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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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Natural gas and wind forecast to be fastest growing sources of U.S. electricity generation

In its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that natural gas-fired electricity generation in the United States will increase by 6% in 2019 and by 2% in 2020. EIA also forecasts that generation from wind power will increase by 6% in 2019 and by 14% in 2020. These trends vary widely among the regions of the country; growth in natural gas generation is highest in the mid-Atlantic region and growth in wind generation is highest in Texas. EIA expects coal-fired electricity generation to decline nationwide, falling by 15% in 2019 and by 9% in 2020.

The trends in projected generation reflect changes in the mix of generating capacity. In the mid-Atlantic region, which is mostly in the PJM Interconnection transmission area, the electricity industry has added more than 12 gigawatts (GW) of new natural gas-fired generating capacity since the beginning of 2018, an increase of 17%.

This new natural gas capacity in PJM has replaced some coal-fired generating capacity—6 GW of coal-fired generation capacity has been retired in that region since the beginning of 2018. The Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in New Jersey was also retired in 2018, and the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania plans to shut down its last remaining reactor this month.

These changes in capacity contribute to EIA’s forecast that natural gas will fuel 39% of electricity generation in the PJM region in 2020, up from a share of 31% in 2018. In contrast, coal is expected to generate 20% of PJM electricity next year, down from 28% in 2018. In 2010, coal fueled 54% of the region’s electricity generation, and natural gas generated 11%.

PJM annual electric power sector generation

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook

Wind power has been the fastest-growing source of electricity in recent years in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) region that serves most of Texas. Since the beginning of 2018, the industry has added 3 GW of wind generating capacity and plans to add another 7 GW before the end of 2020. These additions would result in an increase of nearly 50% from the 2017 wind capacity level in ERCOT. EIA expects wind to supply 20% of ERCOT total generation in 2019 and 24% in 2020. If realized, wind would match coal’s share of ERCOT's electricity generation this year and exceed it in 2020.

ERCOT annual electric power sector generation

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook

Natural gas-fired generation in ERCOT has fluctuated in recent years in response to changes in the cost of the fuel. EIA forecasts the Henry Hub natural gas price will fall by 21% in 2019, which contributes to EIA’s expectation that ERCOT’s natural gas generation share will rise from 45% in 2018 to 47% this year. Although EIA forecasts next year’s natural gas prices to remain relatively flat in 2020, the large increase in renewable generating capacity is expected to reduce the region’s 2020 natural gas generation share to 41%.

September, 18 2019
Your Weekly Update: 9 - 13 September 2019

Market Watch  

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 9 September 2019 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$56/b

  • Hope reigns as the market banks on signs that the US and China could reach a trade deal would eliminate one of the largest risks to current oil prices: a full-blown global recession
  • However, this is merely the latest in a series of dashed hopes that has seen the trade war between the US and China – using tariffs as weapons – escalate dramatically over the year; new tariffs entered play September 1 and more could come, with both sides already feeling the pinch
  • But crude prices did get a lift from EIA data showing that US crude stockpiles fell far more than expected, down by 4.8 million barrels to its lowest level since October 2018 – an indication of strong demand, with US refinery utilisation at 94.8%
  • However, there are fissures appearing on the supply side that could trigger some risk premiums; in Venezuela, the upstream crisis continues with the latest blow being a Chinese contractor halting work over claims over non payment
  • More importantly, Saudi Oil Minister – or rather former Saudi Oil Minister Khalid al-Falih – was dismissed from the government; after initial reports suggested that al-Falih would focus on energy policy after the oil ministry was split, a royal decree issued days later confirmed his sacking
  • Saudi Arabia and its allies have been at pains to re-assure the market that the dismissal of al-Falih – who is respected around the world – will not impact Saudi production or the current OPEC+ supply pact
  • This will be confirmed at the upcoming OPEC+ meeting this week, which will be the first under Saudi Arabia’s new Energy Minister, one of the King’s sons Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman
  • Against this backdrop of turmoil, the active US rig count fell yet again; after two weeks of double-digit losses, US drillers lost four oil and two gas rigs, with losses seen once again in the Permian
  • Power moves within Saudi Arabia may have sent some tremors to the market, but it is likely that OPEC+ will stick to its commitments; with no signs that the US and China were doing anymore more than talking about talking, crude prices will remain rangebound – US$59-61/b for Brent and US$54-56/b for WTI

Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Total has suspended plans for the US$3.5 billion crude export pipeline that would connect Ugandan oilfield to port facilities in Tanzania after a failure to buy a stake in Tullow Oil’s upstream assets in Uganda linked to tax negotiations; this will require a complete restart for the Uganda project
  • With other supermajors pulling out, Total remains committed to the North Sea, with CEO Patrick Pouyanne looking to invest up to US$10 billion over the next five years but cautions that Total maintain strict cost discipline
  • The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD) has consented to the startup of the giant Johan Sverdrup field, a potential 660,000 b/d resource that has been called the North Sea’s ‘last hurrah’
  • Permian-focused player Concho Resource has agreed to sell its assets in the New Mexico Shelf to Spur Energy Partners for US$925 million, continuing a wave of consolidation in the US shale arena
  • Shell has announced plans to start drilling in the offshore Saturno field in Brazil, becoming one of the first private players tapping the pre-salt Santos Basin

