Fishermen working near the first towers of wind turbines

Fishermen working near the first towers of wind turbines from Vietnam's first wind power plant along a sea coast on the southern coastal province of Bac Lieu. (Photo: DUY KHOI / AFP)

Perceptions and Pathways of Energy Transition in Southeast Asia

Published

The results of the 2022 Southeast Asia Climate Outlook have significant overlaps with ASEAN’s long-term transition scenarios to cleaner energy futures. But the survey also reveals that opinions on renewables vary across nationalities, the urban/ rural divide and between socio-economic groups.

Climate change mitigation is dependent on long-term planning by governments as well as public perceptions of renewable energy technologies. Yet, while the former is often discussed in academic and policy circles, there is less emphasis on understanding how Southeast Asians perceive the various technological, environmental, economic and social impacts of energy transition and the level of acceptance of energy transition. Insights into public perceptions can inform policies that have higher levels of acceptance. The findings of the 2022 Southeast Asia Climate Outlook show that the perceptions of Southeast Asians have significant overlaps with long-term transition scenarios envisioned by ASEAN as a regional group. Yet, opinions vary between nationalities, urban and rural respondents and socio-economic groups.

Among Southeast Asian respondents, 37.5 per cent believe that solar energy has the greatest potential for clean electricity generation, while 19.9 per cent see hydropower as the driver of energy transition (Figure 1). These two technologies received the highest level of support in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. Such findings correspond with future energy scenarios presented in the 7th ASEAN Energy Outlook (AEO), a biennial report published by the ASEAN Centre for Energy, an intergovernmental organisation which seeks to consolidate and compare national energy plans with ASEAN’s regional plans. The 7th AEO similarly places emphasis on solar and hydropower playing important roles in a regional transition. For example, under one scenario, the contribution of hydropower is expected to increase from approximately 21 per cent at present to as much as 35.4 per cent by 2050. Similarly, solar power, which currently accounts for 7.9 per cent of electricity generation, will increase to 13 per cent by 2050. The prominence of hydropower and solar power among public perceptions and future modelling is driven largely by successful projects in recent years, which includes the development of large floating solar farms in Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia and the expansion of hydropower generation facilities in Laos and Indonesia.

Among the respondents, 11.2 per cent believe that wind energy has an important role in energy transition, making it the third most popular energy source. The highest preference for wind power is from Vietnam, followed by the Philippines and Thailand. Currently, wind plays a relatively small role in electricity generation in ASEAN, with only 2,665 MW (or 0.93 per cent) of installed capacity in 2020. Future modelling of energy scenarios show that wind power can contribute as much as 8,000 MW of energy generation by 2050. This will require long-term investment into the development of both on-shore and-off wind resources.

The survey also shows that respondents in Myanmar and Singapore evince strong approval for green hydrogen, despite it not being commercially viable at present. Respondents in Indonesia and the Philippines view geothermal energy more favourably, while Singapore respondents are the largest supporters of nuclear energy. These choices can be partly explained by geography and partly by policy shifts — the proximity of Indonesia and the Philippines to the Ring of Fire provides these countries with enormous potential for geothermal energy. Singapore’s lack of space and natural resources has necessitated a shift towards looking for a flexible and diversified approach to energy technologies.

When there is tangible evidence that deploying large-scale, feasible and commercially viable technologies leads to socio-economic benefits, public perceptions are more likely to embrace change.

Figure 2 highlights the urban/rural divide in perceptions regarding renewable energy. While solar energy is preferred in all areas, hydropower is significantly more popular among respondents in rural regions. This may show that rural respondents perceive hydropower projects as having a positive impact on local economic growth, including job creation and access to electrification. Green hydrogen is favoured more in urban than rural areas, which may indicate that respondents in cities are more receptive to new energy technologies. No respondents from rural areas and only a minority from urban centres support nuclear energy, which can be related to general apprehension about nuclear safety.

As shown in Figure 3, respondents express high levels of confidence in the positive impact of climate change policies on innovation and economic competitiveness. The average score on a scale of 1 to 10 in ASEAN is 7.0, compared to 6.6 last year, which may be a result of the successful development of solar and hydropower capacity in many Southeast Asian countries and ambitious plans by regional governments to invest in wind, geothermal and hydrogen projects. The survey findings relate to future scenarios that propose that investment in renewable energy will create  5.5 million jobs in Southeast Asia by 2050. At the country level, respondents in the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia have the highest levels of confidence in the positive economic impacts of climate policies, while those in Myanmar and Brunei Darussalam are more sceptical.

The survey shows that socio-economic status does not necessarily correlate to perceptions regarding the economic impacts of climate policies (Fig 4). In some instances, people with a higher socio-economic status show less confidence. Still, there is a consistent increase in optimism about climate policies towards the top end of the socio-economic spectrum.

As highlighted in Figure 5, people with higher levels of education are more optimistic about the economic impacts of energy transition. This indicates that greater outreach about the positive economic impacts of energy transition among respondents with lower education levels may be necessary for acceptance of renewable energy projects.

The findings should speak to regional governments looking to map out national energy transition pathways to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and to regional-level planning as detailed in the 7th ASEAN Energy Outlook. When there is tangible evidence that deploying large-scale, feasible and commercially viable technologies leads to socio-economic benefits, public perceptions are more likely to embrace change. For the private sector looking for investable projects in the region, these findings may also provide assurance to the level of acceptance towards planned projects. ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners looking to engage in this new and emerging area of cooperation of climate change would do well to pay attention to these changing perceptions when looking for joint cooperation projects in the region.

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Mirza Sadaqat Huda is Lead Researcher in the Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.


Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.