Understanding Energy Sustainability

Ir. Rocky H.T. Wong graduated from the University of Malaya as an engineer in 1965. He was also a National Electricity Board (NEB) scholar and served them for a period of 16 years. In 1980, he resigned to venture into the private sector as a consulting engineer. He is now retired but continues to contribute professionally to society by mentoring the youth in addition to volunteering in numerous CSOs, NGOs and government agencies.

Despite being 78 now, Ir. Rocky continues to have an energetic disposition, likely from keeping active in giving back to the community that deserves considerable admiration.

Elegant instead of Correct Solutions

Ir. Rocky speaks of merging the innovation of infrastructure with the production of power without forfeiting the relationship shared with our natural environment, the basis of sustainability. This makes for solutions that are elegant in nature instead of solutions that are mathematically accurate with precision but depletes our natural resources, which leads to an economic deficiency.

In the context of globalisation or regionalisation, a network body called ASEAN Centre for Energy exists with a slogan, ‘One Community for Sustainable Energy’. Ir. Rocky shares with us that an energy-rich country such as Thailand and an energy-deficient country such as Cambodia can benefit, for example, via the supply of gas through the Trans-ASEAN Gas Pipeline.

When it comes to electricity, Ir. Rocky sheds light onto the ASEAN Power Grid which, when realised, will assist in the transfer of an efficient electrical supply across borders that will further enhance regional economic growth and development; not forgetting “connectivity” promoting regional integration and coherence too. Ir. Rocky says there are challenges to be addressed; such as how to manage an exchange of energy via cross-border transfer methods, as well as the financial aspect of how energy trade occurs.

Trading energy in real and delayed time will be exciting. Ir. Rocky recommends for the youth to invest time into coming up with ways the exchange can take place as efficiently as possible. To further expand on this, Ir. Rocky speaks of how Malaysia recently had a contractual relationship with Laos, in which energy being transferred over national borders; metered in kWhr and other tariff parameters would be billed in real time, which manifests in the form of a physical trade.

Nuclear Energy within our Shores

Ir. Rocky shares that on a fundamental level, environmental issues do arise from carbon being released from the burning of hydrocarbon fuels. He also shares with us that we should keep an open mind towards the option of going nuclear from the viewpoint of the classic “economy of scale” approach. The cost per unit of output would decrease with increasing scale, as a vast amount of energy would be produced. He says the big challenge lies in having the public’s approval of nuclear energy production.

Ir. Rocky states that the nuclear power station should abide by the three S’: Safety, Security and Safeguard. Safety is assured of through the implementation of technical knowledge in terms of technology. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is in alliance with multiple partners to promote the safe, secure, and peaceful use of nuclear technologies on a global scale. Security would be necessary to evade terrorist attacks. The Safeguard aspect resides in the legal framework, wherein the public feels assured that the government has provided credibility in terms of the governance of developing, operation and maintenance of the nuclear power station. Ir. Rocky says with those three essential S’ being implemented, successful prospects of a nuclear power station can be attained.

The Money in the Water

In China, there is a hydroelectric gravity dam known as the Three Gorges Dam. It is said to be, by far, the largest hydroelectric project in the world. There are hydrological inscriptions dated 1,200 years, and so the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognize it as the world’s only well-preserved ancient hydrological station. However, it is worth knowing that many historical relics have been buried into the ground when the dam was filled. There are other issues pertaining to environmental challenges that need constant attention in the operation and maintenance of the largest hydro plant in the world. History will tell if the Three Gorges Hydro Power Station served Mankind, or done great harm.

Ir. Rocky believes that Bakun Dam in Sarawak — deemed by Transparency International as a ‘monument to corruption’ — one of the 3 S’. As Asia’s largest dam (outside of China), Bakun Dam faces environmental issues such as nitrogen loading from not clearing the vegetation in and around the dam, which has led to the soil becoming too acidic. Noxious H2S and methane gases are released which can be smelled from kilometres away. Even G.I. parts of transmission lines are corroding! Imagine what happens when humans and animals breathe in H2S gas day in day out, 24/7 and all-year round!

In Cameron Highlands, due to the nature of water being used to generate power without thermal constraints; power is generated on “spot basis” to take care of peaking demands over the 24-hour spread of a daily grid demand.

In the case of thermal energy, high temperature and high speed are associated with power generation by gas turbines and steam turbines. Ir. Rocky shares that material of good quality must be used to form the turbine blades as once corroded or eroded, the turbine would no longer be safe to be in operation. With a good mix of power generation (by thermal and by hydro) the double camel hump daily load curve of the national grid can be managed to provide optimal and cost-effective power supply.

However, the high capital expenditure (CAPEX) of hydropower stations is mitigated by the low operating expense (OPEX) of the station whereas the development of thermal stations requires lower capital expenditure but of higher operating costs. Ir. Rocky tells us youth to consider looking into economical solutions in making wise investments when it comes to choosing between the two sources of energy – hydro and thermal power stations. On a side note, major hydro plants of the likes of Bakun have their associated environmental and social problems.

