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Facing up to Sabah’s ‘energy trilemma’
Published on: Sunday, July 17, 2022
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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Workshop session in progress at the Sabah Renewable Energy Rural Electri- fication Roadmap convergence at the Star on June 28.
ENERGY trilemma is definitely a new term to the bulk of Sabahans, so it was to this writer till June 28.

This is the dilemma – electricity is essential but then where is the all-important future of the planet heading – an unbearable furnace with all its attendant violent negative weather, or positive hope?  

On June 28, I heard a consortium of local energy activists, electricity providers, NGOs and officialdoms alike served notice that Sabah must face up to the “energy trilemma” in the next 30 years ahead – three desirable but not really compatible goals – energy security, energy accessibility and environmental sustainability.

Simply put – reliable, affordable and sustainable electricity.  

Simpler still – abundant and stable electricity without power cuts, electricity tariffs at reasonable rates for all, and the daunting challenge – planet-friendly electricity without emissions that pollute and harm the climate any further.

Ir Magdalene Chu, Terrance Kouju and Cynthia Ong.

Seven-hundred million of the world population are still without electricity, according to this NGO speaker. But the eventual goal is 100pc access, she said.

Previously, they needed only worry about reliability and affordability by using the cheapest and most available fuels possible like coal or diesel. 

Now they must prove sustainability, an emission-free solution that is seen to address climate change, besides reliability and affordability.

That “energy trilemma” message was aired loud and clear on June 28, coming from Ir Magdalene Chu, Deputy CEO of new Unit Tenaga in the Chief Minister’s Department, and Terrance Kouju, head of SESB’s Sustainable Energy Development Department, as consortium key driver Forever Sabah founder Cynthia Ong pressed them for answers at the Panel Chat on “Building the Sabah Renewable Energy Ecosystem” at the “Sabah Renewable Energy Rural Electrification Roadmap” Convergence workshop!

At the outset, we must confess the limits of this Special Report as we don’t yet know enough on the specific details of the consortium’s history, purpose and work so far – but it is a start.  

The hunt for a sensible energy mix 

Electricity supply-wise, Sabah is at a crossroad. 

Either the trilemma beats Sabah up or it is eventually able to hit a balance of reliable energy with the trade-off needed to tackle climate change achieved through a well thought out sensible mix that meet the three-some challenge with triumph.     

Chu concedes that the brand new Unit Tenaga faces a “very challenging task” as they begin to embark on charting Sabah’s energy policy and master plan, clearly hinting it is vital that Sabah works out a coherent, long term framework with which to plan and implement future investments. 

“These are things we have to consider, when we look we look at the energy master plan, we have to look at the energy trilemma, we need to look at reliability, affordability (by all consumers) and sustainability of the energy sector in Sabah,” Chu said.       

“We are hiring,” she quipped, opening the floor to invite the best brains, best technical experts, if any, to come forward to help turn Sabah’s “aspiration” a reality.    

The uphill challenge ahead is how to balance all three with equal success.

Electricity consumers are probably the most grouchy and hypercritical lot of all.  

Everybody demands reliable electricity supply made available at all times because nothing works without electricity. 

At the same time, everybody also demand a rate of tariffs they can afford.

Meanwhile, climate scientists apply pressure that emissions have to stop, a sea of young people mount street protests to demand action as the politicians and power producers are squeezed in the middle.   

Straightforward energy solutions are over

As Energy Watch noted, the traditional challenge that just to balance reliability of electricity supply and affordability for consumers, is over.

Straightforward solutions to use the cheapest and most readily available fuels at the lowest costs like coal or diesel, are over. 

So even little known Sabah needs to hit  Zero Net Carbon electricity in a matter of less than 30 years, that is, 2050.  

The pressure is on. This is why.

The most up-to-date IPCC report stated “categorically” and “conclusively” that anthropogenic (ie human caused) climate change is real.

“Unequivocal” – a strong word meaning undeniable, unmistakable, is repeated in the Report’s summary for policy makers, pushing for action or face catastrophic consequences.

