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South East Asia draws inspiration from Chile on ocean energy

The regional academic network SEAcORE has laid the foundations for ocean energy in South East Asia. All eyes are now on development financing institutions to see whether the region follows the precedent set by the Inter-American Development Bank in Chile. 

With its archipelago geography and rapidly growing energy demand, South East Asia is an obvious place to harness the power of the ocean.

Ocean energy offers many benefits: clean power that reduces reliance on fossil fuel imports, and which complements the generation profile of other renewables.

Although its marine resource is not fully understood, preliminary studies indicate that South East Asia has strong potential. The lee areas of Indonesia, with its long period waves, appear perfect for deploying wave energy converters. Meanwhile, the Philippines, with its strong tidal currents and high retail prices, looks promising for the deployment of tidal stream technology.

Yet progress has lagged far behind leading markets such as the UK, France, Canada, and the US. The region lacks strong Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to design and manufacture devices, and no known ocean energy projects are being developed.

SEAcORE lays the foundations
A network of academics is determined to change this. In 2013 the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University (ERI@N) spearheaded a regional collaboration among academics. They signed an agreement to work together to advance ocean energy—giving birth to the South East Asian collaboration for Ocean Renewable Energy (SEAcORE).

By promoting intra-regional collaboration through workshops, SEAcORE fulfills a similar role to the European Union’s new Ocean Energy Forum, bringing together specialists across Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. It is now starting to gain momentum, with key decisions tabled for its Symposium in October 2014, and joint research projects already ongoing.

The creation of SEAcORE was a smart move for two reasons. Firstly, it enables academics to work together on common challenges which have not been encountered in more advanced ocean energy markets—such as deployment in tropical conditions, where cyclones pose a threat.

Secondly, SEAcORE raises awareness of ocean energy’s potential in the region in both the public and private sector. Although some of its member countries are small, such as Singapore and Brunei, SEAcORE aggregates them to create a bigger market to attract investor interest.

Inspiration from Chile
Recent events in Chile hint at how ocean energy in South East Asia might evolve. In a significant early move the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), in partnership with the Chilean government, has announced grant support for two ocean renewables pilot projects.

Bear in mind that the IADB has a specific remit to “eliminate poverty and inequality, and promote sustainable economic growth.” By making this commitment in Chile, the IADB indicated that ocean energy is no longer just the domain of research labs and test tanks: it has the long-term potential to make a positive social impact.

Bringing in partners
The same could be true in South East Asia. The key to unlocking this potential lies in SEAcORE using its strong university network as a platform from which to attract a broader group of stakeholders. Coordinated action is needed to knock down the range of barriers facing ocean energy: technology, economics, permitting, and the grid.

All eyes are on development financing institutions to see if they will play a catalysing role similar to the IADB. As with Chile, the first step would be to gain a thorough understanding of the resource, the foundation of any ocean energy roadmap. Government support will also be critical—an area where the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has expertise.

But the ultimate goal is to engage the private sector, which—with a few exceptions such as Atlantis, and Hann-Ocean—has had limited presence in the region to date. This remains tricky when South East Asia has to compete with generous feed-in tariffs available in the UK and Canada. The region will need to clearly articulate its benefits—such as the opportunity to test devices in tropical conditions, and its suitability for Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) technology.

Patience and foresight
Compared with solar, deployment will be slow. Even in the UK, the world’s leading market, the first small tidal stream arrays will only be operational from 2017 onwards. Wave energy and OTEC technologies are even more early-stage. Current levelised costs are at least double those of offshore wind, and the risk profile higher.

Patience will be needed, but cost and risk will come down with global deployment. Assuming continued political support, we can expect ocean energy to become ready for commercial scale deployment in the 2020s, making a meaningful contribution to renewable energy portfolios worldwide.

Ocean energy is a long-term investment—just as climate change and energy security are long-term challenges. Achieving deployment in South East Asia will require collaboration from a broad range of actors with the foresight to recognise its potential. SEAcORE is the first step to making this happen.

1 Comments Add your comment

Thank you Ms. Jones for a nicely written advocacy for ocean renewable initiatives in South East Asia (SEA).

In my view, though we would like to equate the Chile experience with SEA efforts in ocean renewable energy, the two areas are actually far apart in terms of development potential.

The wave and current energy resources in Chile, situated in the Southern latitudes, are much bigger and promise larger investment potential when compared to those in SEA.

In SEA, with more benign sea conditions, we may look towards solutions for isolated communities and islands, not for large scale grid-feeding projects. As such, private investment might not be fruitful unless supported strongly by government or CSR community development funds.

I am not pouring cold water over some enthusiastic project proposals. It is just a reminder for us to be realistic in our assessment of the potential.

Prof Dr Omar bin Yaakob,
Marine Technology Centre
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia
81310 UTM Skudai

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