Wednesday 30 October 2013

Singapore's energy sector: Countering the age outage

Singapore's multi-pronged approach to addressing its energy needs has helped improve potential problems surrounding supply and security of sources. But today, the industry is facing a different sort of problem. In the first of a new five-part series on Singapore's energy sector, Arti Mulchand looks at the pressing need for a pipeline of talent to keep the critical power sector going.
The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2013

WHEN 28-year-old Valerie Choy graduated with honours in chemical engineering from the National University of Singapore in 2008, she admitted that the prospect of a job in the power sector was not even on the radar.

"I wanted a career that was both challenging and meaningful. But the power sector?

"I don't think fresh graduates are very excited by working in a power generation company and being stuck in the day to day," she says.

"It was hard to see the long-term benefits of joining the power sector. They had an image problem."

Ms Choy's reaction was typical of a graduate - one that was highlighted by a 2011 study by the Energy Market Authority (EMA) and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency.

In the end, Ms Choy joined another aspect of the sector - energy consulting - but the power sector in Singapore is at a critical crossroads, dealing with an ageing technical workforce yet not attracting much interest among the young.

And for all the advancements that the sector has made in technology and know-how, it is this people problem that now threatens to cause the next major trip.

So in March last year, a new Power Sector Manpower Task Force was set up.

Led by former Singapore Power Group chief executive Quek Poh Huat, it looked to delve deeper into the issues and propose responses.

What followed was a consultation exercise involving more than 300 respondents, a "landscape" review of both local and international manpower initiatives, and then a wider seeking of input from more than 100 stakeholders, including industry leaders, government agencies and even students.

The study turned up some sobering numbers.

The median age of the power sector's technical workforce is 48 years, compared with the national median of 42.

More than 60 per cent are over 40 years old, and less than 15 per cent are under 30.

And the sector could not seem to hold on to its precious young. The attrition rate of young people in the sector was about 15 per cent, much higher than the 2 per cent to 3 per cent for the entire workforce.

The implications for a nation that relies heavily on the unfailing supply of essential utilities like electricity and water to power its key manufacturing and services industries were serious.

"If we don't have the people, we cannot keep up this performance.

"We know this will be a big challenge for us," says Mr Quek.

In December last year, his task force proposed three key initiatives:
- the establishment of a fresh talent attraction, retention and development framework;
- a sector-wide branding exercise, and
- a more coordinated approach to driving manpower efforts within the industry.

In January, they were accepted by the Government, and the wheels of change are currently in motion.

Going upstream

CULTIVATING new talent means having to go as far upstream as secondary schools.

So to infuse interest in energy-related matters at an earlier age, EMA has begun working with the Education Ministry to review the lower secondary geography curriculum.

The idea will be to incorporate energy-related issues, such as getting students to think about the various constraints to the adoption of renewable energy.

The revised curriculum is expected to be implemented as early as next year.

Meanwhile, the new electrical power engineering degree course jointly run by the Singapore Institute of Technology and Newcastle University kicked off last month with its first batch of 60 students.

A total of 380 applications were received for the course, which is the country's first undergraduate power engineering course and targets polytechnic upgraders.

Looking to convince more graduates to join the sector, EMA introduced the first-ever dedicated energy sector pavilion, "Powering Lives", at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University career fairs earlier this year.

It also held Open House sessions at Singapore's largest power generation plant, Senoko Energy, and organised Energy Connect, a new national competition and seminar that connected youth with energy industry representatives.

Work is now ongoing to develop a sector-wide competency framework and more scholarships for students at various levels.

Clearing the air

BUT will all that be enough, given the "unsexy" image of the power sector?

Industry watchers like Mr Ravi Krishnaswamy, Frost & Sullivan's vice-president of energy and environment systems practice (Asia-Pacific), are cautiously optimistic, but add that the sector needs to clear the air about what it really can offer.

He says: "Some positions within the sector are perceived to be purely manual and on the ground.

