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Atmospheric diary of an era, if a little insular

The answer is blowing in the wind



1959-2009 CHRONICLE OF SINGAPORE: FIFTY YEARS OF HEADLINE NEWS Editor-in-Chief: Peter H. L. Lim Publisher: Editions Didier Millet, in association with the National Library Board, 2009




NDER leaden skies on a frigid winter morning, Mr Soren Hermansen is hard at work – as usual. More people have made the journey to Samsoe to see for themselves the small but stunning miracle that is the windswept Danish island. As director of the Samsoe Energy Academy, Mr Hermansen shows the visitors around. The academy receives about 5,000 visitors each year, including schoolchildren. For a world in grave danger from the overuse of fossil fuels, the island – some five hours west of Copenhagen by train and ferry – represents a signpost to a better future. The 4,000 people living on the 114 sq km island of rolling green fields and big skies can boast of being the world’s first totally self-sufficient and carbon-neutral community, whose energy needs are all met by renewable sources. Samsoe even exports its surplus electricity to the mainland, which brings in around $1 million in revenue a year. The Samsoe project had its seeds in the oil price shock of the 1970s, which got the Danish government thinking about how to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Plans to build nuclear power plants were dropped after they were met with widespread public apprehension. The government looked at renewable energy and the next two decades were marked by spectacular progress in renewable technology. Environmental funds were set up, which, together with policy incentives, catalysed investments. The wind energy industry alone has created 30,000 jobs in Denmark. Samsoe was chosen in 1997 in a nationwide competition to become a model community for sustainable energy. A non-governmental organisation was formed to run the project but residents were also involved as deci-


Copenhagen North Sea

GERMANY sion-makers and shareholders. In 2003 and 2004, a wind farm with 10 turbines was set up offshore. It was the biggest project of its kind in the world at the time, and its stakeholders were the residents, not big corporations. Another 11 land-based wind turbines were added later. Some houses now have their own turbines. Residents learnt how to improve home insulation, cutting their heating needs by 10 per cent. Four heating plants – using straw from the fields or wood chips from the forests – as well as 2,500 sq m of solar photovoltaic panels produce enough energy to meet 60 per cent of Samsoe’s needs. At one dairy plant, water warmed as it cools the milk is then used in the shower. All these renewable energy schemes have made Samsoe and its inhabitants not just carbon-neutral but carbon-negative. There has been a 140 per cent reduction in carbon emissions on the island since 1998. While the Danes on average have a per capita carbon footprint of around 10 tonnes, Samsoe residents’ per capita carbon footprint is minus 3.7 tonnes because they produce surplus energy. Mr Hermansen is something of a celebrity. He makes trips abroad to tell countries from China to Morocco about the Samsoe success story. Hailed as an environmental hero, he downplays the accolade, saying:

Stop thinking globally and start acting locally, says Mr Hermansen, director of the Samsoe Energy Academy. In the background is one of the Danish island’s wind turbines. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH “The real heroes are the local guys.” Samsoe, he says, is not unlike communities elsewhere: It too has its share of issues that need to be grappled with. At one time, it was the survival of the island community itself. An agricultural community, Samsoe supplies tonnes of produce to the mainland. But its young men and women were leaving the island to study and work on the mainland. The closure of a slaughterhouse created a ripple effect, throwing 100 local people out of work – and sparking a mini depression on the island. The renewable energy project that then came along fired up the locals, especially as the model promised money

in the bank after the initial investment of ¤60 million (S$120 million). It also gave the people energy independence and jobs. Ironically, Samsoe is surrounded by some of the country’s biggest coalfired plants, whose smokestacks can be seen on the far horizon. Nevertheless, the residents can take pride in the fact that the island is today an icon of renewable energy. To Mr Hermansen, the key to its success lies in the local community. “Those people at the (Copenhagen conference on climate change) don’t know local conditions,” he said. “We should stop thinking globally, and act locally.”



ERE in the Philippines at a geothermal power plant on the slopes of a dormant volcano in the central island of Negros, the thick plume of hot vapour furiously belching from a ground vent is an apt metaphor for the country’s full-steam development of this green energy source. The Philippines already has the world’s largest installed geothermal capacity after the United States, with seven plants across the archipelago accounting for 20 per cent of the total energy mix. The government aims to increase that level to meet expectations of surging energy demand. In the coming months, concessions to explore and develop a further 19 geothermal sites across the archipelago will be awarded to winning bidders, according to Mr Alejandro Oanes, head of the Department of Energy’s geothermal division. A landmark renewable energy law was passed last year to generate private investments in the sector through sizeable tax breaks and other financial sweeteners. “Because of the Renewable Energy Act, there is a lot of investor interest to develop geothermal power that will help us reduce oil imports further,” said Mr Oanes. Installed geothermal capacity in the Philippines is 1,900MW. Energy experts reckon that can be doubled over the next decade. The government estimates that geothermal power has saved the country nearly US$1.7 billion (S$2.3 billion) in precious foreign exchange reserves since the first plant began operations here in 1976. It was the crippling oil crisis of the

A 192MW geothermal plant on Negros island in the central Philippines run by the privately owned Energy Development Corporation. The country is the world’s second-biggest producer of geothermal energy, and it plans to ramp up production. ST PHOTO: ALASTAIR MCINDOE

South China Sea

Manila Philippine Sea




Celebes Sea

1970s that prompted the Philippines to search for local energy sources. The country is already developing its own oil and gas reserves, and its energy authorities are considering reviving a mothballed nuclear energy plant, though this appears a long shot. In the field of green energy, geothermal resources offer the biggest potential. The country lies in a region of volcanic and seismic activity in the Pacific Ocean called the Ring of Fire. These underground heat reservoirs can be tapped with the same drilling technology as for oil and gas. “There is still sufficient heat in inactive volcanoes to harness for geothermal power,” said Mr Dwight Maxino, manager of the Southern Negros Geothermal Production Field (SNGPF), a unit of the privately owned Energy Development Corporation, which runs five of the country’s geothermal plants.

