Climate change and the transition to clean energy are pushing Southeast Asia to finally share power

FILE – A worker cleans solar panels that partially power the Istiklal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, March 29, 2023. Southeast Asian countries’ urgency to switch to clean energy to fight climate change is reviving a 20-year-old plan to share power in the region.Tatan Syuflana/AP

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Southeast Asian countries’ urgency to transition to clean energy to combat climate change is renewing a 20-year-old plan to share power in the region.

Malaysia and Indonesia signed an agreement last month to explore 18 potential sites in Bali, Indonesia.

Those connections could eventually generate electricity equal to the power produced by 33 nuclear power plants in a year. They are economically and technologically feasible and are now supported by regional governments, said Beni Suryadi, an energy expert at the ASEAN Energy Center in Jakarta, Indonesia.


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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, is a political and economic grouping of 10 countries in a vast region, from tiny Brunei and Singapore to military-controlled Myanmar and fast-growing economic power Vietnam.

Cross-border power purchases accounted for only 2.7% of the region’s capacity in 2017. According to the Journal of Global Interconnection. But they were between two countries like Thailand and Laos. Now, many countries see decentralization as a way to wean their economies off coal and other fossil fuels. Vietnam wants a regional grid so it can sell clean energy like offshore wind to its neighbors, while the Malaysian state of Sarawak wants to sell its hydropower to neighboring Indonesia.

A plan for a regional phase among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was created more than two decades ago, but progress has been stalled by various issues, including technical barriers and political mistrust.


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The region now recognizes that it must move faster. Climate change can be reduced According to a report presented at the 2021 UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, the region’s economic potential will increase by more than a third by the middle of this century. Demand for electricity is increasing and governments are realizing the need for an interconnected grid to transition away from fossil fuels, Suryad said.

„It has become an important requirement for every country,” he said.

In the past, countries in the region focused heavily on energy security, relying heavily on fossil fuels and often building capacity in excess of demand. But renewable energy costs are falling, making hydroelectric, solar and wind power more affordable. All ASEAN countries except the Philippines have pledged to stop adding carbon to the atmosphere by 2050.

Therefore, the arguments in favor of an interconnected grid prevail.

It has built more than 50 dams in the past 15 years, relying on its status as the „battery of Southeast Asia” to profit from selling electricity to Thailand, Vietnam and China. .

There is still enough surplus power to sell to others in the region.

Singapore – a small city-state of 6 million people with almost no natural resources – needs to import clean energy to meet its renewable energy targets.

Regional grids help bridge gaps between where electricity is needed and where it can be produced, helping countries adjust to external shocks such as large spikes in oil prices. They can also help reduce costs: in 2021, for example, Europe could save $36 billion through trade power, European regulators say. assessed.


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Interconnected grids can provide reliable electricity to communities in remote areas such as West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. Until a 170-kilometer (105-mile) long cross-border power line from neighboring Malaysia’s Sarawak state was switched in 2016, life was halted by blackouts that forced shops to close and people to use diesel generators.

„It’s been done elsewhere, and it’s a no-brainer way to do it because the benefits are obvious,” said Rena Guwahata, an energy analyst at the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

One of ASEAN’s core principles is non-interference, which means members shy away from joint projects. Domestic energy priorities sometimes conflict with the potential benefits of an interconnected grid. Nadila Shani, another expert at the ASEAN Energy Center, said this creates a „dilemma” for countries: They can either sell clean energy to neighbors to get off fossil fuels, or they can use those resources to meet their own climate. goals.

Malaysia gets 1% of its electricity annually from clean sources. It banned exports of renewables in 2021 to try to build a domestic clean energy industry. That ban was lifted this year, but an Indonesian ban on clean energy exports imposed last year remains in place.

Another stumbling block in the region is the lack of a regulatory framework for things like laying submarine power cables.

Not all technical issues have been resolved. The voltages used by each country vary, as do the capacities of their grids. Even countries with borders like Thailand need to improve them, Harald Link, owner of B.Grim Power and president of the Private Power Producers Association of Thailand, said in an interview.

Projections of where electricity is needed should be factored in, for example, projects for power-hungry data centers.


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„You need a huge amount of electricity — they want it green. And where do you get it from? For some countries, it’s very difficult to make it green,” Link said.

Costs are high: at least $280 billion in the power sector Investments are requiredASEAN Center for Energy reports.

China’s involvement in building the region’s energy infrastructure through its Belt and Road Initiative could also be of concern. In 2021, Laos, under pressure from its mounting debts, gave a majority Chinese company a 25-year concession to operate its power grid.

But despite persistent tensions between China and some of its neighbors over territorial disputes and other issues, Beijing and ASEAN generally operate on the basis of „mutual interests and benefits,” said Nadila Shani, another expert at the ASEAN Energy Center.


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Given how expensive power grids are to build, Shani said, the private funding needed to build them could affect how and where projects are built. However, he said national priorities play a bigger role than Chinese investments in how electricity is transmitted.

„We are in a good place in ASEAN to have this kind of cooperation in terms of business, we have reached a common understanding,” he said.

Milko reported from Nusa Dua, Indonesia. Jindamas Saksornzai in Bangkok, Thailand and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia contributed to this report.


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Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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