Meeting Targets, Missing People: The Energy Security Implications of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE)

By Sovacool, Benjamin K.; Bulan, L. C. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Meeting Targets, Missing People: The Energy Security Implications of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE)


Sovacool, Benjamin K., Bulan, L. C., Contemporary Southeast Asia


In June 1982, a Soviet natural gas pipeline caught fire and detonated in Siberia, causing an explosion so large that US early warning satellites initially determined it to be a nuclear weapons test. The cause of the blast, it turned out, was a malfunction in the pipeline's computer control system. A few years earlier, Soviet intelligence operatives had allegedly stolen pipeline supervisory control and data acquisition software from Canada, not knowing that US Central Intelligence Agency agents had tampered with the software and "planted" it in Canada for the Soviets to steal. The bugged software reset pump speeds and valve settings, producing pressures which eventually caused the pipeline to malfunction. The result is what The Economist has described as the "most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space". (1)

The anecdote is apt for it reveals how energy infrastructure and national security are intertwined, so much that spies explicitly targeted pipeline software to weaken an enemy. The energy challenges facing Asia today, however, require a conception of energy security far more complex than Cold War plots to sabotage energy infrastructure. As the global economy continues its climb out of recession, satisfying the demand for accessible, environmentally acceptable and affordable energy supplies will remain a prerequisite for sustaining economic development and lifting millions of Southeast Asians out of poverty. As forecasts project a regional annual demand growth of 2.5 per cent (reaching 65 per cent above current energy consumption levels by 2030), securing adequate supplies of traditional fuels will only become more urgent. (2)

The threats to energy security are manifold and include poor planning, a lack of energy diversification and climatic and weather-related events. For example, the Philippines' nationwide electricity breakdown in February-March 2010--which led to weeks of plant failures and roiling blackouts--was caused by El Nino-induced droughts, curbing the country's hydroelectric capacity. The longevity of the outages was exacerbated by human error, with critics identifying historical underinvestment in the energy sector, improper facility maintenance and delayed emergency response measures as causal factors. Some threats to energy security, such as unexpected demand spikes, can be avoided by taking precautionary measures such as building reserve capacity sufficient to buffer such eventualities. Others, such as the threat of a terrorist attack on oil tankers in the Straits of Malacca issued in March 2010, are more difficult to prevent. (3)

Collectively, these impediments to energy security cause more than just inconvenience. They result in higher transportation and electricity costs which can exacerbate poverty. Since the poor pay a disproportionate share of their income on energy-related expenses, they are most impacted by these price hikes, whether from tariff reforms or commodity market bubbles. Energy insecurity can also bankrupt firms unable to pass on extra costs to their customers. At an acute level, supply disruptions may expose millions of households to extreme temperatures for extended periods, as in the January 2009 Russia-Ukraine natural gas dispute, which rendered the poor and the elderly most vulnerable. Threats such as these interrupt economic activity in the short run and may lead to social unrest in the long run.

This study focuses on the energy security implications of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE), which if completed will be the most capital intensive and ambitious energy project ever undertaken in Southeast Asia. We define energy security as the challenge of equitably providing affordable, reliable, efficient, environmentally benign, judiciously governed and socially acceptable energy services to customers (or "end users"). (4) In short, it is no longer possible to view energy security as merely direct national control over energy fuels such as oil or natural gas. …

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