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Last Updated: November 22, 2017
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Ko Chuan Zhen is the co-founder and executive director of Plus Solar Systems Sdn Bhd (+SOLAR), a solar company which believes in powering sustainable growth by offering world-class renewable energy solutions. 

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Ko Chuan Zhen, +SOLAR Co-Founder & Executive Director


  1. Tell us about your typical day at work. 
    Usually a week before, I would have already planned out my schedule for the coming week. So, my schedule would be fixed with agendas beforehand, just like this interview. For me, I would be quite focused with communications – internal communications and external communications.
    Internal communications consist of mainly discussions on internal strategies, from HR, marketing, operations etc. I would also spend some time to do “coffee sessions” with my colleagues. I will try to catch up with each of them, asking them how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, if there’s anything I can help them out with, or if there’s anything positive that they want to share. We have about 60 people now so I can still manage to do that quite well. I’m quite familiar with some of them and we don’t need to communicate as often, so I prefer to engage with the newcomers. It’s all about communication. And through communication, you get to listen, and you can also share what the company is doing, why we’re doing it and where we are heading. I think it’s important to get everyone aligned internally.
    In terms of external communications, this is more about networking and building relationships for the business. I like to participate in the sales meetings even though we have a business team, as this is actually part of my interest – I like mixing with different people.
    There’s no fixed timing for working hours in our company. Sometimes, I will be here by 7am, sometimes 9am, it depends on the situation. I find that morning time is the best time to work as it’s less busy. In the evenings, most of the time I would rather spend it with my family. In our company, there is flexi-hour. We leave it up to the employees to decide when to come in and when to leave. Some of them who are parents may come in a little late, but stay a little longer at work. Or there are some who leave at 5pm sharp. Ultimately, it depends on the results they produce. I find that it helps, if they have a sense of control in the work they’re doing, they won’t feel forced to go to work.

  2. You’ve been in the industry for about 10 years now. What was a milestone that was significant to you? Or if there was more than one, do share with us.
    In the first 4 years, I was attached to different companies, Sharp Solar and Phoenix Solar – and without these important experiences, Plus Solar would not have become a reality. I learned a lot in those companies and traveled to so many countries, more than 11 countries and over 20 cities. We developed solar-powered plants in South Africa, to New Zealand, and even Tahiti.
    During this time, the market for solar energy in Malaysia was quite bleak. But I was determined to stay in this industry and I knew that I had to wait for the right moment. And that moment was when the Malaysian government introduced Feed-in Tariff (FiT). That’s when I started my own business with Leaf Energy, then Plus Solar. It was challenging during the initial stage for myself and my co-founders (Ryan Oh & Poh Tyng Huei). Although I had some experience in the industry, I was only 27. When we approached our potential clients, they had doubts about our young company, but we proved with our positive track record that we had the capabilities and experience. And our company began to grow. We’re proud to say that some of the clients whom we engaged with in the early stage of our careers are still with us today.
    Another significant milestone which I think will be important to us in the future, is the realignment of the company foundation and culture which we are currently doing.

  3. As a startup company, what do you look for in a team member? What are the top 5 attributes that are important to you? 
    I can tie this back to our company values, which is being driven by Purpose, Passion and Persistence. We look for team members who know why they are here and understand their purpose. If you don’t know your purpose, then it’s best to figure that out before you join a company. It’s easier to align people when their purpose is the same as the company’s.
    I think there's a cycle – sometimes you may not have passion, but you know your purpose and you are persistent in making it work. When you achieve your goal, then perhaps you will find your passion in the end. Or perhaps when you’re persistent in doing something, you develop a passion for it, and finally discover your purpose.
    Secondly, teamwork is very important. We hire people who can gel with others, and we really look into the culture fit. We care a lot about our people, and we feel that there are times you need to be a leader, but you must also be able to follow.
    Thirdly, we look at those who embrace failure, evolve and excel. We appreciate those who have experienced failure in their lives before and were able to recover and progress from it. We won’t hire someone who can’t face failure, because here in the renewable energy industry, it’s a very new industry and we will always face failures and challenges. So, it’s important to bounce back and evolve from those failures.
    Fourthly, we value integrity, because we are a very transparent and open company. We don’t want to create or force rules to control people, instead we want them to behave in a manner that is ethical on their own. We don’t want to create a ‘factory’ mindset.
    Lastly, we look for that hunger in our team members. Perhaps a hunger to impact the society or hunger for knowledge. Myself and the co-founders, we have the hunger to change the way people use energy.