"Young professionals may not find them attractive - especially the cream of the crop. The beauty is that with developments in technology, the nature of these positions is changing. Those perceptions have to be fixed."

Mr Sanjeev Gupta, Ernst & Young's Asia-Pacific transactions advisory services leader for oil and gas, agrees.

But given the global competition for talent, he feels the sector must move faster.

"Hiring and development need to take place more quickly and more creatively than they have in the past. Companies with strong talent management in place will be the most competitive," he says.

One suggestion Mr Gupta has is for energy companies to continue to invest heavily in the in-house development of talent through training.

"(This) is a costly and time-consuming process, but is wholly necessary in the absence of graduates with the necessary skills and expertise," he explains.

"The need for companies to invest in their own training programmes is becoming increasingly acute."

In this vein, Singapore Power launched "Edge", a graduate development programme, in July.

Fresh graduates undergo one full year of structured training, followed by at least two job rotations to various parts of the company's operations over the four years that follow.

"We expose them to the various parts of the business, give them overseas postings and try and keep things interesting," Mr Quek explains.

Still, it will be tough going and may take many years to change an image of the sector which is, for the average man in the street, dominated by the heat and dirt of pipes and tanks.

Until then, Singapore's power sector may get the occasional hand from market forces, says Mr Gupta.

"Every profession has ups and downs but we will always need energy.

"And in five or six years when the talent crunch is at its most acute, salaries will evolve and things will right themselves," he adds, before giving, perhaps, the ultimate sales pitch.

"This is a sector without a sunset."


SINGAPORE'S lack of natural resources means it has to strike the right balance in its "energy trilemma", making trade-offs between energy security, economic competitiveness and environmental sustainability. We adopt five strategies to this end:
Diversified energy portfolio
Most recently, the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal, which began its operations in May, became a significant addition to the country's energy infrastructure, since gas can be procured from anywhere.

This reduced dependence on piped natural gas and enhances energy security.

It also opens up opportunities in LNG-related activities like trading and bunkering.

Singapore is also exploring its renewable energy options, with significant investments in solar research and development.

Eventually, this could diversify our energy mix.
Enhanced infrastructure and systems
Investing in critical energy infrastructure before we need it and ensuring current infrastructure is in good shape makes energy markets more efficient, opens up new areas for economic development and strengthens energy security.

Smart grid technologies and related applications to enable consumers to manage electricity use are also being trialed here.
Energy Efficiency
Energy efficiency reduces Singapore's energy and carbon footprint, while allowing businesses and household to enjoy energy and cost savings.

To help overcome barriers to implementation, Singapore has initiatives such as the GreenMark incentive that help companies cut energy costs and become more competitive.
Strengthening the Green Economy
Singapore continues to invest in research and development of the clean energy sector. Companies have also been encouraged to develop and pilot new energy systems and solutions through competitive grant calls and test-beds such as the Pulau Ubin Micro-grid Test Bed.
Pricing energy right
Subsidising energy leads to the inefficient use of a scarce resource.

Allowing the market to set the price of energy ensures the economy is able to adapt to the rising cost of energy in a carbon-constrained world.

Source: Ministry of Trade & Industry; Energy Market Authority

Keeping Singapore's energy source options open

Singapore's energy sources have evolved over the years, and diversification has brought with it opportunities in trade, technology and even talent development. In the second of a five-part series that looks at the various aspects of energy production and distribution, Arti Mulchand speaks to industry players who are all responsible for feeding Singapore's electricity grid that powers up homes, offices, factories and streets.
The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2013

IN JUST over a decade, Singapore has managed a complete about-turn in terms of its dependence on petroleum products as feedstock, which is used to create energy.

In 2005, heavy fuel oil still made up over a fifth of the country's energy mix. Last year, that figure dropped to 12.3 per cent, with natural gas accounting for 84.3 per cent.

Natural gas is considered a cleaner fossil fuel to use for energy since it produces between 30 per cent and 70 per cent less carbon emissions than either oil or coal.

