brunei Darussalam is well-positioned to achieve its more modest goals.

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