Dr Thomas Reindl on the rise and immense potential of solar energy

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Meet the stewards of Singapore’s green scene. In the face of a climate crisis whose repercussions are felt even in little Singapore, these environmental heroes are mobilizing to lead change in conservation and sustainability.

In 2016, the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (Seris) unveiled its floating solar test bench at Tengeh Reservoir. The 1 megawatt-peak (MWp) facility was the largest floating solar photovoltaic (PV) test bed in the world at the time. Launched by the Economic Development Board and the Public Utilities Board (PUB), the project assessed the economic and technological feasibility of deploying large-scale floating solar photovoltaic systems on reservoirs. Seris took over the site, managing everything from designing the systems to researching their effectiveness.

According to PUB, the test bed showed that some of the floating solar PV systems performed up to 15% better than a conventional rooftop solar system in Singapore with minimal impact on water quality and wildlife. This paved the way for a larger 60 MWp floating solar farm at Tengeh, which opened in July this year.

Dr Thomas Reindl, Deputy Managing Director of Seris, led this revolutionary project. “It made Seris and Singapore famous,” he says. “We are now seen as one of the leading institutes in this field. The World Bank Group approached us to write two reports on floating solar energy, a market report and a handbook for practitioners. These eventually became the standard literature for floating PVs.

The world’s largest floating photovoltaic test bench managed by SERIS, located in the Tengeh Reservoir, Singapore. (Image: Seris)

As test bed manager, he has also spoken at numerous global conferences, workshops and webinars on the subject, earning him the title of “Mr Floating Solar”.

Sun Seeker

Thomas has devoted most of his career to climate action. In the early 90s, he did an internship in the R&D laboratories of Siemens Corporate in Munich to improve existing products and develop new generation solar cells. He joined a business consulting firm during his doctoral research, then moved to Singapore in 1998 for Siemens Solar and stayed there for four years before returning home to Germany.

With Asia becoming the epicenter of solar power, Thomas returned to Singapore, this time for Seris. Over the past 11 years at the National Applied Research Institute, the floating solar test bench has been one of the major milestones in his career. “Land constraints in Singapore will always be a challenge,” he explains. “One of the biggest opportunities is floating solar power, whether on some of the inland reservoirs or in areas near shore.”

Singapore now has around 450 MWp of solar capacity installed and connected to the grid. The government’s goal is to reach 1.5 gigawatt-peak (GWp) by 2025 and beyond 2 GWp by 2030, which would meet about 4% of the current annual demand for electricity. electricity. “The goal is ambitious but achievable, especially since solar PV systems can be deployed much faster than any other major power generation technology. “

He adds that the country will benefit from a thriving global solar PV supply chain, which has led to further additions of 130 GWp in 2020 globally, despite the pandemic. Additionally, Singapore is looking to import solar power alongside other renewables, such as wind and hydropower, from the region. Seris is also exploring vertical solar systems on building facades to overcome space constraints.

All of this is documented in the founding strategy document, titled “Updating the Solar Photovoltaic Roadmap for Singapore,” which Thomas led. A collaborative effort across the research community and industry, it describes the technical potential and challenges of solar implementation. “The key was to understand and balance the various interests,” he says. “This includes not only the balance between technological options and economics, but also between the competing use of spaces, visions and aesthetics. “

Bright future

Dr Thomas Reindl

Costs and aesthetics are the two common barriers surrounding solar photovoltaic energy. “The cost of producing solar electricity for large installations here is now lower than the wholesale price of electricity and will drop further, reaching around 4 to 5 cents per kWh in 2030 for new systems. A solar system is virtually maintenance free and “fuel” is free. Most of the costs of the system are upfront, requiring appropriate funding to provide the initial capital.

“Whether solar panels are ‘ugly’ is subjective,” he adds. “At Seris, we’re working on technologies to make solar panels look like conventional building materials, whether it’s marble, wood or bricks. Then no one will have an excuse.

There is another challenge in harvesting solar energy: clouds. Thomas and his team had assessed the impact of variability in solar generation on the power grid and found no critical issues until 2030. “However, for 2050, further examination is needed to ensure grid resiliency. , especially for sharp reductions in solar energy production. during extreme weather events.

Regarding the environmental footprint of the use of solar energy, Dr Reindl clarifies: “Few of the process steps in the manufacture of solar cells and panels use toxic materials, which are well contained and respect the highest standards. The same goes for the end of life of solar panels. Seris and others in the industry are working on appropriate recycling methods to reuse parts of solar panels and recover some of the valuable materials used.

In addition, the ‘return on investment’ – the time it takes to generate the same amount of energy used in the manufacture, transport and deployment of a complete solar-powered system – is l The order of one to two years, which is short compared to the technical lifespan of solar photovoltaic systems of 25 to 30 years.

Thomas believes Singapore could become a world leader in “urban solar” through innovative PV technologies, including the use of Solar +, in which PV systems are combined with other technologies for additional benefits. “This could, for example, be the combination of solar energy with rooftop urban agriculture or air conditioning systems, whereby excess solar energy can generate more cold water, which is then used. to cool the building. “

(Image by Dr Thomas Reindl: Fashion Direction: Johnny Khoo | Art Direction: Audrey Chan | Photography: Joel Low | Styling: Jacquie Ang | Hairstyle: Jimmy Yap / Kimistry, using Dyson | Makeup: Wee Ming, using Chanel | Help to photography: Eddie Teo)

This story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.

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