  4. Being a young business owner, what challenges did you face when you started the business at the age of 27? Was age an obstacle for you? 
    I did face that challenge because I was young, and the company had no background, but that was it. You might be lacking in terms of resources and knowledge but that can be overcome. It can also be an advantage to start a business at a young age, because you can accept more risk, be more energetic, and you can work nonstop with little to no rest (although now I can’t really do that anymore!). I don’t think age is an obstacle, because I believe that as long as you always do the right thing, do it professionally, have a deep knowledge in what you’re doing, and not try to lie to people, you will be successful.

  5. How has your professional network been important in getting you where you are today? Also, other than the workplace, where should one start building their professional network?
    Professional network is important. Some say it’s not about technology know-how. It’s know-who. I was a sales manager previously, so that’s where I started building my network. Networking is important because it’s all about the customer or potential customer. In fact you may end up becoming friends because of the relationship that you have built. From there, more and more people will be introduced through your network. You can build the trust and relationship with people through these physical connections, not just via Whatsapp or online media. That’s also important but you need to have the basics of physical networking. You need time to do this, and sincerity is also important.
    You can also build your network through networking sessions. For example, I attended a conference chaired by the Energy ministry recently, where they spoke about the future of energy in Malaysia and I met with a couple of important players in the industry. So I think online and offline networking are both quite important.

  6.  In your experience, what is the awareness level on Renewable Energy in Asia? 
    Now it’s much better compared to when I first started out in the industry. 10 year ago, whenever I mentioned solar energy, people would associate it with electronic-compliance. And now, people can tell the difference between solar photovoltaic (generate electricity through light) and solar thermal (generate hot water through heat). And they’re also aware about the Feed-in Tariff in which you can sell solar energy to TNB. In Asia, Thailand is well ahead of Malaysia in solar energy development. Philippines is growing very rapidly in the past few years. If you compare Malaysia with US and Europe, generally the awareness level is at 60% in Malaysia and in US or European market is at 70% - so the gap is not too far, it will just take time.

  7. You started from just 3 (you and the co-founders), and now you have almost 60 employees. Are there any expansion plans for your company? 
    Yes, we definitely have plans for expansion. We plan to set up more offices in Malaysia. Right now we have offices in Penang and KL, and we’ve also set up a regional office in Singapore. Our projects right now can be found all over Malaysia, excluding Sarawak. We are looking to have projects in Vietnam, Thailand, and Philippines.

  8. What are the challenges you’ve faced in this industry? How did you overcome them?
    We are running a sustainable business in a not quite sustainable way because of policy limitations. We are heavily reliant on policies and government incentives. Without policies in place, the business cannot run. But things are better now. Without the FiT, licensing or quota, we wouldn’t be able to run solar energy business because the price was high compared with TNB price. But now the price of solar energy has dropped the past few years, about 98% lower.
    Now we changed to a new policy called Net Energy Metering (NEM) or Self-Consumption. With this in place, you don’t really need to apply for subsidy from the government but this is more for tax benefits. To overcome these challenges, we work closely with the government and policy-makers in designing such policies to make this industry more sustainable.

  9. Where do you see the industry in the next 10-20 years? 
    I think there will be more self-sufficient energy sources. You may be able to build your own microgrid. From centralized power source, we may be going into decentralized power source. For centralized power source, the disadvantage is the emission energy loss is at 30%, which is quite substantial and inefficient. If you go for decentralized power source, for example you have your own micro grid and build your own solar energy source on your roof top, the way you conserve energy will be much more efficient. The empowerment of people to generate their own energy resources will be much higher than before. Renewable energy, clean energy will be smarter thanks to digital technology. Digitization will help with monitoring, controlling, and analysis of clean energy because then you’re able to use it in a more efficient way.