And all 195 nations involved apparently agreed, according to Energy Watch. 

Future of energy in just two words

So what is the future of energy?


It can be summarised in just two words – Sustainable and renewable. 

Chu and Terrance Kouju, head of the Sustainable Energy Development Department of Sabah Electricity Sdn Bhd (SESB), gravitated into it whole time. 

Nobody takes pleasure with climate change, what should be done is clear, given so many bad experiences with extreme flooding (like what happened in Kg Sugud, Penampang in 2021), but what can be done unfortunately at the moment faces limitations in renewable sources that leave the world still dependent on fossil fuels with their environmentally harmful products.

Will there be a happy “convergence” between renewable energy and technology or resources as Cynthia’s chat topic wished? 

Role and function on Unit Tenaga in CM’s Department 

Meanwhile, it was a bit of a surprise to hear Chu citing “devolution of power” meaning electricity and gas currently under the Federal Government, will be handed over to the State Government. Does the state have the technical and financial scale to make a success of it?

In fact, she said Unit Tenaga was formed in April 2021 “to co-ordinate this process” and its role is “mainly take care a regulatory functions of the energy sector for Sabah, advise the Chief Minister on energy matters like power generation projects, mini hydro, renewable energy, solar power and all these,” Chu said.

“Our Unit will be responsible to develop the Sabah Energy Policy and Master Plan, one of it is about renewable energy that is very much the aspiration (hope and ambition to achieve) that will improve the energy mix for Sabah,” she said.

“Currently we are very much dependent on gas for our generation, like 80pc relying on gas, some on diesel still but we want to phase those out in the East Coast, and we have hydro in Pangi, Tenom, and some renewable plants, we gradually want to improve on the generation mix and to tap more sources,” she added.            

The vision – Net Zero Carbon electricity: SESB Sustainability chief  

On Sabah’s current energy mix, Terrance Kouju – head of SESB’s Sustainable Energy Development Department agrees with Chu: 

“About 80pc of our energy comes from gas. 11pc from diesel and 10% from hydro. Eventually, we will be phasing out diesel and we will be relying on gas , hydro and solar to some extent. We will be seeing 400 to 500 MWW of hydro coming in and eventually by 2030 we should have 700-800 equivalent of renewables in terms of the mix. 

“Eventually by 2050, we are going to get into net zero meaning electricity will not be producing any CO2. That is our vision, that is aligning to the global goal on climate change,” Kouju said in reply to Cynthia’s question on SESB’s vision and goals around renewable energy in the State’s energy mix and Sabah’s renewable energy road map  and how that can support SESB’s vision.    

A high hope and ambitious road map for renewables.

But should it be done irrespective? 

The original intent is one thing, reality is another.

There remains a proverbial reminder whether what is intended as a help may turn out to be a burden through hastiness as if man is made for renewables rather than renewables are made for man. 

Renewables 18pc now, 40pc by 2030 

The onus is on the Government, as decisions as the decision makers on planning power plants, power distribution to consumers, to ensure the transition from fossil fuels to renewables is gradual, not abrupt, noted Terrance.

“Of course, we want renewables, you can see it coming, people are looking for renewable and green energy but the issue of green energy which everyone is aware is reliability and availability. Where it is not available, we have to top it up, top up the balance,” he said.

“We have to ensure that we got back-up power plants that are able to fill the demand and as Ir Chu mentioned, 80pc of Sabah’s energy now still comes from gas.

“But the good thing is that we have seen changes in the last 10 years, he Government had come up with renewable energy programmes.” 

On solar, however, there are “limitations for the grid not able to take up more than 22.6pc of solar as of now and so we have to look at alternatives like hydro to top up and now we have 218 MW of renewables and that is equivalent to 18pc of our capacity, The balance is about 1,000MW of gas power plants and the remaining about 200MW from diesel,” Terrance noted. 