But what has made Singapore's energy future even more secure is the opening in May of the 40ha Singapore liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on Jurong Island, points out Energy Market Authority assistant chief executive Kwok Foo Seng.

It allows Singapore to import natural gas from anywhere in the world, instead of depending on piped natural gas from Malaysia and Indonesia.

"When you talk about the right energy mix, you need to look at both having natural gas and having enough supplies of it. We now have extra sources, and that helps a lot in terms of energy security," said Mr Kwok, drawing reference to the 1973 and 1979 oil crises sparked by the Arab nations, when prices spiked.

Already, expansion is on the cards both for the LNG terminal and LNG sources.

The city-state also aims to become Asia's LNG trading hub.

The continent is now the fastest-growing gas market worldwide and is expected to become the second largest by 2015, says the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Singapore is also looking closely at further diversification of its energy sources, including the potential of renewable resources such as solar energy and biomass.

Speaking at last month's Singapore International Energy Week, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade and Industry S. Iswaran cited the IEA's estimate that renewable energy is currently the fastest growing sector of the global energy mix.

"We have some of the best strategies and initiatives in order to diversify Singapore's energy mix, foster competition in our energy markets and help consumers make more informed choices about their energy use and one key strategy is to diversify our energy sources," Mr Iswaran said.

He makes sure Singapore never powers down
By Arti Mulchand, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2013

HE HAS witnessed three decades of the power sector's ups and downs, but Energy Market Authority (EMA) assistant chief executive for industry regulation, Mr Kwok Foo Seng, will never forget the morning of Feb 5, 1983.

That was the day when a massive failure in the power system pulled the plug on the country's electricity.

The effects of the sudden loss of four generators at Jurong Power Station rippled across the island. Unable to cope with the demand, the other generators at power stations in Senoko - where Mr Kwok was a maintenance and operations engineer - and Pasir Panjang, also broke down.

"There was a massive short circuit and then everything was dark. It was very scary," Mr Kwok, now 58, recalled.

The young and inexperienced engineer, then just 28, had no idea what to do. "The thought did cross my mind to go back and hide," he said with a laugh, before adding that he fortunately had a very experienced supervisor.

What made it worse was that the blackout sparked island-wide traffic jams, so the men who could help restore power were not able to get to the plant quickly.

The only blessing was that it happened at 10.15am, so there was natural light to guide the team restoring the systems.

It took at least three hours to restore power to places like the airport and hospitals, and the last consumer was finally back on the grid after close to nine hours, according to some reports.

At the time, it was the biggest power failure in the country's history, both in magnitude and duration.

Mr Kwok started young, recalling: "I started off playing with batteries. I was most curious to find out about their inner mechanics. Then in secondary school, physics was my pet subject. I put so much into understanding the chapter on electricity."

Not surprisingly, he decided to do his bachelor's degree in electrical and electronic engineering at Birmingham's Aston University, and his master's in electrical engineering at the Imperial College London.

He then returned to Singapore and got a job with the then-Public Utilities Board, under which all power plants came.

Then, there wasn't so much focus on the bottom line. It was more about making sure that the generators operated reliably, he said.

It was only 20 years later that the National Electricity Market in Singapore was created, and talk shifted to producing electricity that was affordable for both consumers and the industry.

When Mr Kwok moved on to a senior engineer position with PUB, he set his mind to acquiring Professional Engineer status awarded by the Professional Engineers Board. He achieved that in under six months.

A big nod in his professional career came early, when, in 1988, he was conferred the prestigious Insignia Award in Technology from the City and Guilds of London Institute, a leading British vocational education organisation.

In 2007, it appointed him an honorary member in recognition of his continued involvement in, and contribution to, furthering its work.

As the power sector evolved, Mr Kwok donned many hats.

In 1991, he went into consulting work for Development Resources, the consulting arm of the former PUB.

He stayed for 16 years, serving as a project manager, consulting for transmission systems, getting hands-on with testing methods and working with the latest equipment that had been developed, always with an eye on rapidly advancing technology.