  10. In this day and age, new technologies are emerging faster than ever before. How is technology reshaping the work that you do?
    The changes in the energy industry is not that fast, compared to the retail industry which has evolved into online businesses. Energy industry is more challenging because there are infrastructure limitations. Large, established oil & gas businesses that have been in the industry for a while may have more resources and the infrastructure is owned by government. You can’t easily disrupt the infrastructure. It all takes time and persistence. Though now I think the progress will accelerate because the digital technology is much better and the grid is getting smarter.

  11. There have been recent studies and articles that say the youths, especially millennials, are not so keen to join the Oil & Gas sector. However, they might be keener on Renewable Energy, as they are becoming more environmentally conscious. Do you see a boom in Renewable Energy job market especially in Malaysia?
    Yes, there is a gradual boom in the job market. It used to be difficult to search for renewable energy companies. But now there is a bigger interest and demand in the industry. For example, we have someone who studied chemical engineering but had little interest in oil and gas industry. So she decided to explore and try working in a renewable energy company, and that’s how she ended up with us. I believe that youngsters nowadays prefer doing something more meaningful in their careers, rather than just focusing on the income aspect. Money is important, but they are also looking for ways to create a positive impact or contribute to the society, and they enjoy being involved in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. We do encourage this in our company and as a matter of fact, one of our upcoming project involves a village where we will help power up some of the houses with solar energy and we’re quite excited about this.

  12. We all know what they say about all work and no play. What do you enjoy doing in your free time? 
    I really do enjoy my work, so I don’t quite draw the line between work and play. I found this quote that goes: “If you can find a job that you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” This quote changed my perspective. But in my free time, I like to read. I read about the business and the future trends. I also like to attend different events, mix with people from different industries such as IT, FMCG, etc. I enjoy finding out about different business perspectives. I like travelling. But sometimes when I’m travelling I also get ideas for the business! And I enjoy spending time with friends and watching movies.

  13. What is the one piece of advice you wish you knew when you started that you want the next generation of Energy, Oil & Gas professionals to know? 
    Always focus on 3 things. Know what is your passion, know what it is you like to do. Secondly, focus on your strength. You may like to sing, but it doesn’t mean you can sing well. Put more time to focus on your strength so you can be outstanding. If your strength is what you like to do, that’s good. Third, look at the market demand. If there’s a demand for it, you’re able to solve a problem. These 3 things are your foundation. Next, you need to choose which industry you’d like to venture further. And you should also understand the entire supply chain of that field so you can decide where you want to be.
    You should also ask these questions, if you’re an engineer. Do you want to be involved in business, become a Project engineer, or a Technical engineer? If you have no idea, I would recommend for you to start as a Technical engineer. If you have solid technical knowledge, you can move anywhere else. Your knowledge would be more valuable.
    For non-engineers, if you want to join the energy industry, you still need to know everything about the industry.
    For me, I knew that I wanted to be a Business type of engineer. But I started as a technical engineer and was very hands on, and I wanted to learn as much as I could to progress further as a business person.
    It all starts with your mind. Know ultimately where you want to go. You must always start with the end in mind. From there you can plan your career path.


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The United States installed more wind turbine capacity in 2020 than in any other year

U.S. wind turbine electricity generating capacity additions

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory

In both 2019 and 2020, project developers in the United States installed more wind power capacity than any other generating technology. According to data recently published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in its Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory, annual wind turbine capacity additions in the United States set a record in 2020, totaling 14.2 gigawatts (GW) and surpassing the previous record of 13.2 GW added in 2012. After this record year for wind turbine capacity additions, total wind turbine capacity in the United States is now 118 GW.

