Power company chief executive John Ng says he’s always had green energy on his mind, ever since he started his career as a boiler engineer more than 35 years ago.

“I joined the power industry in 1985 … As a boiler engineer, we are supposed to make sure that the boiler is run at the most efficient manner,” he told CNBC’s “Managing Asia: Sustainable Future.”

Ng explained that while boilers tend to operate efficiently, they can expel heat and dust. “So, we have put in place sustainable dust capturing equipment … That’s how we started the power generation, making sure that whatever generated out into the atmosphere is as clean as possible,” he added.

Now, as CEO of YTL PowerSeraya, a Singaporean electricity producer both for businesses and retail customers, he says sustainability is becoming ever more important.

The company switched from using oil to natural gas to generate electricity in 2003, a transition that required three things to happen. “The stars must be aligned,” Ng said.

“The first one is the availability of (a) modern technology combined cycle plant. So even (if) you have availability of modern technology, you must have availability of fuel as well. And during that time, Malaysia and Indonesia (had) opened up the export of piped natural gas into Singapore,” he explained.

“The third thing that’s important is that in the year 2003, it (was) also the time where there’s a new market framework, where if you want to generate electricity into a market, your cost of generating electricity must be the cheapest,” Ng added.

But while gas-fired power stations still emit carbon, Ng said, the emissions levels are below those of oil or coal-powered plants, and YTL PowerSeraya is now ramping up its solar power capabilities.

Solar plans

In April, the firm appointed Lim Han Kwang as group head of retail, regulation and renewables, tasked with leading the company’s green efforts. Lim is also CEO of its retail supply arm Geneco, which has a solar panel installation service for customers and also offers renewable energy plans.

But solar power is not without its challenges. The photovoltaic panels need a lot of land, and they obviously also need sun, something which can be intermittent in Singapore’s tropical climate. “You look at Singapore today … the cloud is actually covering the sunlight coming into Singapore. So, it actually means that 100% relying on solar in Singapore is something that we cannot totally (do),” Ng said.

One way Singapore may increase its access to solar power is via the proposed Australia-ASEAN Power Link, which aims to transmit energy from solar panels in the country’s Northern Territory to parts of Asia via a 2,800 mile-long cable. It is planned to be operational in 2027.

Ng called the ASEAN project “very, very interesting.” However, “having said that, we have to balance between the ability to supply electricity on our own versus buying wholesale 100% from overseas.”

“The pandemic has made life very, very difficult for us. But the good thing is that we are managing well”
John Ng

A household in Singapore that installs solar panels can expect to recoup their costs in about seven or eight years, Ng said, adding this time period would be somewhat lower for the wholesale side of YTL PowerSeraya’s business.

One source of power that emits “almost zero” carbon is nuclear energy, Ng said, though Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster in 2011 means public perception of nuclear power is poor and policymakers are unwilling to discuss it. “The question is, how do you make nuclear safer? How do you make nuclear more acceptable to the public?”

Skills and expertise around waste management, regulation and safety need more development before the city-state would be ready to build a nuclear power plant, Ng said.

Sunset solution

Training staff and keeping them motivated are two points Ng raises when asked about the hardest lessons of his career. “It has been tough, especially so the last seven years, where the power industry has suffered financial loss in the region, about $2 billion … The employees are feeling that this is a ‘sunset industry,’ and being a sunset industry, the question is how do you continue to upskill?”

Ng has put in place a “cultural change initiative” that has helped the business move forward and helped the firm’s technical performance — the company has registered zero power failures or “trips” for two years.

YTL PowerSeraya’s power generation group saw a drop in market share of 2.5% in 2019-2020, according to its most recent annual report published last June. Oil prices fell dramatically during the pandemic last year, but the firm — like others — suffered as it had “over hedged” in the asset, Ng said. Added to this, overall electricity consumption went down as shelter-in-place orders meant workplaces were closed, a “double whammy” for power firms. “The pandemic has made life very, very difficult for us. But the good thing is that we are managing well,” Ng said.

In the coming years, a greater demand for renewable energy will help the industry work more efficiently, according to Ng. “Consumers (want) more renewable energy, but that’s only one part … The important part for all CEOs is how do we encourage (people) to use less, and be more efficient in terms of our operation.”