Engineering drives next-generation solar power in Southeast Asia—Black & Veatch interview


pv magazine: Please describe the state of renewable energy developments in Southeast Asia.

Mitesh Patel: The investment appetite for renewable energy developments in Southeast Asia is growing. Governments and private investors anticipate a new phase of solar power development, driven by a convergence of low-interest rates and available liquidity as the region emerges from Covid-19, alongside decreasing costs of technology and new opportunities to leap forward through advanced engineering.

At the same time, regional power leaders are reviewing their energy transition strategies because of the ongoing global pandemic. For example, the Philippines government has eased foreign investment restrictions for renewable energy developments to allow 100% foreign ownership. Increased investments are anticipated to promote growth in the renewable energy market.

pv magazine: What are the key trends facing the renewable energy market in Southeast Asia?

Steady declines in solar panel costs, together with favorable government policy, have driven investments to date. 

Competition in the Southeast Asian electricity sector is fierce. As the cost of electricity produced from solar heads to parity with conventional generation, the next wave of facilities will see new technologies like battery energy storage systems (BESS) deployed together with solar, promising increased efficiencies and reductions in lost revenues.

Battery storage is approximately 25% cheaper than it was ten years ago and projected to be less than half of today’s price by 2030.

This new wave of solar technologies provides developers with an edge that drives down the cost further. Compared to the United States where BESS has been proven alongside solar farms, the energy storage market is very nascent in Southeast Asia. It has enormous potential to gain cost advantages alongside other advanced technology and engineering solutions that are now possible. There is a big upside for developers to realize with a little extra planning.

To compete against the cost of conventional generation in the region, improving the economics through an increase of the firm power dispatch will be the focus of the next round of renewable energy developments.

As variable renewable electricity generation increases in the generation mix, hybrid systems that combine generation with storage are the next wave in power generation. Hybrid systems that integrate BESS solutions and other technological advances such as bifacial solar work together to create even more efficient and optimal facilities.

In simple terms, storage allows a solar facility to produce electricity at night. Combining it with bifacial panels means better output with the same sunshine, minimizing revenue impacts from both clipping and curtailment. This also reduces stability concerns that are associated with intermittent renewable energy generation.

Besides, larger 580-watt and 800-watt modules coming to the market now increase efficiency potentials further. The larger modules can reduce the cost and project schedule.

In the longer term, there are exciting possibilities around other hybrid systems like solar and green hydrogen, improving the efficiencies and capacities of solar generation.

Solar will continue to face price competition from other generation sources in the region. An International Energy Association report, updated in May 2020, projects growth in solar and wind generation rebound in 2021 despite year-on-year declines this year and views renewables as more resilient to the Covid-19 crisis. 

However, coal and gas have weakened on world markets. They are likely to maintain competitiveness in the near term, especially in Southeast Asia, where conventional generation remains very much in the mix. 

To overcome these competitive challenges, solar development needs to explore and take advantage of the emerging technology breakthroughs to improve operating efficiencies and alleviate concerns around grid stability and management associated with intermittent generating sources. 

pv magazine: What is energy storage’s role in a grid?

Energy storage balances the variability of renewable energy to achieve grid stability. 

Grid stability is achieved when all the generators across the grid operate in harmony. Generators need to perform at the same frequency to keep generation in balance with the loads. While progressing energy transition goals, variable renewable energy resources and new loads from electric vehicles create system imbalance.

One of the challenges of solar power generation is that the electricity produced varies over the course of any day; cloud cover being one intuitive factor at play. Clipping can occur when too much solar energy arrives at the panel and surpasses the inverter loading ratio. 

Besides, often when renewable energy conditions are optimal at the owner’s facility, they are also optimal elsewhere at competing renewable energy facilities connected to the grid. When production is too high across multiple renewable energy sources on the grid, the risk of transmission congestion means grid operators mandate a curtailment of production. This leads to a loss of energy (and revenue) at solar and other facilities.

BESS captures these energy losses and sells them back to the grid later when the energy is valuable to the grid. Selling the energy when the value of electricity is at a premium could generate even greater revenue for the producer.

pv magazine: How do advanced solar energy technologies improve generation output?

Underlining the opportunity for higher quality and better engineered solar farms are the advancements in bifacial solar panels. Combining and optimizing bifacial solar panels with BESS can yield even higher efficiencies than either solution alone.

Bifacial panels are becoming more popular and affordable also. According to the 2020 International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaic, about 20% of global solar PV energy production is from bifacial panels, and bifacial is set to be the dominant configuration globally within four to five years and as high as 70% by 2030. Bifacial configurations give solar facilities a ‘backside boost’ as the rear modules capture diffused and scattered light from the other surfaces.

Module bifaciality is one of several performance influences that can be engineered to optimize the solar facility. Bifacial gain factors include configuring the solar facility by adjusting the surface albedo as well as the row pitch (spacing between modules), the height of the modules, and backside shading.

pv magazine: What are the strategies to improve the bankability of RE projects?

Variable renewable energy generation compounds the complexity of variable load. Optimizing a plant’s performance through engineering is one strategy to improve the bankability of RE projects. 

Design and engineering become critical in driving greater performance as well as the eventual valuation of the facility. Technologies like bifacial module configuration, energy storage systems, and the manufacturing of ever more efficient and affordable next-generation panels can be optimized to improve commercial prospects. 

These advantages work better together too, and will drive even greater adoption of solar energy, better realizing Southeast Asia’s sunshine potential and creating renewable energy that is as firm and dispatchable as conventional generation.

Another strategy to improve RE projects’ bankability and mitigate project complexities is collaborating with industry leaders who have proven expertise in planning, design, construction, and operation of power infrastructure. With global design and engineering best practices calibrated for Asia’s requirements, Black & Veatch is well-positioned to meet regional power needs.


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