The impending phaseout of the full value of the U.S. production tax credit (PTC) at the end of 2020 primarily drove investments in wind turbine capacity that year, just as previous tax credit reductions led to significant wind capacity additions in 2012 and 2019. In December 2020, Congress extended the PTC for another year.

net electricity generation from wind and other sources in selected states

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly

Texas has the most wind turbine capacity among states: 30.2 GW were installed as of December 2020. In 2020, Texas generated more electricity from wind than the next three highest states (Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas) combined. However, Texas generates and consumes more total electricity than any other state, and wind remains slightly less than 20% of the state’s electricity generation mix.

In two other states—Iowa and Kansas—wind is the most prevalent source of in-state electricity generation. In both states, wind surpassed coal as the state’s top electricity generation source in 2019.

wind's share of in-state utility-scale electricity generation

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly

Nationally, 8.4% of utility-scale electricity generation in 2020 came from wind turbines. Many of the turbines added in late 2020 will contribute to increases in wind-powered electricity generation in 2021. EIA expects wind’s share of electricity generation to increase to 10% in 2021, according to forecasts in EIA’s most recent Short-Term Energy Outlook.

March, 05 2021
Myanmar’s Coup and Repercussions to Its Oil Industry

It was a good run while it lasted. Almost exactly a decade ago, the military junta in Myanmar was dissolved, following civilian elections. The country’s figurehead, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest to lead, following in the footsteps of her father. Although her reputation has since been tarnished with the Rohingya crisis, she remains beloved by most of her countrymen, and her installation as Myanmar’s de facto leader lead to a golden economic age. Sanctions were eased, trade links were restored, and investment flowed in, not least in the energy sector. Yet the military still remained a powerful force, lurking in the background. In early February, they bared their fangs. Following an election in November 2020 in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won an outright majority in both houses of Parliament. A coup d’etat was instigated, with the Tatmadaw – the Burmese military – decrying fraud in the election. Key politicians were arrested, and rule returned to the military.

For many Burmese, this was a return to a dark past that many thought was firmly behind them. Widespread protests erupted, quickly turning violent. The Tatmadaw still has an iron grip, but it has created some bizarre situations – ordinary Burmese citizens calling on Facebook and foreign governments to impose sanctions on their country, while the Myanmar ambassador to the United Nations was fired for making an anti-army speech at the UN General Assembly.

The path forward for Myanmar from this point is unclear. The Tatmadaw has declared a state of emergency lasting up to a year, promising new elections by the end of 2021. There is little doubt that the NLD will win yet another supermajority in the election, IF they are fair and free. But that is a big if. Meanwhile, the coup threatens to return Myanmar to the pariah state that it was pre-2010. And threatens to abort all the grand economic progress made since.

In the decade since military rule was abolished, development in Myanmar has been rapid. In the capital city Yangon, glittering new malls have been developed. The Ministry of Energy in 2009 was housed in a crumbling former high school; today, it occupies a sprawling complex in the new administrative capital of Naypyidaw. While not exactly up to the level of the Department of Energy in Washington DC, it is certainly no longer than ministry that was once reputed to take up to three years to process exploration licences for offshore oil and gas blocks.

And it is that very future that is now at stake. Energy has been a great focus for investment in Myanmar, drawn by the rich offshore deposits in the Andaman Sea and the country’s location as a possible pipeline route between the Middle East and inland China. Estimates suggest that – based on pre-coup trends – Myanmar was likely to attract over US$1.1 billion in upstream investment in 2023, more than four times projected for 2021 and almost 20 times higher than 2011. The funds would not only be directed at maintaining production at the current Yadana, Yetagun, Zawtika and Shwe gas fields – where offshore production is mainly exported to Thailand, but also upcoming megaprojects such as Woodside and Total’s A-6 deepwater natural gas and PTTEP’s Aung Sinka Block M3 developments.

The coup now presents foreign investors in Myanmar’s upstream energy sector with a conundrum and reputational risk. Stay, and risk being seen as abetting an undemocratic government? Or leave, and risk being flushing away years of hard work? The home governments of foreign investors such as Total, Chevron, PTTEP, Woodside, Petronas, ONGC, Nippon Oil, Kogas, POSCO, Sumitomo, Mitsui and others have already condemned the coup. For now these companies are hoping that foreign pressure will resolve the situation in a short enough timeframe to allow business to resume. Australia’s Woodside Petroleum has already called the coup a ‘transitionary issue’ claiming that it will not affect its exploration plans, while other operators such as Total and Petronas have focused on the safety of their employees as they ‘monitor the evolving situation’.

