It is undeniable that electricity is an essential part of Malaysian’s life. We managed to achieve 100% electricity access in 20141. Global electricity access in 2014 was averaging 85.3%, with some country as low as 4.5%2!
Roles of Electricity
Electricity has multiplied our productivity by leaps and bounds. Steam engines have made a huge difference in man’s industrial revolution, while electricity revolutionizes the revolution. Electricity made so many things possible for instance powering through the mechanising of equipment, communication, lighting, comfort, and more recently transportation. Imagine a day without electricity, it is just no longer acceptable.
Waking up to no mobile phone? No facebook? No water pressure/supply? No lift? No swipe card access? No computer? The list goes on and on, we literally could not do anything. (Starbucks can’t make the coffee to kick start your day either! Sad huh!) Therefore, one can use the power demand of a region to estimate its productivity relative to GDP. More industrial activities = more power demand = higher GDP. This becomes a common rule of thumb to gauge the economic activity in a region.
Imagine the impact on the country’s GDP for such outage? This then classifies electricity or energy as a life supporting commodity. No progressive government would ignore the importance of electrical energy (in)dependence & security. But how do we ensure our energy is secure? Malaysia’s total installed capacity as of end of 2014 was just under 31,000MW. With 90% fossil-fuel (53% Gas/Oil, 37% Coal), 10% renewable (9.4% hydro, 0.05% solar). We do not produce coal or not enough significance anyway. Imagine a day when no country would sell us coal. This is not remotely impossible, with major coal exporting country Australia facing strong public resistance to expand their coal mines. Even global miners BHP broke ties with World Coal Association over climate change and energy policy differences3.
This, I believe was due to much public pressure against BHP retaining its social license to operate in mineral-rich regions. Like it or not, the possibility of no more access to coal is real with climate change issues on most countries’ political agenda. What then happens to the 37% of Malaysia’s power generation capacity? Do we close down and use less power? Like… 37% less? What happens when a similar scenario applies to gas and oil sources? We take out 90% of our energy sources? Are our energy sources secured with such likely scenarios brewing over the horizon with countries committed to tackling climate change?
We therefore need a balanced portfolio of power-generation sources to ensure security. How to constitute a balanced portfolio? Well, it depends on a lot of factors. Geographical, power-load centre, generation site, infrastructure, and generation type. We are fairly limited in moving load centre as it usually involves moving large community which is costly and not feasible. We do have various options in deciding on power generation site. Small scale generation positioned strategically will reduce transmission and distribution load, thus reducing infrastructure investment, as well as transmission load losses. KLCC Plant is one example4, and residential rooftop PV solar panel is another. Diversified generation type is also crucial to ensure the generation ecosystem works in harmony. To have a 100% solar power generation is not possible, even though we have plenty of sun, generation still need to meet the dynamic of power demand, as well as on cloudy days! Each generation type has its role to play on the grid.
Let’s have a look at a few major power-generation technologies. Solar generation relies on sun, with output affected by the time of the day, operating temperature and the clouds. Wind generation is notoriously unpredictable with a fairly narrow minimum and maximum wind speed requirement. Both solar and wind are unsuitable for reliable generation. Which brings storage technology such as battery into the picture. Batteries are extremely expensive but has extremely good characteristic in frequency control to ensure grid security. Hydropower are reliant on water source, whereas pump-hydro configuration is a great way to store energy, but it has a limited time before depleting its reservoir requiring to tap into the grid to top up. Coal-fired systems are very reliable, cheap, but dirty and really slow in demand response. Their usual large single-unit configuration also causes grid instability during drop-out events. By default, they also do not have black-start capability, with start-up taking as long as weeks to achieve full generating capacity. Gas/oil generation are much more responsive, with full-load achievable within an hour in some case, as well as black-start capability. (black-start is a capability to start a generator/ generating site with a full blackout grid)
We cannot deny climate change. It’s a reality and we only have one earth. It is unfair as well as irresponsible for us to destroy our beloved Earth in our lifetime and leave the consequences to the later generations. I hope this article can stimulate further discussions in your surrounding circle to pursue a more balanced energy portfolio for our future, for our beloved country Malaysia, for the world, and for mankind.
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4. KLCC Plant