Tidal energy could become a renewable energy resource for Singapore, and potentially the region, if a first-ever tidal turbine experiment at the Sentosa Boardwalk proves scalable.
In collaboration with Sentosa Development Corp, engineers from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have designed, built and installed the Republic's first tidal turbine system, which over the next year will show how low-flow tidal energy can be harnessed efficiently and made cheaper and more reliable.
Unlike wind and solar energy, which are highly susceptible to weather changes, tidal cycles are predictable, making tidal energy a more reliable resource.
The tidal project was funded by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Sentosa Development and NTU for an undisclosed amount.
Asked how commercially viable it is, NTU Energy Research Institute's Subodh Mhaisalkar told BT he believes tidal energy will achieve parity with solar energy over the next five to 10 years, if it gets the necessary business support.
He said: "From a renewable energy perspective, the most viable technology today is solar because of falling solar energy prices and manufacturing costs in China. Large-scale wind turbines have reached parity with solar or other forms of energy generation in North America. We believe at this point that tidal energy isn't comparable with solar, but in the next 5-10 years, it will be. In deploying any renewable technology, it's not purely the technology, you also need the industries to come in and develop business models for it."
The next step, if the technology proves scalable, he said, is to find commercial partners who will install the turbines and generate electricity to Sentosa, or to consumers in Singapore.
Asked if tidal energy could become a sustainable resource, Prof Mhaisalkar said that while it may not be able to meet 10-20 per cent of Singapore's energy needs, it is possible to generate a reasonable amount of energy from tidal and wind turbines.
"We are in a unique location to test such technologies in tropical waters, and 'Made in Singapore' renewable energy solutions can be exported to the region, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, where there is more tidal flow, or Malaysia or Thailand. That's where we hope the larger-scale deployments will happen," he noted.
Deploying the turbine system was an even bigger challenge than designing it, Prof Mhaisalkar recalled.
"The ocean is a very intense environment. So we needed to make sure the technology is robust to withstand the forces of nature," he said. "What was challenging was putting the turbine in a tropical environment in Sentosa, where seaweed, fish and other vegetation caused challenges; the currents and the monsoons caused challenges. So we struggled for more than a year to find an ideal way to deploy the turbines."
Investment in such emerging technologies reflected Singapore's commitment to explore renewable energy options, much like how it has developed its expertise in water technologies, said Prof Mhaisalkar. "Apart from proving that tidal energy is feasible in Singapore, the test bed will allow us to improve our designs for future turbine systems, leading to new avenues of renewable energy."
As part of its CSR initiative, Sentosa Development chief executive Mike Barclay said Sentosa has been opened up as a test-bed for new green initiatives and technologies, particularly those that can be scaled up for wider adoption across Singapore. "We already have wind and solar energy but we've never tapped tidal energy. I think this one has legs."
Discussions are going on with Sentosa Development about the possibility of deploying larger turbines near the Southern Islands and Pulau Semakau. "We've done a detailed resource assessment of the area between Sentosa and the Southern Islands, where tidal flows are pretty strong," Prof Mhaisalkar said.
Other green experiments in the pipeline include wind turbine and solar power, as well as sustainable transport or driverless vehicles.