Geothermal power punches below its weight as a global energy source. The technology requires heavy initial investment. The cost of drilling an exploration well alone is S$6 million. But once the power plant is up and running, operating and maintenance costs are relatively low. Furthermore, “this is an inexhaustible energy resource if you don’t over-exploit extraction”, said Mr Ariel Fronda, a government researcher into geothermal energy. And on Negros, geothermal energy constitutes truly green power. The forests surrounding the SNGPF are unusually lush. Decades of logging had stripped the forest cover on all but 5 per cent of this large island, famous for its sugar plantations. But forests are needed as protective cover for the steamfields feeding the SNGPF’s power systems and so the forest has been regrown.

IFTY years ago to the month, Yusof bin Ishak was sworn in as the first local head of state, an event that formally marked Singapore’s attainment of internal self-government. All who lived through that era may have some memory of the celebrations that followed the Dec 3 inauguration of the Yang di-Pertuan Negara, but our memories would be tempered and reconfigured by time. Unless we had kept a diary, we would have no reminder of what exactly we may have thought on Dec 3, 1959. Newspapers are a society’s diary of its social memories. The Straits Times and Didier Millet are to be congratulated for compiling this chronicle of Singapore’s past 50 years from the pages of The Straits Times. As Mr S. Dhanabalan, chairman of the editorial advisory committee, notes in his foreword, the extracts of the reports are “not history as recorded by historians, or recollections fondly or forlornly recounted by individuals with time softening the harshness of the events. It is experience lived and felt as it happened, without any discoloration caused by fading memory or second thoughts”. The Chronicle attempts to capture the mood of each year from 1959 to now. The task of selecting the events that defined the mood of each particular year must have been difficult. For 1959, for example, the big event was obviously the People’s Action Party’s landslide victory in the May 31 elections. But what were the other events that defined 1959? Did they include the introduction of an hourly parking fee of 20 to 40 cents in Raffles Place and its surrounding carparks, an event that emptied the carparks because motorists refused to pay? This may sound quaint to us today, but it was a big issue in 1959. The book recalls an earlier compilation of newspaper reports some 80 years ago. Its author was Charles Burton Buckley, a leading member of the British community in Singapore then. In 1884, he persuaded 32 others to join him in investing money to restart the old Singapore Free Press, Singapore’s leading newspaper for more than 30 years until it closed in 1869. Buckley contributed a weekly column to the Free Press based on summaries and extracts from the earlier run of the newspaper. This column of anecdotal history proved popular and Buckley ran it for the next 20 years. In 1902, the columns were compiled as An Anecdotal History Of Old Times In Singapore: 1819-1867. Anecdotal History continues to make for fascinating reading, though academic historians may criticise Buckley for his selection and his focus on what were arguably minutiae. For example, he notes in his chapter on 1840 that on Jan 14, the British Brigand called at Singapore en route to China, but a day later, off Pedra Branca, its master, Captain McGill, was murdered by two of his crew members. Another example: Buckley begins his account of 1858 with a report that “at seven o’clock on the morning of 19th November, the Queen’s Proclamation of 1st September, by which Her Majesty took upon herself the direct government of her Indian dominions, was read by the Governor”. He then goes on to describe the celebrations that followed, but nowhere mentions that the proclamation was a consequence of the dissolution of the East India Company on Sept 1. Nor does he mention the 1855 Indian Mutiny, which precipitated the company’s demise. The same comment can be made of the Chronicle Of Singapore. For example, it reports that in January 1961, an ex-cabaret supervisor, charged with murdering her boyfriend, was administered a “truth drug” sodium pentothal. Administered by Professor Arthur Gordon Ransome, the leading clinical doctor of the day, the drug did not work in getting the accused to recall what happened. Prof Ransome had to admit that it “sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t”. This focus on domestic developments gives a flavour of how Singapore was developing. But, as with Buckley’s Anecdotal History, this comes at the expense of reporting on external events affecting Singapore. Thus the parade on Oct 31, 1971 marking the end of Britain’s defence presence in Singapore is not reported, nor, more importantly, is the impact of the British withdrawal on Singapore’s economy. However, like Buckley, the Chronicle will continue to be consulted may years from now. For a younger generation of Singaporeans who did not live through the 1959-2009 era, this will be a useful reference. An added advantage of the Chronicle is that it includes a DVD of rare film and news footage interspersed with historic photographs that make the summaries of the news reports come alive. Chronicle of Singapore is then a wonderful diary of the last 50 years of our memories of the island nation. It reminds us of what we lived through. The writer is attached to the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, and the History Department of the National University of Singapore.

Blowing in the Wind  

Nirmal Ghosh, a participant in the Seminar on Future Energy: Sustainable Energy for a Low-carbon World in Samsø Island puts his training to...

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