March 30, 2009 / 8:41 AM / 8 years ago

Solar panels wait for sunny outlook in Singapore

4 Min Read

<p>Solar panels are pictured on the Marina Barrage building, with the Singapore Flyer observation wheel and office and hotel buildings pictured in the background, in Singapore in this March 25, 2009 file photo.Laurence SiMeng Tan</p>

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - For a country that's right on the equator, relying on solar energy in Singapore seems like a bright idea. Try and get off the grid, however, and it quickly loses its shine.

The tropical city-state's per capita greenhouse gas emissions are similar to Europe, and it imports all its fuel, which on paper makes solar power attractive.

"There's a lot of roof top space in almost any housing -- why not have an array of solar water heaters?" said Yatin Premchand of the Singapore Environment Council.

But in reality, solar panels are so pricey it makes little economic sense to get off the grid.

The bulk of Singapore's almost 5 million people also live in high-rise buildings, rather than houses, which makes putting up cells on the roof nearly impossible for individuals.

Solar power garnered increasing attention as oil prices soared last year and as Asian governments are under pressure to help curb climate change.

Singapore is trying to become a hub for the clean energy sector, having attracted Norway's REC to build the world's largest solar manufacturing plant. It hopes the sector will create 7,000 jobs by 2015 and add S$1.7 billion to the economy.

But these solar panels will be exported and the government has provided few local incentives or targets to use solar power, unlike European countries such as Germany.

The cost of solar panels are falling amid the economic gloom, but are still considered pricey at approximately S$50,000 ($32,870) for a solar module that generates 10 kilowatts per hour (kWh), enough power to provide for a family of four.

This means it would take 16 years to break even compared to buying electricity on the grid, said Frank Phua of Singaporean solar manufacturer Sunseap Enterprise. So it's no surprise few commercial buildings use it either.

Manufacturers said the government will have implement a tariff system that allows users to sell solar energy back to the grid for up to four times the buying cost, in order to attract households or private firms to install panels.

"The positive element of using clean energy is the holistic PR and esoterical value, but it doesn't work in terms of cost benefit," said Premchand.

Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB), which looks to increase foreign investment, told Reuters the country would only use solar power when its price hit parity with the cost of buying it from the grid, which it said could happen next decade.

"Singapore is very much focused on the innovation know-how," said Goh Chee Kiong, EDB's clean tech director. "We would like to think we are in a good position to scale up very quickly."

A recent pilot project saw a handful of government housing blocks covered in enough panels to power lifts, lights and water pumps, but at a cost of S$600,000 for seven blocks.

Ngiam, an electrician who only gave his family name, is one of a few Singaporeans who took the technology in his own hands and installed a solar panel outside his apartment.

But he found there was hardly any sun getting through the adjacent tower blocks to his government apartment in the densely populated city-state. He dismantled the solar panel in a week.

"We paid nearly S$1000 and powered only two 20 watt light bulbs," Ngiam told Reuters.

"I did it for my son to play about and for fun, but it did not work well."

Writing by Neil Chatterjee; Editing by Miral Fahmy

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