Frank Phuan has a great money-saving hack for anyone who drives an electric vehicle and has solar panels installed at home. “Charge your electric car around noon, when the sun is at its strongest and your solar panels are producing the most energy,” says Phuan, co-founder of Sunseap, a solar energy system developer, owner, and operator in Singapore.
“You could also sell the energy back to the grid, but you will end up getting less than you would if you were to use the solar panels to charge your car.”
You can take his word for it. Phuan is one of Singapore’s pioneering disruptors in the clean energy sector. When he came up with the idea to sell solar energy in 2011, he played an integral role in making renewable energy affordable, diversifying from the solar panel manufacturing business his father founded.
Since then, Sunseap has installed its solar energy systems on more than 3,000 buildings in Singapore, including public housing estates, as well as commercial and industrial buildings.
Naturally, his home — a sprawling, two-storey house with a basement and attic — runs mostly on renewable energy, too. Additionally, the house is equipped with other energy-saving features, including a battery that stores excess solar-generated energy to use when it is cloudy or at night, as well as motion sensor lights to conserve electricity.
Including charging his Tesla, his monthly electricity bill is a mere $200, compared to about $700 before the solar panels were installed. With energy costs on a global scale surging, it is no surprise that more and more consumers are switching to renewable energy — both for the environment and to save money.
“In Singapore, if you have a rooftop, and you do not harvest solar energy, it is like having a goldmine in your backyard but not mining it,” says Phuan, who lives with his mother, wife and 7-year-old son.
Disrupting the solar energy market in APAC
Impacting lives one family at a time isn’t enough for him. He aims to “disrupt the disruptors and bring clean energy into the region”. Sunseap currently has a pipeline of close to 10 GWac of solar energy projects in several countries across the Asia-Pacific, including Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia, making it a leading solar player in the region.
During the process, it has achieved several firsts in Singapore, including supplying renewable energy to Apple, installing solar panels at sea and building a battery storage system in a substation.
Then the group announced in February that EDP Renewables (EDPR), a global leader in the renewable energy sector and one of the world’s largest renewable energy producers, had acquired a 91 per cent stake in Sunseap, following a S$1.1 billion deal.
Phuan continues as Sunseap’s chief executive officer, while co-founder Lawrence Wu remains as chief financial officer. The merger, which Phuan likens to a marriage, leverages EDPR’s utility-scale expertise with Sunseap’s regional expertise and strong track record to embark on ambitious renewable energy projects across the Asia-Pacific, with a focus on solar and wind projects.
EDPR has already stated that it plans to invest $10 billion by 2030 to create a clean energy hub for the APAC region out of Singapore. “When it comes to megaprojects, this is a huge confidence boost. Many parts of Asia are already familiar with us, and we will continue to do what we do best, including energy efficiency, energy storage, electric vehicle charging and smart metering,” he says.
This infusion of funds will provide the company with the capital needed to build a green energy network across the region. “You can’t get away from the fact that in our line of work, you need to constantly raise funds because we invest in solar projects. Increasingly, the more successful you are, the more money you will need and the higher the debt you will get into,” he explains.
Phuan loves to use canny bon mots to help others better understand this complex industry, emphasising, “In this job, you are always $10,000 away from being a millionaire and $1 away from being broke.”
In addition to giving shareholders a good exit option, the EDPR stake also provides Sunseap with funds for upcoming large-scale projects. “EDPR is not shy about deploying new technology, which is not something you would expect from a grid operator. It invests in innovation, tests it out, and does pilots, which is exactly what we are doing here in Singapore. Thus, it fits like a glove,” Phuan says
Greening the region with solar energy
His top priority is to expand the Asean green grid, starting with Indonesia. “Throughout Asia, the demand for clean energy will continue to grow over the next few decades, as each nation will have a carbon footprint to address and carbon targets to meet. This will provide opportunities to also explore new ways to bring renewable energy to Singapore,” he says.
This ambitious project was initiated last October when Sunseap, along with a consortium of local and international partners, signed a Memorandum of Understanding to explore and develop solar power systems with a combined capacity of 7 gigawatts peak (GWp) around Indonesia’s Riau Islands.
Among these is the previously announced 2.2GWp floating solar farm on a reservoir in Batam. A proposed new subsea power cable is intended to transport this low-carbon energy to Singapore. “Singapore is not new to importing energy. We have been importing gas molecules like natural gas. Now, we plan to import electrons,” he says.
Currently, Singapore’s energy demand stands at 6.5GW, of which about 3 to 4 per cent is supplied by solar power. As it stands, about half of the country’s solar energy supply comes from Sunseap, says Phuan.
Gan Kim Yong, Minister of Trade and Industry, stated that Singapore aims to import up to 4GW of electricity by 2035 in a speech last October. The consortium plans to meet the required low-carbon electricity imports to Singapore — 1.2GW by 2027 and 2.8GW by 2035.
The cross-border arrangement is necessary for Singapore to make a large-scale transition to renewable energy since the little red dot itself does not have enough land to house enough solar panels to generate energy at such a large scale. “I believe regional power grids will be a game changer,” he observes. “The amount of renewable energy used in Singapore will dramatically change once the cross-border power comes through.”
Doing greater good with green jobs
Other countries in the region will also benefit from the green grid. In addition to gaining access to clean energy, which will help countries achieve their renewable energy targets sooner, these developments also mean billions of dollars of investment will go into neighbouring countries.
“Investing creates green jobs. In the first phase of our project, we will hire and train around 3,000 people in Indonesia, who will go on to work on more clean infrastructure jobs later on,” he says. “This multiplier effect will result in an age of clean energy where resources can be shared within this green grid.”
For example, parallel industries such as data centres may wish to capitalise on the clean energy generated to create even more investment opportunities. Developing the clean energy sector in a way that can positively impact the region is Phuan’s biggest reward for his hustle.
Drawn to the sense of satisfaction in seeing how clean energy in Singapore has grown from kilowatts to today’s gigawatts, he is seizing the opportunity to bring renewable energy to other lesser developed areas of the region.
“There are rural areas that are still very unelectrified and the fastest way to bring energy to these areas is through renewables. With the cross-border project, clean energy could become a capability that can be deployed in many places.”
If the past two years of the pandemic have shown us anything, it is that the world is capable of changing for the better.
“When we are motivated, such as how the whole world worked together to try to curb the pandemic, we can make a difference. The same can be done for climate change and renewable energy — but only if people don’t become lazy or forgetful.”
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