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Asian megacities face renewables reality

Population density and grid constraints could limit renewables’ capacity to power Asia-Pacific's rapidly expanding urban metropolises

Asia-Pacific countries have come under international pressure to lower the carbon footprints of their rapidly expanding megacities. But national leaders are concerned that replacing legacy transmission systems in sprawling, high-density population centres with renewable energy infrastructure could threaten those cities’ economic growth.

Global development officials called for an overhaul of climate change planning for Asia’s cities on 15 October. “Cities in Asia-Pacific are at the forefront of global efforts for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Our cities must be better planned, managed and financed to protect the environment,” said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of UN-Habitat, the human settlements agency, at a regional forum in Penang, Malaysia.

Asia-Pacific became a “majority urban” region in 2019, with more than 2.3bn people living in cities and 1.2bn more set to migrate to urban areas by 2050, the agency stated in a report released at the conference. Energy demand in the region is projected to grow by over 40pc by 2040, accounting for two-thirds of global growth.

Many industry chiefs say that given the scale and speed of population growth, natural gas is the most practical solution. “How do you satisfy power demand in the growing number of Asian cities home to over 20mn people?” corporate vice president of Japanese utility Jera, Hendrik Gordenker, asked at the Oil and Money conference on 8 October in London. “It is very difficult to build the required infrastructure for renewables, whereas LNG in tandem with gas-to-power can be implemented relatively quickly and is a lot cleaner that the alternatives.”

Grid locked

It is hard to integrate renewables energy infrastructure into outdated transmission grids, as the latter cannot handle varying levels of supply from renewable sources. Renewables would also struggle to power the emerging middle classes’ rapid take-up of energy-intensive methods for cooling their homes. 

“It is one thing to keep lightbulbs on, but quite another to meet the electricity demand from appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators,” says Jane Nakano, energy fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Variable renewables such as wind and solar have a role to play, but the economics and physics, principally the capacity factor, makes it singularly hard for them to power in particular Southeast Asian megacities.”

“The transmission systems in [Asia-Pacific] are not designed for high renewables penetration” Yun, Wood Mackenzie

The legacy grid systems in this region are not designed for high renewables penetration, according to Wood Mackenzie research analyst Yun Ben Yap. “The result has been curtailment of renewables. For example, the boom in solar photovoltaic (PV) power in Vietnam has been halted due to transmission bottlenecks,” he says. “Most utility-scale renewable power plants are also often located far from high power demand areas.”

Jera’s Gordenker told Petroleum Economist by email that land space is a difficult issue to resolve.

Solar and wind require large areas which are not available around most cities. A smarter solution is to bring natural gas to the centers of urban demand. Natural gas can provide low environmental impact fuel for power generation, heat and transportation. Building a gigawatt-sized, efficient combined cycle power gas power plant can reliably be done in about three years – very challenging for renewable development – and on a small land area,” he said.

He added that the risk of not making these commitments is that the cities will have unreliable power that impedes development, and will rely on high emitting technologies such as coal, and will turn to lower capital cost facilities that use dirtier and more expensive fuels such as diesel cover gaps in power supply.

Lost in space

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 aims to make cities and human settlements “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” by 2030. Many academics who have studied the future of energy resources in cities say that renewables’ penetration is both realisable and necessary—particularly if technology continues to rapidly develop.

“It is perfectly possible that Asian cities can be powered by renewables” Behrens, scientist

“It is perfectly possible that Asian cities can be powered by renewables,” says assistant professor Paul Behrens of Leiden University. His research on solar power has found that power density—the energy that can be extracted from renewable resources for a given area of land—will be boosted by three to five times through the use of new three-dimensional designs. “Power density will be a challenge, but it doesn’t impede using high voltage transmission lines and storage. It just means more planning is needed. While renewable energies take up more space, that space will be less polluted.”

Other renewables proponents say municipal authorities should quickly rule out rooftop solar or micro wind turbines, and instead to large-scale renewable power generation outside the city boundaries. “The consumers in a power dense area, will require the same amount of electricity no matter if it comes from renewables or not”, says Mikael Jakobsson, executive director of the Asia-Pacific Urban Energy Association. “This has to be addressed with energy efficiency in all sectors, reinforcements to the grid, the development of distributed power generation and the integration of storage, thermal and electrical energy systems.”

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