Transforming our energy system is not just about replacing fossil fuels with renewables, it’s also about promoting energy equality and the sustainable development of communities. This meaningful vision is one that unites Sarawak Energy Berhad, the electric utility company for the state of Sarawak in Malaysia.
“We aspire to achieve sustainable growth and prosperity in Sarawak by meeting the region's need for reliable, renewable energy,” says Sharbini Suhaili, Group Chief Executive Officer.
“We have a goal that by 2030 the state will achieve developed state status. Therefore, we are using our energy resources to attract foreign investment and promote economic growth.”
Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy
Blessed with high rainfall and an abundance of rivers, Sarawak is rich in hydropower reserves. By harnessing this, alongside the region’s indigenous coal and gas resources, the company provides competitive energy prices and attracts energy-intensive industries, such as the aluminum sector.
As part of this strategy, Sarawak Energy is working closely with the state government to embark on a huge programme of expansion known as the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE).
“We are blessed that we have quite a lot of hydropower resources on the island of Borneo,” explains Sharbini. “This allows us to provide cost-effective electricity prices so, if you look in Southeast Asia, you will see that our tariffs are among the lowest the region. As a result, we’ve been successful in attracting energy-intensive industries to the region.”
Sarawak Alternative Rural Electrification Scheme
One of the core challenges facing Sarawak Energy is making sure that economic development is inclusive of the remote and dispersed rural communities in the heartlands of the state. Due to the extremely rugged and challenging terrain, some villages in the state cannot connect to the main electricity grid.
However, this logistical challenge is not stopping Sarawak Energy. The electric utility company is determined to provide electricity to each and every Sarawakian where possible and advancements in alternative renewable technology are making it a reality.
Through the Sarawak Alternative Rural Electrification Scheme (SARES), the company will design, build, and install localised off-grid solar or micro-hydro systems in these villages before handing them over to the community to operate. With over 50 villages selected to be equipped with solar systems this year, this is a challenging feat, but it is one that the company is well-equipped to tackle. “We see it as our moral obligation to make sure that everybody in the state has equal access to energy, whether it’s for their daily use or for business and development,” says Dr Chen Shiun, Vice President of Research and Development.
“It is a very important project to me because it is a basic right that communities should have access to a reliable electricity and water supply,” adds Sharbini. “Energy equality is a very important issue to us. In 2009, we covered just under 70% of the state in terms of rural electrification and now we connect about 90% of the region.
“I predict that by 2025 we will provide energy to everyone. It’s a big task – the state of Sarawak is very big, sparsely populated, and there are still close to 2,000 villages that we still need to reach – but over the next five years we are planning to reach every single one.”
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Technological ingenuity and expansion
Innovation is critical in the energy sector and there is no lack of it at Sarawak Energy. With technological prowess, the company is able to run its rural systems autonomously and use satellite communication to monitor them and plan their maintenance. As well as this, the company is looking into initiatives to maintain and preserve boilers for longer. Sharbini says that innovation is crucial to the company’s success.
“We are in the middle of a digital revolution and things are changing really quickly,” he explains. “This is impacting how we are using technology and so we recognise the need to advance and remain agile. I'd say it's a challenge, but it's also an opportunity for us to really make a difference."
As well as this, the company also has big expansion plans on the horizon. It recently acquired the Bakun hydroelectric project from the federal government and it is also embarking on a state-of-the-art hydroelectric project in Baleh.
“There are always challenges,” notes Sharbini, “but these can also be opportunities. We have rapidly expanded over the last eight years and it has been quite a challenge for us as an organisation, but it’s also made us stronger. Now we are looking at future avenues for growth – for instance, the region of Kalimantan has a huge hydropower potential and so we’re pursuing a number of opportunities there.”
Sustainable, reliable energy
Not only is the utility industry undergoing a digital transformation, it is also embracing a transition towards renewable resources. This is a shift that Sarawak Energy is well equipped for, says Sharbini. “It's very certain that renewable energy is the way to go,” he notes.
“The use of fossil fuels will soon have to be very controlled and I think globally people will have to take a very hard look at their energy consumption. I think fossil fuels will still be the dominant energy resource in the next five years but it will be declining as the use of renewables grows. The pace at which we transition towards renewables depends on technology advancements. It will happen. It’s just a matter of timing.”
Chen is also optimistic about the future of renewable energy, but he doesn’t underestimate the innovation it will require to succeed. “Renewable energy has its own challenges that we need to overcome,” he says. “For instance, in circumstances when there’s intermittence, what are you going to do for electricity? I think the answer to these issues lies in new technologies. The sector will have to create more advanced digital technologies to make renewable resources more efficient.”
With a well-educated, English-speaking population and a promising position next to the South China Sea (a lucrative trade route), the state of Sarawak is well-positioned to grow sustainably into a developed state. Thanks to the technological prowess and committed dedication of Sarawak Energy, the country is unlocking its energy potential and preparing for a greener and more sustainable future.