Though Brunei is currently an exporter of both oil and natural gas, the country is nevertheless looking to diversify its energy supplies for the future, with solar power being considered a viable option for when fossil fuel reserves start to decline.
According to US State Department statistics, Brunei's known oil reserves are expected to last for at least another 25 years at the present rate of production of around 200,000 barrels per day (bpd), with further offshore exploration expected to identify additional deposits. The country's gas reserves are estimated to be approximately 38.6bn cubic metres, enough to meet domestic and export requirements for up to 40 years.
Currently, Brunei meets all of its annual 600 MW electricity needs through gas-fired power stations. While the country has ample oil and gas reserves for the immediate future, it has to take into account that demand for electricity is rising at an estimated rate of between 7% and 10% annually. This increasing consumption is being fuelled in part by state-backed programmes, such as the Sungai Liang Industrial Park project, to diversify the country's economy, encouraging investments in medium and heavy industry.
On August 14, the state's energy division signed an agreement with Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation to conduct a trial of solar energy production at the Seria Power Station in the Belait district.
Under the agreement, a 1.2 MW photovoltaic generation facility is to be constructed and linked into the community's energy grid. Tests will be carried out to determine which types of photovoltaic panels best suit Brunei's tropical conditions and what the potential is for solar energy in the country.
The $13.7m project, to be fully funded by Mitsubishi, is due to come on-line in 2010, with trials scheduled to run for three years. When completed it will be the largest photovoltaic facility in South-east Asia.
Haji Ismail, deputy permanent secretary of energy at the Prime Minister's Office, said not only would the project provide jobs and develop local expertise in the field of solar energy, but it would also help Brunei diversify its economy.
With the private sector also looking to cash in on renewable energy, it is not only electricity producers that may benefit. On August 25, Hamidjojo Development Sdn, a local firm specialising in project development and marketing, announced it was in talks with a potential local partner for a planned solar photovoltaic panel manufacturing plant.
The $150m plant, which Hamidjojo hopes will be operational by 2010, would produce solar panels for domestic and possibly export markets. Ironically, the idea for the photovoltaic panel facility spawned from the company's failure to get a proposed glassmaking venture off the ground, due to a lack of electricity supplies, according to Joseph Sequeira, Hamidjojo Development project manager.
Though one door closed, another opened, he told the local press. Sequeira went on to say that the project goes right to the heart of Brunei's concerns on how to both sustain the country's economy and protect its natural heritage.
"With rising oil and gas prices and the greenhouse effect being a concern, renewable energy sources are what everyone is talking about, and solar energy has reached its peak where people understand that solar energy can work and help the environment," he said.
Business cooperative Koperasi Kampung dan Mukim Negara Brunei Darussalam Berhad (KOKAMI) is also interested in solar energy. On August 13, KOKAMI Chairman Pengiran Haji Mohd Salleh told local media the group planned to partner with the Rook and Positive Group of China, a company specialised in the manufacture and distribution of solar products, to introduce and develop solar energy in Brunei.
While no additional details of the project have been made available, the Rook and Positive Group are known to specialise in manufacturing solar consumable items for use in the home. This could indicate that the partnership is aiming to target the household energy market, rather than the generation sector.
Some environmental advocates in Brunei have criticized the proposals to shift to solar energy over fears that swaths of virgin rainforest will have to be cleared in order for the solar arrays to be erected. Sathyajith Mathew of the Universiti Brunei Darussalam dismissed these concerns as unfounded, stating at a seminar on alternative energy on August 13 that utilising just 0.3% of the country's landmass would more than meet present domestic generation needs.
While interest is growing in renewable energy sources, it will be some time before Brunei is weaned off its dependence on fossil fuels, which will remain the backbone of the economy for the foreseeable future.