A highlight for him was 1997, when the extra-high-voltage 400kV circuits, which now transmit power all over the island, were introduced to Singapore. At the time, the existing 230kV transmitting system had almost reached saturation point.

Mr Kwok was the man in charge of getting in place the cables, switch gear and cable tunnels that connected the west (Tuas) to the central region (Ayer Rajah and Labrador), and eventually the central region to the east (Paya Lebar) and to the south-west (Jurong).

"I see it as a milestone in my career," he said. "The system is performing extremely well to this day."

He moved to the energy sector's regulatory authority, the EMA, in 2006 to oversee its power system operation division.

"I had to make sure the lights in Singapore were on - all the time. Singapore has the very difficult reputation of being the most reliable electricity supplier and provider in the world, so anything that goes offline has to be returned as soon as we can," he said. The average length of time a person's electricity is disrupted in Singapore is less than half a minute a year.

He later moved to the regulation division, where he now monitors industry players to ensure they meet performance requirements and comply with regulations.

And when he deals with the industry, during surprise enforcement checks, for instance, it is not without first-hand knowledge of what it really takes to keep the lights on. "I understand the challenges in operations and it allows me to make decisions that are fair," he said.

Ultimately, Mr Kwok just wants to ensure that the power sector contributes to Singapore's energy security, operates in ways that are economic competitive and behaves in ways that are environmentally sustainable.

"If they can satisfy these three things, as regulators we should be happy," he concluded.

LNG experience a legacy to share and treasure
By Arti Mulchand, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2013

HE SAID no, not once, but three times when he was asked to lead Singapore's charge into building an ambitious Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminal on Jurong Island.

That was in 2009, when Mr Neil McGregor was the managing director of the PowerSeraya Group and chairman of PetroSeraya, the oil trading arm of PowerSeraya.

The 58-year-old New Zealander had done start-ups before, and was not keen on another.

"Start-ups take 110 per cent and more. They make a young man old fairly quickly because the timetable and decision-making are compressed. It's hard on people," said Mr McGregor. But the Singapore permanent resident felt he wanted to leave a "legacy" in his second home. That, and the fact that he was posed a very convincing argument.

"I guess it was the importance this held for Singapore, the charisma of former Energy Market Authority (EMA) chief executive officer Lawrence Wong, and the awareness of the agencies that were willing to back me up. The project had a lot of support," he said of his decision to become chief executive officer of the Singapore LNG Corporation (SLNG).

In May this year, the $1.7 billion, 40ha terminal on the southernmost tip of Jurong Island successfully launched commercial operations, starting a new chapter in Singapore's energy history.

It is one that allows the nation to import natural gas from around the world instead of relying on piped natural gas from Malaysia and Indonesia.

The LNG terminal's initial capacity of 3.5 million tonnes a year will increase to six million tonnes by the year's end after a third storage tank and additional facilities start up. There are already plans for a fourth tank.

Plans to develop the LNG terminal on a commercial basis were first announced in 2006. In April 2008, BG Group (BG) was allowed to import and sell up to three million tonnes per annum of LNG in Singapore.

But the initial business model proved untenable.

"The model didn't contemplate changes in the LNG business, including the impact of shale and commoditisation. All it contemplated was domestic supply with a small capability for export," explained the civil engineer, who also holds a degree in finance.

In June 2009, the Government announced its decision to take over the development and ownership of the terminal, and formed SLNG to develop, build, own and operate the terminal. Mr McGregor and his five-man team were tasked with modifying the business plan from something "vanilla" into one more suited to a "growing piece of infrastructure".

"It meant picturing the future 20 years out from a business perspective, and then taking my 40-odd years of experience and working backwards," he explained.

His plans also made for a landmark moment for Singapore: a 100m tract of reclaimed land had to be turned back into seafront to allow large ships enough clearance to access the berth.

"It's probably the first time Singapore has given land back," he quipped.

But there were other challenges. "We needed people with key (LNG-related) experience but that had to come from the outside. It was not easy and didn't come cheap," he revealed.

