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Electrical energy for HDB may come from floating solar panels in future

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The floating solar system at Tengeh reservoir. The Housing Board is setting its sights on harvesting more energy from the sun on coastal marine conditions to ramp up solar energy use in Singapore.PHOTO: HDB

In land-scarce Singapore, the quest to harvest more energy from the sun will soon go one step further.

The Housing Board - one of the agencies leading the nation's efforts to ramp up solar energy use - is setting its sights on a novel area of research: the sea.

Yesterday, HDB announced that it will be signing a research collaboration with a landscaping firm.

The tie-up aims to study the development of a floating solar system for coastal marine conditions.

It will look at how HDB's floating system can withstand harsher environmental conditions in the sea, such as stronger winds and wave action.

HDB chief executive Cheong Koon Hean said that over the past decade, the agency has been spearheading solar initiatives and accelerating solar adoption in Singapore.

For example, solar panels have been installed or are being fitted in more than 2,400 HDB blocks across Singapore. By 2020, about 5,500 HDB blocks will be fitted with or identified for solar installation.

Currently, more than 95 per cent of Singapore's grid energy comes from the burning of natural gas.

Though natural gas is considered the cleanest form of fossil fuel, its combustion still contributes to the production of greenhouse gases.

Renewable energy from the sun would reduce Singapore's reliance on fossil fuels. But given Singapore's small land area, there is a limit to how much solar energy can be harvested from solar panels on land.

"One way to further harvest Singapore's solar energy is to look beyond... to the sea," Dr Cheong said.

HDB's floating modular system was first tested in 2011 in a man-made waterway in Punggol to hold wetland plants.

It was subsequently deployed to hold solar panels at a test-bed in Tengeh Reservoir in Tuas in May this year.

The latest research agreement - which HDB will sign with ISO Landscape this week at the World Cities Summit, a sustainability conference - will look at how the HDB-designed floating modular system can hold solar panels in open-sea conditions.

Said Dr Cheong: "HDB will further collaborate with industry partners to explore how best we can expand the use of our system in open-sea conditions for solar deployment."

In theory, Singapore has a few areas where offshore floating solar systems would be possible, said Dr Thomas Reindl, deputy chief executive of the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore.

But the locations should balance the need to be close enough to the mainland - to avoid the use of lengthy submarine cable connections - with the need for marine space for other activities, he told The Straits Times, although he said it was too early to pinpoint specific locations.

Dr Reindl added that other than wave action, greater currents and the corrosiveness of salt water, another important factor to consider during the study would be biofouling - the growth of marine organisms such as barnacles - on floats.

While HDB's announcement represented Singapore's first official foray into testing solar panels at sea, there are other ongoing research projects studying the use of solar panels in inland water bodies such as reservoirs.

The Tengeh Reservoir test-bed, for example, is being used to study the performance and cost-effectiveness of 10 different solar photovoltaic systems, including the one using HDB's engineering system.

Separately, national water agency PUB is doing studies on how solar panels can be added to four reservoirs here to power its energy-intensive water treatment processes.

Written by Audrey Tan for The Straits Times