Electricity from solar energy in Malaysia: Clean, renewable, and abundant energy source, so what’s the problem?

In 2010, Malaysia’s electricity generation totaled at 137,909 GWh. Malaysia, being near the equator, receives between 4,000 to 5,000 Wh per sq. m per day. This means, in one day, Malaysia receives enough energy from the Sun to generate 11 years worth of electricity. This is an incredible potential amount of energy into which Malaysia can tap.

Malaysia currently adopts a five-fuel mix (gas, coal, hydro, oil, and other sources) for electricity generation. From 2000 to 2010, electricity generation in Malaysia increased an average of 8% per year from 69,280 GWh in 2000 to 137,909 GWh in 2010. In this period, the contribution from gas for electricity generation declined from 77.0 to 55.9%, hydro from 10.0 to 5.6%, and oil from 4.2 to 0.2%. In contrast, the contribution from coal for electricity generation increased from 8.8 to 36.5% and other sources from 0.0 to 1.8%.

Under the 10-th Malaysia Plan, the Malaysian government wants 5.5% of total electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2015. However, the current contribution from renewable sources (such as biomass, biogas, wind, and solar) for electricity generation remains very low, of which solar energy only contributes a mere 0.007% of the total generated electricity in Peninsular Malaysia. The negligible contribution by solar energy is due to several reasons. One of them is the lack of awareness among Malaysians about the use of solar energy for electricity generation. However, the largest hurdles to solar energy adoption are the high cost and low efficiency of solar panels or photovoltaic (PV) cells.

Solar irradiance generally declines from the north to the south of Malaysia, so that northern states such as Kedah, Penang, Kelantan, and Sabah receive the most amount of solar radiation, whereas southern states like Johor and Sarawak receive the least (Fig. 1). The mean daily sunshine hours in Malaysia ranges between 4 to 8 hours per day.

Fig. 1. Average daily solar radiation (MJ per sq. m) across Malaysia (Mekhilefa et al., 2012)

On average, Malaysia receives about 17 MJ per sq. m of solar radiation per day (Fig. 2 and 3). From 1989 to 2008, there is no trend that the average daily solar radiation would increase or decrease throughout this period, except for towns such as Kuala Terengganu and Senai where there is a weak linear trend showing a decline in solar radiation received by these two towns. Kota Kinabalu in Sabah also showed declining solar radiation from 1990 to 1999, after which solar radiation would increase and stabilize at around 20 MJ per sq. m per day.

Fig. 2. Average daily solar radiation (MJ per sq. m) for some towns in Malaysia from 1989-2008: part 1 of 2

Fig. 3. Average daily solar radiation (MJ per sq. m) for some towns in Malaysia from 1989-2008: part 2 of 2

In Malaysia, solar energy is used for two purposes: 1) solar thermal applications, and 2) PV technologies. Solar thermal applications are where heat from the solar energy is used for heating purposes, while PV technologies are for electricity generation.

Solar panels for either thermal or electricity purpose can be mounted on rooftops. Although the rooftops of house and buildings are said to be “dead space” because they are unused, not all rooftops are suitable to be mounted. It is estimated that only 2.5 million houses and 45,000 commercial buildings in Malaysia are suitable for solar panel mounting. This is because the design and orientation, as well as the external environment, of the buildings would affect the harvest of solar energy.

PV cells are emerging as one of the attractive alternative to national utility grid power. PV systems was introduced in Malaysia in the 1980s, and from 1998 to 2002, six pilot grid-connected PV systems was setup at high monetary costs. Since then, PV systems have grown steadily so that in 2005, a total of on-grid 470 kW peak was established, with 3 MW peak as off-grid.

Solar panels on a rooftop of a bungalow in Malaysia (photo from mbipv.net.my)

To further encourage the adoption of solar energy, the Malaysian government introduced the MBIPV (Malaysia Building Integrated Photovoltaic) project in 2005. MBIPV was to design the integration of PV cells into buildings or structures; thus, saving costs because the PV systems would be fabricated within the structure of the building. MBIPV aimed to increase PV capacity in buildings by 3.3 times while reducing costs by 20% compared to the baseline. Currently, PV systems with a total of 213.61 kW peak have been installed over 18 locations in Malaysia via the MBIPV project. Moreover, through MBIPV, SURIA 1000 was established, with the aim to install solar panels on 1,000 rooftops in Malaysia (to date, however, only about 100 households have PV systems in Malaysia).

One important progress towards reducing dependency on fossil fuels and mitigating climate change is the establishment of Feed-in-tariff (FiT) scheme in Malaysia last year. FiT encourages the adoption of renewable energy such as solar energy by households by enabling house owners to sell excess electricity generated from their homes to TNB (Tenaga Nasional Berhad), for example. For every 1 kWh, house owners could get between RM1.20 to 1.23. Moreover, homes with solar PV would obtain an additional 26 cents. It is thus possible for house owners to earn as much as RM700 per month if they could generate as much as 4kW peak of electricity from their homes.

Although Malaysia is the world’s fourth largest PV modules producer, solar technology is ironically not adopted widely here. One reason is the cost of installing PV systems in Malaysia is expensive, even though the cost is falling at a rate of more than 10% per year. In 2005, for instance, the cost of PV system per kW peak was RM31,410, falling to RM24,970 in 2007, and to RM20,439 in 2009. Today, the cost has reduced to about RM15,000 per kW peak – a rate still unaffordable or impractical to most Malaysians.

There are four kinds of PV solar panels available in Malaysia: mono-crystalline silicon (Mc-Si), poly-crystalline silicon (Pc-Si), copper-indium-diselenide (CIS), and thin film amorphous silicon (A-Si). A study by UKM showed that none of these solar panel types had more than 10% efficiency in converting solar energy into electricity. The module efficiency for Mc-Si, Pc-Si, CIS, and A-Si were measured at 6.9, 5.1, 4.0, and 2.2%, respectively. In addition, Mc-Si and Pc-Si performed best under clear skies, whereas CIS and A-Si did better under cloudy skies.

The low efficiency of PV panels sold in Malaysia is bad news because a great deal (more than 90%) of solar energy is unused for electricity generation. The implication is serious: a very large area of solar panels, costs notwithstanding, would be required for utilizing solar energy for electricity. How much land area? Let’s calculate.

1 MW of electrical generation is equivalent to:

1,000,000 W x 365 days x 24 hours = 8.76 billion Wh

As stated earlier, Malaysia receives 4,000 to 5,000 Wh per sq. m per day, taking 4,500 Wh per sq. m per day on average. In a year, this daily average is equivalent to:

4,500 Wh per sq. m x 365 days = 1.642 million Wh per sq. m

However, since the highest solar panel efficiency is nearly 7% (for Mc-Si), this means the total amount of solar radiation energy used for electricity generation is only:

1.642 million Wh per sq. m x 0.07 = 114,975 Wh per sq. m

Thus, the total land area needed for solar panels is:

8.76 billion Wh / 114,975 Wh per sq. m = 76,190.48 sq. m

This means for every 1 MW of electricity required, about 76,000 sq. m of land area in Malaysia is required for harvesting solar energy. To meet even 1% of Malaysia’s electricity demand will require a land area of 12 square kilometers for PV panels and at a cost of about RM20 trillion!

Consequently, solar energy, as well as other renewable energy, cannot be a major contributor for electricity generation in Malaysia. This would be true until solar technologies become affordable enough and the technologies become much more efficient in electricity generation from solar energy. At the moment, solar energy, at best, could supplement Malaysia’s energy supply.

Solar technology research at Uni. Putra Malaysia (photo from upm.edu.my)