Many others had to be retrained from parallel industries, including the petrochemical and power generation industries.

"We leveraged firms that were downsizing through the downturn and took our new hires to South Korea to be retrained. They worked on active LNG facilities there before we brought them back to operate the terminal."

Today, SLNG's team numbers about 130, of which 80 per cent are Singaporeans. The international team comes from countries that include Britain, India, Malaysia and New Zealand.

Since then, SLNG together with EMA have been jointly awarded the 2013 CWC LNG Innovation Asia Pacific Award for excellence in commercial or technical innovation, an industry award covering the region.

SLNG also signed its first vessel cool-down services agreement and performed its first vessel cool-down within five months of starting commercial operations, earlier than expected. A newly-built or newly-repaired LNG ship's tanks must be "cooled down" before they can load a new cargo of LNG.

Having the plant up and running smoothly in just four years is an achievement Mr McGregor is proud of.

"But that's also the benefit of having the Government behind you. Things move," he conceded.

People do, too, and at the end of this year, Mr McGregor will hand the baton to Mr John Ng, former CEO of YTL PowerSeraya Group, which generates and retails energy as a wholly-owned subsidiary of YTL Power International. Mr McGregor will remain on the SLNG board as a non-executive director.

He calls his LNG adventure "one of the most memorable journeys of my life".

"I definitely feel a sense of loss but also a sense of achievement having built a start-up into a corporation that will impact the Singapore economy. That's really something," he said.

Waste-to-energy operations picking up steam
By Arti Mulchand, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2013

WHEN people think of waste, they don't often think of waste wood.

Even fewer think of turning waste wood into energy. But that's what fuels Mr Lee Tse Luen every day.

The 36-year-old, who spent close to a decade doing waste management for Sembcorp Environmental Management, now produces steam from waste wood at Sembcorp Industries.

"This has been my most exciting posting so far because of the impact we have on the chemical and petrochemical companies here on Jurong Island," said the assistant vice-president of power and utilities.

"The steam that we produce is economical and competitively priced compared to other energy sources, so we help make these companies more competitive and reduce their carbon footprint. It makes a difference."

The plant he manages, Sembcorp's first renewable energy plant in Singapore, was built in 2011.

Following a $30 million expansion, it recently tripled its output to 60 tonnes of steam per hour, produced from 400 tonnes of wood chip processed from the construction and demolition waste collected by Sembcorp's solid waste management operations each day.

"This allows Sembcorp to provide its customers with energy that is clean and environmentally friendly, as well as secure and cost-competitive.

"It also reduces the amount of waste being tipped into landfills."

Mr Lee oversees the day-to-day running of the plant, which is manned by up to four people at any one point, including him. He checks on production numbers and troubleshoots issues on the ground.

One of the biggest misconceptions among people he speaks to is that the waste-to-energy process is simpler than it is.

"Construction waste is collected, but it doesn't just contain waste wood. It first goes to a plant in Tuas to get sorted. The waste wood then needs to be shredded to less than 100mm to make it suitable for burning," he explained.

Each day, over 50 trucks transport seven to eight tonnes of wood chips each to the Jurong Island plant. The 400 tonnes of waste wood, burned at 700 to 800 deg C, become the steam that is distributed to Sembcorp's Jurong Island customers.

By 2016, Sembcorp will also have a $250 million plant that will convert industrial and commercial waste into 140 tonnes of steam per hour. Together, the two projects will cut carbon dioxide emissions by about 120,000 tonnes annually.

Mr Lee, a Sembcorp scholar, got his degree in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Toronto, and his master's degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He returned to Singapore in 2001 and kicked off his career as assistant to the chief operating officer at Sembcorp Environmental Management.

Back then, he oversaw a waste collection depot and its fleet of 50 trucks. Sembcorp collects over one million tonnes of waste and over 250,000 tonnes of recyclable material each year.

"It was a very humbling experience. You meet all kinds of people when you go around on our trucks, and you realise how people view our workers. Some households really welcome our guys... others tell their kids to pinch their noses because of the smell," he said.

