Solar energy firm Sunseap leads Singapore closer to its 2040 clean energy goal with a focus on photovoltaic farms, data centers, and creative solutions to geographic challenges

  • Singapore last year announced a seven-fold increase of its solar capacity.
  • Solar energy firm Sunseap, led by Frank Phua, is working on a number of innovative projects, including the world's largest floating coastal photovoltaic (PV) farm.
  • Singapore's energy-guzzling data centers are a target for green energy providers such as Sunseap.
  • A lack of global standards around solar technology is a major obstacle for the sector, but Singapore could emerge as a global leader in this respect.
  • Because of his work, Business Insider named Sunseap CEO and cofounder Frank Phua to our annual list of the 10 leaders transforming energy in Asia.
  • Visit Business Insider's Transforming Business homepage for more stories.

Late last year, Singapore signaled its commitment to renewable energy by announcing plans to increase its solar capacity by more than seven times by 2030. The Singaporean government said it will maximize the deployment of solar panels across the island state to increase the current 260 megawatt-peak (MWp) of installed solar capacity to 2 gigawatt-peak (GWp).

While the new target capacity will still eventually meet just 4% of Singapore's total electricity demands, based on current power needs nonetheless it highlights Singapore's growing reputation as a regional leader in the solar power sector. 

This is good news not just for the environment, but also for solar panel manufacturers and installers such as Sunseap, Singapore's largest clean energy solutions provider. 

"What was announced in Singapore is very encouraging," Sunseap cofounder and CEO Frank Phua said. "It's a great acceleration for the solar industry in Singapore. I believe this is just a start. Singapore has plans for carbon neutrality and we are going to need a lot more solar to achieve this."

Sunseap

Innovation driving the solar industry

Singapore's solar push will be driven not just by political will, but also technological innovation. As one of the smallest countries in the region, Singapore's solar model will need to be unique to the island's geographic constraints. While countries with greater land mass such as Vietnam are able to invest in giant solar farms, Singapore will rely on more innovative solutions. 

"One thing about Singapore is that obviously it has limited land," Phua said. "But what we do have is plenty of buildings, which means plenty of rooftops. It also means we have to have more innovative concepts to overcome this land restriction."

Phua points to the use of mobile solar farms that are able to utilize undeveloped land that is only available for a limited time period. "We have an installation methodology that is like Lego bricks — very easy to assemble and reassemble. This is right down to substation level where the substation is literally on wheels inside a trailer, so if there is eventually a need to develop the parcel of land ,we are able to shift the entire system to a better location."

Singapore is also in the early days of developing its coastal waters for solar installation. While freshwater solar farms are more commonplace, building solar capacity in sea water is a much tougher proposition, thanks to the impact of waves, as well as the corrosive effect of saltwater. But with land at a premium in Singapore, it makes sense to turn to the surrounding waters.

"We are currently completing installation of a 5MW floating coastal photovoltaic (PV) farm in the northern coastal waters in between Singapore and Malaysia," Phua said. "This is the largest in the world. In terms of coastal water, this small pilot will act as a proof of concept, and we will begin to see PV islands around Singapore."

Phua believes Singapore is leading the region in solar development, pointing to the continuing exploration of other innovative solar installation platforms, such as solar walkways and street-level solar fences. "No other country in the world is really making this kind of effort to tap out the solar availability. If you think about it, solar is our only natural resource, so we are trying to cover every possible area we can find on the island. 

Deploying solar energy across the island state

One of the main targets of Singapore's solar push will be the country's thriving data center sector. Singapore has grown to be the main data center hub for Southeast Asia, and according to a report from global real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, in 2019 it was the world's third-most desirable location for operators to set up data centers, just behind Iceland and Norway. 

But these data centers are also a large strain on Singapore's carbon footprint. In response, last year the Singapore government introduced a moratorium on new data centers that will last until 2021. 

Phua, however, believes solar could be part of a better solution. Sunseap is currently working on a solar energy provision solution with Facebook in Singapore that he says could be a model for the country's data centers. In October, the company said it would provide energy for all Facebook operations in Singapore, including its first custom-built data center in Asia. The project will help Facebook in its aims of becoming 100% reliable on renewable energy in the region.

Another prime area for solar deployment in Singapore is green mobility. The rise in electric vehicle (EV) purchases presents an opportunity for  solar energy providers such as Sunseap. 

"Today, when you have a petrol car on the road and switch to EV, you are roughly talking a 50% carbon reduction," Phua said. "That 50% is good but it means the EV is still carbon generating. How do you reduce that 50% further? Solar is one solution. If your intention in buying a EV is to reduce your carbon footprint, couple that with solar energy  and you have an even stronger motivation to purchase."

In September, Sunseap launched its green mobility business, Charge+, which plans to install 10,000 EV charging points across the island within 10 years. Phua said the company's investment will support Singapore's goal of phasing out internal combustion engine vehicles for 100% clean energy vehicles by 2040. "The rollout plan, the largest to-date for Singapore's EV sector, will help spur the adoption of electric vehicles in the country. Such smart city technology is the way forward if we are to make our city a greener and healthier place."

The need for standards to catch up to technology

Despite his optimism for a greener, solar powered Singapore, Phua is also conscious of the obstacles faced by Sunseap. The most significant is the challenge of implementing technological standards. He sees a lack of global standards as being the biggest barrier to mass deployment of solar technology.

"We are talking about technology that is improving year- on-year,' he said. "Carbon-based fuel is entirely based upon supply and demand. But solar is a technology rather than a commodity, and a lot of times you have a situation where regulation is trying to catch up to the technology. For example, we see with the floating PV, where there are currently no international standards on technology."

That said, there is a clear opportunity for Singapore to lead the way. 

"Singapore has developed a local standard of best practice, which is the start of something that can be shared globally and become best practice adopted by other countries around the world," Phua said. "As a financial hub, Singapore is well positioned to play a leading role in solar projects both from a deployment angle and from a financial angle. I believe by far Singapore will have the densest solar deployment in the world. In that respect, it has a strong leadership role."

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