But the longer the coup lasts without a resolution satisfactory to the international community and the longer the protests last (and the more deaths that result from that), the more untenable the position of the foreign upstream players will be. Asian investors, especially the Chinese, mainly through CNPC/PetroChina, and the Thais, through PTTEP - will be relatively insulated, but American and European majors face bigger risks. This could jeopardise key projects such as the Myanmar-to-China crude oil and natural gas pipeline project (a 771km connection to Yunnan), two LNG-to-power projects (Thaketa and Thilawa, meant to deal with the country’s chronic blackouts) and the massive Block A-6 gas development in the Shwe Yee Htun field by Woodside which just kicked off a fourth drilling campaign in December.

It is a big unknown. The Tatmadaw has proven to be impervious to foreign criticism in the past, ignoring even the most stringent sanctions thrown their way. In fact, it was a huge surprise that the army even relinquished power back in 2010. But the situation has changed. The Myanmar population is now more connected and more aware, while the army has profited off the opening of the economy. The economic consequences of returning to its darker days might be enough to trigger a resolution. But that’s not a guarantee. What is certain is that the coup will have a lasting effect on energy investment and plans in Myanmar. How long and how deep is a question that only the Tatmadaw can answer. 

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$63-65/b, WTI – US$60-63/b
  • The slow-but-sure recovery in Texan energy infrastructure following the big freeze has caused crude oil benchmarks to retreat somewhat, with all eyes now focusing on OPEC+ as it meets to decide its supply quotas for April and beyond
  • Some form of supply easing is expected, given that the market is showing signs of tight supply, but OPEC+ is still split on how aggressive it can be; Saudi Arabia is advocating caution while most others, led by Russia, favour a bolder easing given current prices
  • While OPEC+ supply will be keenly watched as an indicator of future crude trends, supply elsewhere is picking up, with the Baker Hughes survey of active oil and gas rigs in the USA crossing the 400-site level for the first time in over a year, with gains mainly from onshore shale drillers tempted back after being wiped up last year

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March, 03 2021
The Competition For The LNG Crown

The year 2020 was exceptional in many ways, to say the least. All of which, lockdowns and meltdowns, managed to overshadow a changing of the guard in the LNG world. After leapfrogging Indonesia as the world’s largest LNG producer in 2006, Qatar was surpassed by Australia in 2020 when the final figures for 2019 came in. That this happened was no surprise; it was always a foregone conclusion given Australia’s massive LNG projects developed over the last decade. Were it not for the severe delays in completion, Australia would have taken the crown much earlier; in fact, by capacity, Australia already sailed past Qatar in 2018.

But Australia should not rest on its laurels. The last of the LNG mega-projects in Western Australia, Shell’s giant floating Prelude and Inpex’s sprawling Ichthys onshore complex, have been completed. Additional phases will provide incremental new capacity, but no new mega-projects are on the horizon, for now. Meanwhile, after several years of carefully managing its vast capacity, Qatar is now embarking on its own LNG infrastructure investment spree that should see it reclaim its LNG exporter crown in 2030.

Key to this is the vast North Field, the single largest non-associated gas field in the world. Straddling the maritime border between tiny Qatar and its giant neighbour Iran to the north, Qatar Petroleum has taken the final investment decision to develop the North Field East Project (NFE) this month. With a total price tag of US$28.75 billion, development will kick off in 2021 and is expected to start production in late 2025. Completion of the NFE will raise Qatar’s LNG production capacity from a current 77 million tons per annum to 110 mmtpa. This is easily higher than Australia’s current installed capacity of 88 mmtpa, but the difficulty in anticipating future utilisation rates means that Qatar might not retake pole position immediately. But it certainly will by 2030, when the second phase of the project – the North Field South (NFS) – is slated to start production. This would raise Qatar’s installed capacity to 126 mmtpa, cementing its lead further still, with Qatar Petroleum also stating that it is ‘evaluating further LNG capacity expansions’ beyond that ceiling. If it does, then it should be more big leaps, since this tiny country tends to do things in giant steps, rather than small jumps.

