S'pore's energy regulator makes sure country never powers down

S'pore's energy regulator makes sure country never powers down
Energy Market Authority assistant chief executive for industry regulation Kwok Foo Seng had to make sure the lights in Singapore were on - all the time. Singapore has the 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 possible, he said.

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.

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.

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