He added: “ For the next three years, we are looking at 150MW of renewables coming in and that’s quite a lot. As I see it, before 2030, we will be seeing another 400-500MW of hydro coming in and eventually by 2030 we should have 700-800MW of renewables and that is equivalent to 40pc which is good, you see more capacity from renewables in terms of the mix,” he cited the progressive move.

Rural electrification: 99.9pc by 2030  

In terms of rural electrification where many communities are too distant from the main grid, traditional lines needed to be drawn over endless miles to reach vastly scattered houses would cost billions and simply too costly, Terrance said.

“So, over the years, the Government came in with solar hybrid plants and now we have reached the electrification rate of 96pc to 98pc overall and the vision is to reach 99.9pc by 2030,” Terrance claimed.               

Sabah can be a ‘renewable energy powerhouse’?

So what is the prospect for the avowed Net Zero Carbon electricity for Sabah? 

One pundit even asserts Sabah can be turned into a “renewable energy powerhouse”, given its “abundance of resources available”, provided some obstacles are addressed.      

For example, given that diesel will eventually be phased out, “generous subsidies” that once allocated disproportionately in favour of fossil fuels to spur more independent power producers to contribute to their grid, can these “generous subsidies” not be made available to new renewable entrepreneurs instead? 

Also, investment in renewables is not only higher but also take longer return on investment.

‘Strong leadership in government’

“The answer to the challenge is “strong leadership from within the government to recognise, prioritise and foster energy security needs,” writes Reg Ching in Free Malaysia. 

Unit Tenaga in the Chief Minister’s Department may be well placed as a “leadership factor” to mount that drive. Interestingly, somebody suggested the landscape approach to make things happen as Sabah’s ‘landscape’ already has what it takes.

The  belief is the “abundance of resources”, within Sabah’s landscape can turn the State itself into a renewable energy powerhouse.

For example, given the ‘scores of palm oil mills capable of capturing methane using palm biomass and a network of waterways capable of powering Run of River hydroelectric plants’, many viable and practical solutions are already built into the landscape of the region,” writes Leong Yuen Yoong from the famous Jeffrey Sach’s Centre on Sustainable Development and UN Sustainable Solutions Network Asia at Sunway University.           

Sabah’s aspiration

Ir Chu repeatedly said  “renewable energy is very much part of the Sabah State Government’s aspiration”, meaning strong hope and ambition to achieve success beyond convention.

Given that it reasonable to expect plans to develop new energy grids focused on low carbon green infrastructure and powered by renewable energy as ageing existing grids become increasingly costly to maintain.

Investment in a new energy infrastructure like that will be costly, but faced with the need to meet increasing energy demand, it is reasonable to assume they will look into recommended financing mechanisms like the PPP or private public partnership to financing mechanisms which can avert the trap of excessive debt burden, to speed up the green energy transition, Leong asserted.

Steep rise in electricity demand expected 

Demand for electricity in Malaysia will rise for sure and the projected increase in demand does look daunting.

Needless to say, the increase in supply needed can be unnerving for those responsible.  

According to the Generation Development Plan 2020, net demand is projected to grow by 0.6pc per year for 2021 to 2030 and 1.8pc per year for 2031 to 2039.

So by 2030, 6,077 MW of new capacity is required to meet demand growth. 

The new capacity requirement is projected to increase post 2030 to 9,924MW with an additional 500MW battery storage system for 2031-39. 

Will that happen because this time, it won’t be as simple as using the cheapest and most available fossil fuels like coal-fired power plants or diesel. 

It will be need be achieved through managing the energy trilemma with an emission-free solution under the long term long-term supply outlook.     

It’s going to be tough. It remains to be seen how everything plays out.  

Opening the Sabah Renewable Energy convergence: Assistant Finance Minister Datuk Abidin Madingkir, Cynthia Ong of Forever Sabah and Adrian Lasimbang of Pacos Trust. 

Adrian Lasimbang of Pacos Trust and staff of Tonibung whose core work focuses on enabling rural electrification via micro hydro or solar power. 





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