His stint also struck a chord with the elder of his two children, a five-year-old girl, who still thinks he works in waste management.

"Whenever she sees a Sembcorp truck, she says: 'Daddy's truck is here.'"

Some harsh realities also hit.

"It hasn't been easy getting people to recycle. The cost of disposing is so low, so it makes alternatives like recycling less viable.

"That change in mindset takes time. Ten years ago, we thought it would take 10 years. Maybe it will take another 10," he said.

Sembcorp's growing global footprint - it now has a presence in 16 countries that include the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and China - also allowed Mr Lee to spend two years over 2006 and 2007 doing a stint in Nanjing.

At the time, Sembcorp was working with a Chinese company on a waste-to-resource battery recycling project, and Mr Lee was the assistant to the then-joint venture's chief executive officer Jason Chan.

The experience was an eye-opener.

"It was really quite a challenge to get the locals to accept some of the things we wanted, like safety standards. So something that would have taken two to three weeks to get done here, took two to three months there," he said.

Even back home, challenges abound.

"You're not just doing hardcore engineering. I actually spend more time in the day dealing with people... who are a lot less predictable than machines. But that's what makes it interesting," said Mr Lee.

But what keeps him going is the fact that his role keeps changing in the company.

"The thing about Sembcorp is that there is a lot of expansion and development, so it's very exciting for people like us. I haven't held the same position for more than two to three years."

Trade whisper: Gas has no smell
By Arti Mulchand, The Straits Times, 8 Nov 2013

IN THE three short years it took for Wilson Liew to get his diploma in electronic, electrical and computer technology at Singapore Polytechnic, the local semi-conductor industry, where he wanted to work, effectively went from boom to bust.

It was 1998, and the country was still hurting from the Asian financial crisis, which had impacted the wider economy.

After a three-month job hunt, Mr Liew, now 41, finally landed a position as a technical officer in plant operations at newly privatised Power Gas. He had to work shifts, which took some getting used to.

"We were in a recession so I had to simply grab any job that was available. I had no choice," he recalled. "It was very different from what I had learnt in school, but I also believed that since Power Gas was the only company doing gas at the time, the job would be stable."

Mr Liew was also fascinated by the process of transforming naphtha, or flammable liquid mixtures of hydrocarbons, into town gas before it was pumped to homes to fire up everything from cookers to heaters.

"Did you know that gas actually has no smell," he said in an almost whisper. "People can smell it because we add a chemical called tetrahydrothiophene. We make it pungent so people are alerted in case of leaks. Gas would be much more dangerous if it didn't have a smell."

Fifteen years on, Mr Liew has risen through the ranks and is now the operations manager of City Gas' main operational hub, Senoko Gasworks, where gas is now derived from both naphtha and natural gas. He oversees the gas production operations and maintenance teams.

On the way, he has witnessed changes, big and small, in the way gas is produced. Before the 1950s, coal was used to make gas, and in the 1950s, the switch was made to heavy fuel oil. Naphtha was added to the mix in the 1960s, and allowed for heavy fuel oil to eventually be phased out in 1980.

Mr Liew was with City Gas in 2003 when natural gas began to be used as partial feedstock to create town gas.

"It means your job scope changes and that you need to make changes to parameters or process control. It was challenging but I found it really exciting," he explained.

Mr Liew also gets involved in project-based work, such as overhauling storage tanks, or reprogramming older equipment.

Proudly declaring that there have been no major incidents during his watch, he added: "We are the only ones supplying gas to Singapore, so we have to ensure there are no disruptions, and that downtime for equipment is minimised. There are a lot of processes you have to monitor and control, and you have to learn things as you go."

Despite his shift work, he says he still has good work-life balance. His two children - an 11-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, even got a chance to see what Daddy does, through the company's annual Kids At Work programme, held during the school holidays.

"Both the children came to work for a day, so they understand the general concept of how Singapore's gas is produced."

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