Renewables turning favourable

The Sawira Makmur 1MW Biogas Power Plant is one of the projects in their portfolio.

Green businesses used to be looked upon as the province of idealists — you couldn’t make money with good intentions. But the tide seems to have turned, the founders of bio-gas company, Green Lagoon Technology, tells JOY LEE.

THE idea of sustainability and green businesses has garnered quite a bit of attention of late. But it wasn’t too long ago that such businesses weren’t taken seriously.

Raymond Cheah and Chan Sow Keong, who founded bio-gas company Green Lagoon Technology (GLT) in 2010, remember having to work hard to prove themselves in the green energy industry and instil customer confidence in their business model.

Back then, not many people were ready to take a bet on the green energy industry.

But Cheah notes that the industry’s hesitance was also due in part to how the renewable energy sector was evolving in those days.

In its early days, GLT mainly dealt with carbon credit projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) scheme. However, the CDM market started faltering around 2012, and the company was forced to shift its focus to a different segment to stay in business.

At around the same time, the Feed-in-Tariff (FiT) model started gaining ground in Malaysia where approved producers of renewable energy were allowed to sell electricity generated from renewable resources through the power grid. This enabled GLT to move into FiT power generation projects.

Although this presented the company with a potentially big business, it had to contend with the scepticism of bio-gas providers.

Electricity generated is sold back into the power grid.
Electricity generated is sold back into the power grid.

“We deal with palm oil mill owners. The collapse of the CDM market gave mill owners the impression that this would also fail. It was a new industry. The FiT programme needed time to mature and there was no success story at the time,” recalls Chan.

GLT currently provides build-own-operate-transfer projects and turnkey solutions for palm oil millers to manage the bio-gas emitted from palm oil mill effluents. The company specialises in bio-gas trapping, harvesting, storage, treatment and utilisation.

“A lot of palm oil millers, in a way, got burnt. That was a barrier. It was a challenge to get them to see that times had changed although we were still dealing with biogas. Only now, we were going into power generation,” adds Cheah.

Cheah and Chan were certain that this was the way of the future, and GLT embarked on its FiT projects in 2013, braving critics and doubters.

A typical project starts off with them carrying out feasibility studies once palm oil millers agree to participate. GLT would also need to enquire if the area could be connected to the power grid. Once these have been established, the company engages Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) to carry out a power systems study, and then it applies for the FiT quota from the sustainable Energy Development Authority (Seda).

Next, you have to obtain the money, explains Cheah.

A worker at the biodigester site where power is generated from palm oil mill effluent.
A worker at the biodigester site where power is generated from palm oil mill effluent.

Funding proved to be another big stumbling block for GLT. It was a catch-22 situation.

“We needed money to be successful but we couldn’t get money without being successful,” says Cheah.

They knocked on many doors, including banks and venture capitals, but failed to secure the funding needed to get their projects off the ground. Potential financiers were generally unfamiliar with the renewable energy industry and would set unfavourable terms to cover the perceived risks.

“I guess you could say the green industry was still quite green,” laughs Chan. But it was no laughing matter at the time, he acknowledges.

Out of options, Chan went back to his former employer, an established renewable energy firm, and managed to get them to come in as project partners. Once the initial projects kicked off, every bit of profit was reinvested back into the company to continue growing GLT.

Cheah remembers that the period required lots of personal sacrifices and quite a few instances of “shouting at people in the middle of the night”.

Fortunately, the industry — well supported by policies — began to see steady growth. Additionally, businesses such as palm oil millers were becoming more environmentally-conscious and began to view the FiT programmes as an opportunity to invest in bio-gas.

“Palm oil millers are not necessarily early adopters. They wait and see,” remarks Cheah.

Chan (left) and Cheah say customer confidence in the green energy business is rising.
Chan (left) and Cheah say customer confidence in the green energy business is rising.

“Thankfully, we have been involved in some of the more successful projects, so we’ve become a role model and people see that these projects have become successful. Now, more people are considering this. I think over the next two years, there will be more millers who will participate in this kind of projects,” says Cheah.

These days, millers are looking to them to turn their waste into gold. Palm oil mills supply GLT with palm oil mill effuents in exchange for royalty fee of between 10% and 13% from the sale of electricity generated and sold to TNB or other millers.

Chan and Cheah’s company has grown with the industry. GLT expects to record net profit of RM2.6mil on the back of RM29.6mil in revenue this year. Net profit is expected to more than double to RM5.9mil and revenue is expected to grow 22% to RM36.1mil in 2017.

Earlier this year, GLT raised more funds via equity crowdfunding platform, Crowdplus Asia, to fund ongoing and future projects. The company raised some RM800,000, double the amount of its initial target, which is equivalent to about 6.52% stake.

The tide has certainly turned and this proved a positive validation from investors, Cheah enthuses.

While the industry has also attracted more players, Chan says GLT has the advantage of being one of the forerunners with a good track record. In any case, there is room for more players.

Chan notes that only about 2% of power generated in Malaysia is renewable energy. The company is looking at using other feedstock apart from POME and may venture downstream.

Chan is also hopeful of an initial public offering exercise in 2018. The road ahead is still long with plenty of opportunities. And for GLT, there is only upside from here on.

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