It is also worth mentioning that the sources of thermal energy are non-renewable. In contrast, hydropower is a flow resource and a clean form of energy. The installation of hydroelectric power stations requires advanced technical skills and knowledge; however, the level of expertise required in constructing thermal energy is no less demanding; especially in the search of higher thermal efficient plants.

Delineating the Harm in Harmonics

Harmonics, Ir. Rocky explained, are invisible pollutants that cause harm. An example of that would be the emission of large amounts of heat that could lead to a fire when third harmonic current flows through an undersized natural cable of an unbalanced three-phase system. Besides, harmonic currents result in higher power losses and thermal problems. On the other hand, unsuppressed harmonic voltages cause equipment to have insulation breakdown. Direct Current (DC) has no harmonics; unlike Alternating Current (AC) ratified to provide a DC supply. Thomas Edison was the champion of DC. In DC, electrons flow in a single direction — from positive to negative. AC in comparison has electrical charges that change direction periodically. We would need to understand why we have shifted to the usage of AC more than the DC.

The DC is a terminology we also use to refer to batteries, compact energy storage devices that are relatively safe. Edison’s DC battery system was progressively replaced with AC generators because it is a cheaper way to transfer larger voltages of electricity over longer distances and is able to provide greater amount of power. Therefore, Ir. Rocky wonders, “Should not revert back to using DC powered appliances and equipment when most renewable energy such as solar and wind power have source output at DC?” This is an idea to be pondered on by the youth; especially everyone is a potential solar power generator.

The economy of scale kicked in, as the grand scale of the operation of AC generators led to a mitigation of the cost per unit of the output. However, despite AC now being the norm of use to us for a time spanning a century, we have been progressively using more of DC because most portable electronics and data centres run on DC. There is also the growth of renewable electricity generators such as photovoltaic and wind turbines (among the cheapest forms of renewable energy) that generate DC and are increasing in prevalence online, which eases the integration that takes place on the grid. The challenge in going back to the AC nevertheless still proves to be a struggle. Ir. Rocky says that there is also a need to filter the pollutants released by the AC. He says our electrical engineers need to look into these challenges to inculcate proper solutions. He further adds on that we have the ability to solve problems that we have created.

Harmonising Electrical Trade Pathways

Ir. Rocky tells us that in Malaysia, only a single bulk buyer is authorised to buy privately generated power pumped into the national grid. It is a buyer’s market. There would be a need for further down line distribution. Bulk and retail suppliers would need to be a cohesive unit. If competition is allowed, there should be more than one bulk buyer. We still have a monopolistic market. There is no seller’s market and these would be factors that investors have their reservations over in the development of alternative sources of energy here in Malaysia.

Ir. Rocky says we could look into foreign investors to curb this issue. Independent Power Producer (IPP) in Malaysia has been attractive in this area and Ir. Rocky shares with us that many are interested in investing. He says that we must allow for a level playing field for more progress to happen.

Non-tariff measures (NTM) also need to replace non-tariff barriers (NTB). NTMs operate with a systematic approach, whereby the government of the exporting, importing or transit country legally sets mandatory regulations. NTBs are said to be a smaller scale of NTMs that have a ‘protectionist or discriminatory intent’ as proposed by the Multi-Agency Support Team (MAST) and the Group of Eminent Persons on Non-Tariff Barriers (GNTB). Ir. Rocky proposes that SIRIM or any other national laboratory should be under the wing of Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and not under Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) as the latter is said to have a different approach.

Turning Up the Volume for Budding Engineers

Ir. Rocky says there is a need for engineers to pay more attention to ROM (i.e repair, overhaul and maintenance) services. He says there should be less emphasis on the glamour of asset development and more on asset maintenance of the infrastructure. He recalls the building of the Connaught Bridge Power Station (CBPS) immediately after the war, located 32 km southwest of Kuala Lumpur. Towards the mouth of the water, the power station was built to generate power in bulk to be transmitted to Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur for consumption. They built the first major transmission line that went all the way to the Bangsar 66/33/11 kV Substation, at the foot of the hill that sits TNB HQ.

Ir. Rocky subtly hints that insufficient funds should not be an excuse for the dearth of innovative engineering solutions.  When Ir. Rocky was still a part of LLN (before TNB), two of those (66/33 kV) transformers were already more than 30 years old and TNB — that was back then known as Lembaga Letrik Negara Tanah Melayu (LLN) — did not have sufficient funds. Still, the transformers were overhauled, repaired, and reassembled, then relocated, reinstalled, and re-commissioned in another newly established 66/33/11 kV Substation in P.J. to last for another 30 years!

To conclude, we have the resources necessary for energy sustainability as long as we implement solutions that respect our environment.