Solar is built to weather the storm

Posted on 2014-06-03
This isn’t the place to rehearse the benefits of renewable energy.


Only the most ferocious climate denier or fanatical Big Oil advocate refuses to acknowledge wind and solar’s role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while providing clean, reliable electricity.


What is not as well studied, though, is the sheer robustness of solar, which can help countries lessen the impact of disasters caused by extreme weather. Such events are increasingly frequent and severe — and they are disproportionately affecting Asian countries.


According to the Asian Development Bank, the continent has accounted for half the world’s economic losses from extreme weather events over the past 20 years. These disasters cost Asia an estimated $53.8bn a year.


Many Southeast Asian countries have responded by implementing progressive policies to encourage more sustainable energy. For example, Thailand, which suffers frequent natural catastrophes, particularly floods, has set an ambitious goal of achieving 25% of its energy from renewables by 2021.


Because of the country’s geographic advantage — near the equator, with an average daily irradiation of 5.05kWh per square metre — it has invested significantly in solar, which is expected to generate 2GW by 2021.


Suntech provided the panels for one of Southeast Asia’s largest PV arrays, the 45MW Sunny Bangchak in Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya province. The project, 40km outside Bangkok, is owned by Bangchak Public Petroleum and used 157,200 modules.


Sunny Bangchak’s groundbreaking was in August 2010 and its 8MW first phase began commercial operation a year later.


The project has done more than diversify Thailand’s energy sources: it is contributing to energy resilience, as demonstrated by its rapid return to use after the great flood of 2011.


Flooding caused by tropical storm Nock-ten began in July and continued for six months. The numbers are shocking. Sixty-five of the country’s 77 provinces were declared disaster zones; more than 800 people were killed and 13.6 million people affected. The World Bank estimates economic damage and losses at 1.425trn baht ($45.7bn), making it the world’s fourth-most-costly disaster, surpassed only by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the 1995 Kobe earthquake and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.


Sunny Bangchak didn’t escape unscathed. On the contrary, it was completely submerged for nearly two months. But although it was damaged, the array bounced back quickly: 8MW was on line again six months after the floodwaters had receded and full production was resumed in July 2012.


After the flood, the panels were replaced with new Suntech modules. However, a review of our original panels found that the vast majority were not only fully functioning, but in excellent condition. These older panels were then bought by World Machine Center, which has resold more than 80% of them to families, farmers, temples and companies across the country.


A report by the Ministry of Finance, the Thai government and the World Bank found that power-generation plants in Ayutthaya, distribution networks and property suffered severe damage totalling 3.185trn baht. The time needed to repair and get all this infrastructure back up and running was 18 months. Sunny Bangchak, remember, was on line again within six months.


This episode illustrates solar’s ability to bounce back quickly.


In June last year came another reminder of the vulnerability of our energy supply. A devastating flood in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand severely damaged ten major hydropower projects in operation and under construction. The devastation was so great that many of them may never be rebuilt. A further 19 smaller hydro projects were destroyed.


Uttarakhand has about 300 sunny days a year; the potential for reliable, sturdy solar energy is obvious.


The world — particularly the developing world — is going to have to get used to dealing with these sorts of destructive climate-related phenomena. Suntech’s experience with Sunny Bangchak tells us that solar can build in much-needed energy resilience for the developing countries that are most at risk from natural disasters, while driving growth in a more sustainable way.


Eric Luo is chief executive of Chinese solar manufacturer Wuxi Suntech


This piece was published as part of the Thought Leaders series. Recharge’s Thought Leaders’ Club brings together leading thinkers and participants from the renewable-energy sector to examine the key challenges facing our industry
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