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Extreme heatwave in Southeast Asia sparks concerns over surging energy demands

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As temperatures soared above 45°C in South and Southeast Asia in recent weeks, governments faced challenges in meeting unprecedented electricity demands due to the widespread use of air conditioning.

Over a dozen people from India, Malaysia, and Thailand have died from the extreme heat. To address the urgent public health challenge, policymakers are increasingly dependent on fossil fuels.

In April, there was a notable rise in natural gas demand from countries such as Thailand, Bangladesh, and India, commodity analyst S&P Global reported. Asia has also seen a significant increase in imports of Russian coal and fuel oil in recent months, Bloomberg’s data analyst reported.

Experts fear that policymakers may return to fossil fuels for power generation during heatwaves, rather than investing in clean energy infrastructure.

Despite increased solar and wind installations in recent years, some analysts believe that they may not be able to handle large heat waves.

Global warming has made the most recent heatwave in Asia 30 times more likely and 2°C hotter.

Southeast Asia does not have the same level of “climate burden” as long-industrialized nations do, and countries could opt to be less stringent in their decarbonization commitments, said Victor Nian, chief executive of Singapore think tank Centre for Strategic Energy and Resources (CSER).

Thailand and Vietnam, both of which have made net-zero emissions commitments, have been betting on natural gas imports for the coming decade, while countries like Indonesia and the Philippines still rely heavily on coal.

Renewable sources and Southeast Asia's geography could present a challenge. Wind and solar power rely on weather conditions, and it could be hot while cloudy in tropical Southeast Asia, making solar panels less effective, Nian said.

Meanwhile, hydropower dams, which form the bulk of Southeast Asia's renewable energy capacity, may encounter water shortages if heat waves occur with low rainfall. In Vietnam, 10 dams reached “dead level” in early May and could not generate electricity, its state-owned power company reported.

These challenges mean that policymakers should consider diversifying their renewable energy sources and developing excess generation capacity, said Marc Allen, an energy consultant of climate-tech platform Unravel Carbon.
Renewables have the potential to meet peak demand on hot days, but the key lies in the development of sufficient power storage capacity, Allen added.

Technologies such as large batteries and pumped-storage hydropower, in which excess electricity is used to fill water reservoirs, can provide regulators with more flexibility in dispatching power from intermittent sources.

In Asia's developing markets, these technologies could be too expensive. For example, the cost of storing 1kWh of energy in a battery could be as much as US$300, according to energy research firm BloombergNEF, whereas generating the same amount of power from renewable sources costs only a few cents.

At the household level, many Southeast Asians may find it difficult to afford solar panels although it can increase their electricity supply. Bermudo mentioned that she received quotations between 100,000 and 300,000 Philippine pesos (US$1,775-5,324) to install photovoltaics.

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