Singapore - In a small Philippine village about 600 km south-west of Manila and out in the country's western island province of Palawan, the price of a piece of forested land in a Unesco World Heritage site began rising, seemingly inexplicably, a year ago.
Residents there started clearing the land and building homes on it.
The reason? News had spread that a Singapore company was going to build a solar plant there.
Atem R Ramsundersingh, the chief executive and co-founder of WEnergy Global, recalled: "The place was developing even before we went in."
The company is planning to build a US$10 million hybrid micro-grid in the protected nature area. The facility will have a capacity of 1.4 megawatt-peak (MWp) solar power, a 1 MW diesel generator and the largest clean battery in Asia at 1.7 MWh.
Building the plant, which is awaiting the formality of final approval from the local energy authorities, has given the four-year-old company a steep learning curve because of the size and complexity of the undertaking, but already, the firm has secured projects worth US$307 million and accounting for 161 MW.
After it obtains approval from the country's energy regulator, WEnergy will have the exclusive right to generate, distribute and sell power in the area for 20 years for a regulated tariff. The company estimates its profitability will be 15 per cent.
The project and the firm's experience are now being replicated across energy-hungry Asia, as a growing number of Singapore companies fan out to remote parts of the region to set up renewable-energy systems.
With global attention trained on climate change in recent years, countries all over the world have implemented national-level targets to reduce their reliance on conventional fuel sources.
Singapore companies are on top of this trend. Kow Juan Tiang, the group director of environment and infrastructure solutions at International Enterprise (IE), noted that more than 50 homegrown firms have developed expertise in renewable energy and are actively pursuing projects overseas.
"Their interest in renewable energy has increased, especially in the last two years," he said, adding that even companies in adjacent sectors have moved into the renewable energy fray.
A growing number of companies listed on the Singapore Exchange have in recent years embarked on projects ranging from solar-power installations in India to hydropower plants in Indonesia. Examples are Charisma Energy, SHS Holdings and ISDN Holdings.
The nascent clean-energy sector in Singapore follows years of government-led investment in research and development (R&D) efforts in renewable energy.
The Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS) was the first of a string of research bodies. It was set up in 2008, with the aim of cementing the Republic's position as a solar energy hub in the Asia-Pacific.
The Energy Research Institute at the Nanyang Technological University (ERI@N) came along in 2010 to study wind and marine renewable energy, fuel cells, energy storage, green and smart buildings and electro-mobility; a year later, the Experimental Power Grid Centre (EPGC) by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) opened with a one-megawatt experimental power grid.
The three institutions aim to go further than the basic research by the local universities; they will partner companies and create commercially viable solutions. In all, some S$2 billion has been pumped into R&D to grow the clean-technology (cleantech) sector - which includes environment and water solutions - since 2006, said the Economic Development Board (EDB). Another S$900 million has been set aside for R&D in urban solutions and sustainability in the recently unveiled Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 plan, which maps out the track for Singapore R&D in the next five years.
The development of the clean-energy sector is, first and foremost, to serve Singapore's needs in enhancing energy security and lowering carbon emissions.
Singapore has identified solar power as the only technically feasible, renewable energy source for domestic consumption.
Over the years, however, the ambit of the sector has broadened, as the country has set its sights on exporting clean-energy expertise to the region.
Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S Iswaran last year identified the clean-energy sector as one with "great potential" for Singapore because of the demand for it in Asia - not just in terms of the technology but also in financing models and business structures that Singapore can develop.
EDB has courted international solar and wind companies such as China's Upsolar and Denmark's Vestas to set up regional hubs and drive business growth in the region.
The cleantech sector had been expected to contribute S$3.4 billion to Singapore's gross domestic product and create up to 18,000 jobs by last year; the EDB is now ascertaining whether this target has been achieved.
All these make for an ecosystem growing in appeal to those looking for investors and businesses to provide renewable energy in the region - and there is plenty of demand for it. By 2020, annual new investments in clean energy will more than double to US$8 billion, up from US$3 billion last year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimated.
Tham Chee Aun, the chief executive at Malaysia's Ditrolic Solar, which has set up a Singapore office for regional expansion, said: "A lot of leads are generated in Singapore because of its strategic positioning." Ditrolic Solar is partnering SHS Holdings in the Singapore company's push into solar energy.
For WEnergy, the expertise built up in Singapore turned out to be instrumental for its Philippine project. The engineering work in incorporating hybrid sources of power had not been done on such a scale in Asia before, said Mr Ramsundersingh.
WEnergy's search for international experts led it back to its own backyard - A*Star' EPGC, which not only had the right equipment and know-how, but was also willing to negotiate contract and payment terms to suit WEnergy's budget.
EGPC's team, led by its programme director Ashwin Khambadkone, created a power-management system that turns off the diesel generators automatically when the solar power plant produces power.
Such a system would have cost much more if bought off the shelf, said Mr Ramsundersingh. "This project wouldn't have been possible from a price-and-profit perspective if I had bought the parts from big companies. It would have been like buying a Rolls Royce when all I needed was a bicycle."
On the uncharted ground it had to navigate, WEnergy said it found the general understanding of the sector poor, so it had to educate both the government authorities and the banks on hybrid power projects.
Mr Ramsundersingh said: "Our system is now becoming a benchmark for this type of hybrid projects in the Philippines."
In his view, there is room for Singapore banks to grow in its knowledge of the sector. "The banking sector in Singapore isn't yet mature when it comes to renewable energy," he said. The firm obtained financing from Philippine banks, which he described as being more open, despite the steep learning curve.
"It's a big problem in Asia, where people with capital don't see how you can make money (with renewable energy). You've got to lecture a lot, and really take time to explain things to investment companies and investors."
This article was first published on March 2, 2016.
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