Will there be enough buyers for LNG at the time, though? With all the conversation about sustainability and carbon neutrality, does natural gas still have a role to play? Predicting the future is always difficult, but the short answer, based on current trends, it is a simple yes. 

Supermajors such as Shell, BP and Total have set carbon neutral targets for their operations by 2050. Under the Paris Agreement, many countries are also aiming to reduce their carbon emissions significantly as well; even the USA, under the new Biden administration, has rejoined the accord. But carbon neutral does not mean zero carbon. It means that the net carbon emissions of a company or of a country is zero. Emissions from one part of the pie can be offset by other parts of the pie, with the challenge being to excise the most polluting portions to make the overall goal of balancing emissions around the target easier. That, in energy terms, means moving away from dirtier power sources such as coal and oil, towards renewables such as solar and wind, as well as offsets such as carbon capture technology or carbon trading/pricing. Natural gas and LNG sit right in the middle of that spectrum: cleaner than conventional coal and oil, but still ubiquitous enough to be commercially viable.

So even in a carbon neutral world, there is a role for LNG to play. And crucially, demand is expected to continue rising. If ‘peak oil’ is now expected to be somewhere in the 2020s, then ‘peak gas’ is much further, post-2040s. In 2010, only 23 countries had access to LNG import facilities, led by Japan. In 2019, 43 countries now import LNG and that number will continue to rise as increased supply liquidity, cheaper pricing and infrastructural improvements take place. China will overtake Japan as the world’s largest LNG importer soon, while India just installed another 5 mmtpa import terminal in Hazira. More densely populated countries are hopping on the LNG bandwagon soon, the Philippines (108 million people), Vietnam (96 million people), to ensure a growing demand base for the fuel. Qatar’s central position in the world, sitting just between Europe and Asia, is a perfect base to service this growing demand.

There is competition, of course. Russia is increasingly moving to LNG as well, alongside its dominant position in piped natural gas. And there is the USA. By 2025, the USA should have 107 mmtpa of LNG capacity from currently sanctioned projects. That will be enough to make the USA the second-largest LNG exporter in the world, overtaking Australia. With a higher potential ceiling, the USA could also overtake Qatar eventually, since its capacity is driven by private enterprise rather than the controlled, centralised approach by Qatar Petroleum. The appearance of US LNG on the market has been a gamechanger; with lower costs, American LNG is highly competitive, having gone as far as Poland and China in a few short years. But while the average US LNG breakeven cost is estimated at around US$6.50-7.50/mmBtu, Qatar’s is even lower at US$4/mmBtu. Advantage: Qatar.

But there is still room for everyone in this growing LNG market. By 2030, global LNG demand is expected to grow to 580 million tons per annum, from a current 360 mmtpa. More LNG from Qatar is not just an opportunity, it is a necessity. Traditional LNG producers such as Malaysia and Indonesia are seeing waning volumes due to field maturity, but there is plenty of new capacity planned: in the USA, in Canada, in Egypt, in Israel, in Mozambique, and, of course, in Qatar. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter which country holds the crown of the world’s largest exporter, because LNG demand is a rising tide, and a rising tide lifts all 😊

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$64-66/b, WTI – US$60-63/b
  • Despite the thaw after Texas saw a devastating big freeze, the slow ramp-up in restoring US Gulf Coast oil production and refining has supported crude oil prices, with Brent moving above the US$65/b level and WTI now in the low US$60/b level
  • Some Wall Street analysts, including Goldman Sachs, are predicting that oil prices could climb above US$70/b level based on current fundamentals, as the short-term spike gives ways to accelerating consumption trends
  • However, much will depend on OPEC+’s approach to managing supply in Q2, with a meeting set for early March; Saudi Arabia is once again urging caution, but there are many other members of the club champing at the bit to increase output and capitalise on the rising price environment


March, 01 2021