S’pore tries to green up its act

David Fogarty

White-gloved hands carefully pack azure-blue solar cells at a vast new plant that Singapore persuaded Renewable Energy Corp. of Norway to build in the city-state.

The plant, worth 2.6 billion Singapore dollars, or $1.85 billion, is the largest of its type in the world, making solar wafers, cells and panels that harness the sun’s energy.

Luring R.E.C. was a major coup and a key element of Singapore’s drive to become a global hub for clean-technology investment, development and education, plus a center for the carbon market.

The clean-technology sector is also part of the government’s efforts to try to gradually shift one of Asia’s most energy-intensive economies onto a greener footing. It also wants to tap a boom in green energy and services in the region.

“We believe that Asia is going to be a huge market for clean-tech products and solutions, and we want to make sure Singapore is plugged into this entire marketplace,” said Goh Chee Kiong, director of clean technology at the government’s Economic Development Board.

The country faces strong competition from Japan and South Korea as well as from China, now the world’s top solar panel maker and the leading market for wind power. India has also sharply increased support for renewable energy and green buildings.

“The rate of urbanization is fastest in Asia. Therefore, it creates a lot of additional burdens on cities, and the need for green solutions is simply accelerating as a result,” Mr. Goh said.

The government wants the clean-technology sector to become a major pillar of the city-state’s booming economy, which is already a regional center for financial services, petrochemicals, semiconductors, education, shipping and aviation. It has rolled out a series of investments, tax sweeteners and other incentives since 2007 to achieve its goal.

This is a well-rehearsed formula that has helped the economy of five million people become one of the richest in the world on a per-capita basis, and one of the most nimble as it competes with rivals like Hong Kong and Shanghai.

The city’s clean-technology sector employs nearly 10,000 people, and the aim is to reach 18,000 people by 2015.

R.E.C.’s plant, which officially opens later this year, already employs 1,200 people and sits on a one-square-kilometer, or 0.4-square-mile, plot of recently reclaimed land in the city’s Tuas industrial area.

“One of our criteria among many reasons for selecting Singapore was the fact there was land available,” said John Andersen Jr., R.E.C.’s executive vice president and group chief operating officer. The size of the Tuas site is all the more remarkable given that Singapore has only 710 square kilometers of land.

R.E.C. received more than 140 proposals from around the world for a next-generation solar production plant. In the end, the availability of skilled labor, tax incentives, government support and Singapore’s investment environment clinched the deal, Mr. Andersen said from Norway.

“One of the things we like about Singapore is that it is well regulated, there is transparency and they have a strong focus on clean technology. You don’t get surprises,” he added.

Government support for research and development was also key. Singapore has set aside $700 million for research and development in the sector. It has announced 200 scholarships for doctoral degrees in clean technology and rolled out clean-technology courses for students to ensure a flow of skilled workers.

The government also has created a solar energy research institute and has announced a 50-hectare, or 125-acre, clean-technology park aimed at creating, testing and commercializing products like energy-efficient buildings, waste treatment and electric vehicles.

Other firms drawn to the country include Vestas, the world’s top wind turbine maker, which has committed to spend $500 million over 10 years to develop a major research center.

Sweeteners, like low trading and taxes, have drawn 30 carbon firms to the city-state. The clean-energy project developer Tricorona of Sweden has set up its global administrative headquarters in Singapore. The German utility E.ON recently moved its clean energy project development team, which works on the creation of tradable carbon emissions offsets, from Malaysia. And Gazprom of Russia chose Singapore as its Asia base for liquefied natural gas and carbon businesses.

“It’s more the quality of life, the efficiency,” said Edgare Kerkwijk, managing director of Asia Green Capital, a renewable energy investment firm based in Singapore. “Singapore has all the support sectors that we need — banks, legal and accounting firms. This is really a hub for Southeast Asia.”

For all its business acumen, the government has been accused of not putting in the same effort to cut the nation’s growing greenhouse gas emissions, which at roughly 12 tons per capita are higher than some European countries’. Singapore is not obliged under U.N. treaties to commit to binding emissions cuts but has pledged, at a minimum, to cut emissions by 11 percent from projected levels by 2020, compared with 2005’s output.

Green groups, like WWF-World Wide Fund for Nature, think the government should be more ambitious by pledging absolute cuts in its carbon emissions, said Amy Ho, managing director of WWF Singapore.

The government, though, says it is doing much more and wants to make the city a testing ground for new technologies. It has already announced programs for electric vehicles, smart and microgrids, as well as installing solar panels on top of public housing projects and parking garages.

“The next phase is making Singapore a living laboratory,” said Mr. Goh. “The idea is for Singapore to be the site of first adoption, the site of demonstration, the site of test-bedding. This is a key selling point.”