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A Malaysian Journey Towards Sustainable Living

This post was written by Stephanie Bacon.

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Sustainability was much more than just a buzzword for Stephanie Bacon and her husband, it was their ultimate goal. Share their journey towards creating a fully sustainable home in Malaysia as she tells her story here.

Arriving in Malaysia in July 2004, my late husband Harry Boswell and I knew how we wanted to live, but scarcely realised that we were embarking on an exciting journey to fully sustainable living.

Our last home in England was set on six acres of Cambridgeshire countryside on which we planted over 10,000 trees; only 12-18 inches tall when planted, but many were over 50 feet in height when we left them some 24 years later. Our home was energy-efficient and although by virtue of the trees, we were carbon-neutral (the trees consumed more carbon dioxide than we produced), we were not living truly sustainably. We still used fossil fuels to keep our home warm in the English winter.

First Steps

Knowing that the Malaysian climate, with both its high temperatures and high humidity, would force us into energy consumptive air-conditioning, and wishing our new home to be cheap to run was the first challenge. So, with all our past experiences in conserving energy being to reduce heat loss, we began our quest to reverse these techniques for Malaysia and together with the latest technology, produce a home with an easily affordable, continuously controlled, cool climate.

Our concept evolved into COOLTEK, a single-storey bungalow in a lush jungle location at the edge of Tiara Melaka Golf and Country Club, Ayer Keroh, Melaka. Starting from the ground up, COOLTEK is highly insulated with thick insulation under the flooring, with wide, lightweight, aerated block walls, doubleglazed PVC windows and insulation above the ceiling, and a white, steel roof that reflects some of the sun’s heat during the day and quickly dispels any it overnight. Here in Malaysia, we needed to keep the cold in, rather than out and treat the sun as an enemy rather than a friend.

Making best use of the build site, the main part of the building is positioned so that the windows only face south and north, thereby avoiding direct entry of the sun’s radiation. Below ground, concrete cooling chambers at the jungle edge with large intake pipes have been incorporated to bring cool, filtered, fresh air into the house at one end while a large thermal chimney at the other end of the building expels any heat from the house. Windows are non-opening and doors have double rubber seals to keep out the heat.

All electrical appliances and lighting within the air-conditioned area were chosen for their low energy consumption and therefore lower waste heat production. The refrigerator, the most energy-consumptive appliance in any home where air conditioning is not used, is placed at the foot of the chimney, allowing all of the heat it generates to escape immediately upwards. All the heat from cooking and vacuum cleaning is kept separate from the air conditioned area. The original air conditioning system was a Toshiba multi-split, inverter type with a claimed 30% greater efficiency compared to more conventional types of air conditioning.

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Stage One Complete, On to Stage Two

We completed our new home in October 2005, providing a comfortable environment where the temperature was kept at 24°C at all times with a relative humidity of 55%; all with limited environmental damage from electrical energy consumption. Just eight units of electricity per day, costing around RM2, was all it took for 24-hour air conditioning, but COOLTEK still needed fossil fuels to run the air conditioning.

The year 2007 saw the introduction of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels for generating the electricity from sunlight. Like the icing on the cake, 40 Mitsubishi panels were spread across the COOLTEK roof, partially funded with a grant under the Malaysian Government’s SURIA 1000 programme. The system was connected to the Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) via a separate PV meter, so that any electricity generated but not consumed by COOLTEK could be used by the neighbouring houses.

Under this scheme, the PV panels were very expensive, costing around RM26,000 per kilowatt peak with a total cost to ourselves of RM55,000. Every month, TNB would read our standard consumption meter and the new PV meter to measure the units of electricity consumed and generated from the sunlight. The difference was calculated and we were charged for this amount of electricity only. It always worked out that we paid TNB something!

At this time, COOLTEK was around 70% sustainable, which meant that on average, the units of electricity generated by the PV system was 70% of the electricity that COOLTEK consumed. With this arrangement, it was going to take 30 or more years to repay our investment in the PV system, which was not economically sensible, but did give us a smug feeling that we were doing the right thing.

Stage Three: The Malaysian Feedin Tariff

Fortunately, in 2011 the Malaysia Government passed the necessary legal requirements in the form of RENEWABLE ENERGY Act 2011, which allowed the introduction of a FEED-IN TARIFF. Renewable Energy is electricity which is generated from non-fossil fuel sources, which are normally recognised as solar (both photovoltaic and thermal), biofuels (solids, liquids or gases produced from organic matter), wind, hydro, wave and tidal.

The FEED-IN TARIFF allows people who invest in Renewable Energy at both residential and commercial properties to be paid a premium for the electricity generated from a renewable energy source.

As part of the Renewable Energy Act 2011, TNB is authorised to collect a 1% levy on all consumers who use more than 300 kilowatt hours per month (Kumpulan wang tenaga boleh baharu on the TNB invoice). Once collected, this fund is passed to the Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA), where it is held as the Renewable Energy Fund and used to finance the Feed-in Tariff. By this means, nearly all Malaysians are contributing to saving the planet. (SEDA is the statutory body which administers the Feed-in Tariff and is part of the Minister of Energy, Green Technology and Water.)

The main justification for this inducement is that the use of a renewable energy to generate electricity reduces the amount of carbon dioxide, which is the main ‘greenhouse’ gas. Additionally, it can be argued that by generating electricity at the point it is consumed, if sufficient numbers are in place, it can reduce future building of fossil-fuelled power stations and increase national energy security.

Applying for the Feed-in Tariff was fun; it was launched at midnight on 1 December 2011, so Harry and I stayed up late to be first in the queue, but so did everyone else! As the online application system was completed locked up, we gave up and went to bed.

The next day, we spent all of our time completing all the necessary online forms, collecting the required documents and planning our trip to SEDA at Putrajaya. As well as the online submission, we had to deliver all hardcopy documentation to SEDA as soon as possible – it was still a race to see who could be first! On 5 December 2011, we went to SEDA offices to be told everything was in order with our application; great news.

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Back at COOLTEK, we did not have to wait long before being told on 8 December 2011 that our application was successful. From 5 February 2012, we would receive a premium rate of RM1.46 for each kilowatt hour of electricity our PV system generated. With all the paperwork complete, the practical side of initiating our Feed-in Tariff could start as our system was already operational.

The next step was to enter into a contract with TNB who initially buy the renewable energy. This time we knew we were the first. It took too long, with many telephone calls and hand-wringing but eventually on 5 March 2012 more than 40 TNB staff descended on COOLTEK to officially launch the first Renewable Energy installation to receive a Feed-in Tariff in Malaysia.

And so at last, COOLTEK was recovering sufficient sums from the PV system to ensure that our investment would be repaid within a reasonable time and thus encourage other households to do likewise. But it was not fully sustainable yet.

Final Stafe

As it is said, good things don’t last forever, and earlier this year the Toshiba air conditioning needed replacing. Four of the latest Panasonic Econavi inverter units were installed and hey presto, as they are more efficient than the 2005 Toshiba units, electricity consumption has decreased and so now the same, PV panels are generating more electricity than COOLTEK consumes. At last, as far as electricity is concerned, COOLTEK is fully sustainable.

So has it been worth all of the effort? Yes, definitely because our original dream of fully sustainable living has been achieved. But to anyone considering a similar goal, I would say this: you need to examine the way you use electricity and become Energy Efficient first. Only then will installing Renewable Energy make sense.

For further information: SEDA webpage: www.seda.gov.my  Cooltek webpage: www.cooltek.org 

Source: The Expat January 2014

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