Midstream/Downstream

  • Sinopec’s new 160 kb/d Yangzi refinery has begun production of Europe-standard gasoline, providing an outlet for Chinese fuel products amid a domestic glut that has seen refiners look overseas for sales
  • Petrobras is extending the deadline for interested parties for its four refineries on sale from September 16 to September 27, citing high investor interest for the refining assets that represent 37% of Brazilian capacity
  • Saudi Aramco continues its downstream push in China, signing an MoU with the Zhejiang Free Trade Zone that could pave the way for further investments beyond current plans to acquire 9% of the Zhejiang Petrochemical refinery
  • Russia’s Sibur will be cutting back LPG exports to Europe to some 2 million tons from a typical 3.5-4 million tons per year, redirecting the LPG to be used as feedstock for its ZapSibNefteKhim petrochemicals plant in Western Siberia

Natural Gas/LNG

  • Months of uncertainty have been put to rest as the government of Papua New Guinea endorsed the US$13 billion Papua LNG project, following some new commitments by project leader Total – primarily on local content
  • Also in PNG, the government has approved Australian independent Twinza Oil’s Pasca gas/condensate project - the country’s first offshore gas project
  • ExxonMobil and its partners have sanctioned plans for the 6.2 mtpa Sakhalin 1 LNG plant on Sakhalin Island in Russia’s far east, with easy access to Japan
  • Argentina’s YPF is pushing ahead with plans to build a US$5 billion LNG export terminal – tapping into the Vaca Muerta shale basin – despite continued domestic political and financial chaos hanging over the project
  • Petronas has agreed to purchase natural gas that is set to produced from the Gorek, Larak and Bakong fields in the SK408 area in Sarawak, jointly operated by SapuraOMV Upstream, Petronas Carigali and Shell
  • Qatar Petroleum has booked 100% of regasification capacity at the Fluxys Zeebrugge LNG terminal until 2044, consolidating Qatar’s hold on one of Northwest Europe’s important gas entry nodes
  • Equinor has brought the Snefrid Nord gas field online, which is the first of several planned projects related to the Aasta Hansteen field to begin production, with an initial output of 4 mcm/d
September, 13 2019
Global gas and LNG outlook to 2035
Expansion in the gas and LNG markets continues, with LNG demand expected to increase 3.6 percent per year to 2035.

Detailed market research and continuous tracking of market developments—as well as deep, on-the-ground expertise across the globe—informs our outlook on global gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG). We forecast gas demand and then use our infrastructure and contract models to forecast supply-and-demand balances, corresponding gas flows, and pricing implications to 2035.

Executive summary

The past year saw the natural-gas market grow at its fastest rate in almost a decade, supported by booming domestic markets in China and the United States and an expanding global gas trade to serve Asian markets. While the pace of growth is set to slow, gas remains the fastest-growing fossil fuel and the only fossil fuel expected to grow beyond 2035.

Global gas: Demand expected to grow 0.9 percent per annum to 2035

While we expect coal demand to peak before 2025 and oil demand to peak around 2033, gas demand will continue to grow until 2035, albeit at a slower rate than seen previously. The power-generation and industrial sectors in Asia and North America and the residential and commercial sectors in Southeast Asia, including China, will drive the expected gas-demand growth. Strong growth from these regions will more than offset the demand declines from the mature gas markets of Europe and Northeast Asia.

Gas supply to meet this demand will come mainly from Africa, China, Russia, and the shale-gas-rich United States. China will double its conventional gas production from 2018 to 2035. Gas production in Europe will decline rapidly.

LNG: Demand expected to grow 3.6 percent per annum to 2035, with market rebalancing expected in 2027–28

We expect LNG demand to outpace overall gas demand as Asian markets rely on more distant supplies, Europe increases its gas-import dependence, and US producers seek overseas markets for their gas (both pipe and LNG). China will be a major driver of LNG-demand growth, as its domestic supply and pipeline flows will be insufficient to meet rising demand. Similarly, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and South Asia will rely on LNG to meet the growing demand to replace declining domestic supplies. We also expect Europe to increase LNG imports to help offset declining domestic supply.

Demand growth by the middle of next decade should balance the excess LNG capacity in the current market and planned capacity additions. We expect that further capacity growth of around 250 billion cubic meters will be necessary to meet demand to 2035.

With growing shale-gas production in the United States, the country is in a position to join Australia and Qatar as a top global LNG exporter. A number of competing US projects represent the long-run marginal LNG-supply capacity.

Key themes uncovered

Over the course of our analysis, we uncovered five key themes to watch for in the global gas market:

  1. Global LNG-price indicators have partially converged with the differentials among Asia, Europe, and the United States, falling to the smallest they have been in longer than a decade.
  2. Asia is leading a third wave of market liberalization after those in the United States and Europe, likely bringing fundamental changes to Asian markets.
  3. Long-term contract-pricing mechanisms are evolving in indexation and slope as gas and oil markets diverge, placing pressure on buyers to reshape their contract portfolios, with up to $15 billion per year at stake.
  4. Substantial new investment is necessary to deliver the infrastructure required to meet demand growth.
  5. Traditional, bilateral business models for LNG are being challenged today, and new business models with an increased focus on commercial and trading capabilities are emerging.
September, 13 2019