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

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.

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.

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