Pushing the boundaries for sustainability: How a simple vision empowered the start of renewable energy at Terrenus Energy.

A visionary in the field of renewable energy sources, CEO and Founder of Terrenus Energy, Mr Charles Wong shares more on his journey into sustainability and how his business has flourished by persevering through the challenges he faced.

Mr Charles Wong on digitalisation & sustainability with DBS

1.    What was your inspiration, and the story behind Terrenus?

My favourite cartoon as a kid was Transformers. Beyond the animated action scenes and cool robots, something that I found particularly interesting was Energon—an unlimited clean energy source that was essentially the life force of the characters. Even years afterwards I found myself intrigued by the concept of renewable energy, knowing that—theoretically speaking—here on Earth, we have an abundance of resources that we can tap onto for unlimited power. Resources that won't run out, and do not pollute the environment.

With the view that clean energy is the only way forward, I started Terrenus Energy in 2016 in Singapore, a world-class technology hub with a prime geographic location and Smart Nation vision. Since then, Terrenus Energy has established itself as a cutting-edge renewable solutions provider, growing its portfolio to over 160 MWp in clean energy contracts. 

Our debut project, the first phase of JTC Corporation's SolarLand programme, is Singapore's first grid-connected solar farm, which we completed in 2018. After its success, we were awarded the SolarLand Phase 2 project, the largest ground-mounted solar farm in Singapore to date, involving the deployment of over 35,500 solar panels at Changi Business Park. Combined, these projects generate about 30.4 GWh of clean energy annually; this can power around 6,600 Singaporean households and reduce carbon emissions by 12,700 tonnes.

At Terrenus Energy, our goal is not to simply ride the wave of renewable energy, but to be one of its driving forces. We aim to push the boundaries of the renewables industry with our solutions. Currently, we are developing a series of novel technologies and designs that can potentially unlock new surfaces for the deployment of renewables in Singapore.

2.    Why did you feel like sustainable energy was an avenue worth pursuing?

Fossil fuels are not just dirty, they are also finite. As reserves deplete, energy prices will continue to soar. Right now, any disruptions to the supply chain of, say, natural gas, would have a significant cost impact on the energy sector in Singapore. But with more green energy in the mix, we can slowly start to mitigate these risks and protect ourselves from such occurrences. 

However, with current technology, Singapore does not have the necessary resources to generate enough power. Energy is the lifeline of any economy. If we do not take steps towards political energy security, Singapore will remain vulnerable to the price shocks and volatility that plague the global energy market. This is where innovation comes into play. We must get creative and deploy alternative solutions that break past current limitations and bring Singapore closer to energy security.

Part of our vision at Terrenus Energy is digitalisation. The advancement and integration of digital tools into the energy production and consumption system will enable effective and efficient energy management across the system. The key is data. 

With data, we can imbue intelligence across all components of the system using machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence. This would give rise to clean energy ecosystems that can optimise the generation, storage and distribution of renewable energy 24/7 to match supply and demand more precisely.

Individual consumers and businesses will also be empowered with deeper insights to support their green agendas, exert better control over their electricity usage, and perhaps even enable the trading of energy. This framework would mean that nobody is vulnerable to the finiteness of fossil fuels or the confines of the traditional power grid.

3.    Having been in the sustainable energy business for the last six years, how has the sustainability scene changed?

There has been accelerated growth in the sector, both locally and internationally. Much of it has been driven by supportive policies and progressively ambitious climate goals along with the decreasing costs of renewable energy resources.

Locally, there has been an ongoing allocation of various surfaces for solar deployment to meet the 2 GWp solar capacity target by 2030. Many of our neighbours in Southeast Asia are developing even more aggressive strategies. There has also been greater collaboration among countries to achieve key outcomes set by the United Nations at COP21 and COP26.

These changes in policy and regulations, as well as shifts in societal attitudes in support of sustainability have mobilised the private sector to invest in and adopt greener business practices, including tapping cleaner energy sources. However, while demand is rising exponentially, supply is growing at a much slower pace. The industry is continuously trying to bridge this gap with advancements in technology.

4.    What were some of the challenges you faced when you were first seeking financing for your company focused on a renewable energy product?

At the time, the renewable energy sector was not only capital-intensive but also forward-looking. As an emerging industry, there was not much information to go on to determine the bankability of a project. From an investor's lens, there were many unknowns, including the feasibility and bankability of each project. Complicating the matter was the fact that each project was inherently different, boiling down to size, site conditions, and the exact type of equipment used.

To secure a loan, banks had to believe in what you were doing and place their trust in you. To do that, they needed to determine your credibility. As a small company at that time, the process of winning trust and securing capital was challenging, but not impossible. We are grateful for all the support we received from partners along the way.

5.    What are some of the problems along the way that you had to deal with to get your company established? How did DBS help?

Renewable energy was a new industry when we started out, but public perception did not match the reality. Many believed it was in the "proof of concept" stage when in truth, it had already achieved commercialisation.

Furthermore, there were already more established market players with strong financial backing. At the beginning, we worked hard to gain a foothold in the market. I believe it was and continues to be our attitude and basis in innovation that gives us an edge.

Partnering with DBS also increased our credibility, and our projects have become much more recognised.

6.    Why did you choose DBS? How has DBS been working with your business to achieve your business goals around renewable energy?

Supported by DBS, Terrenus Energy has deployed various innovations in our SolarLand Phase 2 project that has allowed us to maximise the use of the plot of land allocated to us by JTC.

SolarLand makes use of temporary vacant land. So we ensured that most, if not all, equipment would have second-life applications when the time to retire the power plant comes, in line with the circular economy. Additionally, its design cuts installation and dismantling times in half, making the plant more portable, and saving on materials like concrete, making it more environmentally friendly. We also deployed a first-of-its-kind mobile substation that can provide the grid with flexible ancillary services, which helps in future-proofing as energy sources decentralise.

With DBS’s help, we were able to allocate more capital to the innovations for SL2, which not only increases the project's energy output but also reduces its operating expenses and maximises returns for the long term. While the tender for SolarLand Phase 2 had a solar capacity requirement of 12 MWp, our innovations allowed us to scale up capacity to 19.2 MWp. 

We are also able to testbed new practices in Singapore, such as agrivoltaics—growing food at a solar site—and robotics cleaning for solar panels. Such practices could provide opportunities for sustainable development.

More projects are in the pipeline, including the construction of the world's first hybrid facility combining four different renewable energy resources—solar, wind, wave and tidal—in our SolarLand 1 Extension project. The first phase is expected to be completed later this year.

We are excited to continue working closely with DBS to power Singapore more sustainably in the years to come.

7.    Can you share with us your future goals about the company and what is next?

Earlier in March, Terrenus Energy won the sixth solar leasing tender ("SolarNova 6") from the Housing and Development Board and Singapore Economic Development Board. It will be our largest solar project to date, involving the installation of solar panels on nearly 1,200 HDB buildings and 57 government sites. SolarNova 6 will be a platform for us to showcase more of our capabilities, including one of the first implementations of building-applied photovoltaics (BAPV) in the country. 

We have also secured projects in Indonesia and are expanding our business in Australia. This will put us in a strong position to expand our services to other parts of Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region (APAC) in the years to come.

Terrenus Energy's goal in the next 10 years is to become the first vertically integrated renewable power producer and platform retailer in APAC. Doubling down on our innovative strengths, we aim to deliver end-to-end cleantech solutions and create an intelligent renewable power ecosystem that both decarbonises and democratises energy for all market players and consumers. This will usher in a new wave of prosumers that will help to drive the energy transition and attain all its objectives.