The latest Nenggiri Dam project under Malaysia’s national utility, Tenaga Nasional (TNB) is making waves – in more than one sense of the word. The RM5 billion project, located in the north-eastern state of Kelantan, is anticipated to be a multipronged accomplishment; the project will not only supplement renewable energy for Malaysia, it is also expected to potentially generate 2,000 new jobs, on top of mitigating flood issues in the state.
High and wide impact
Spanning over 50 square kilometres (km2) of main reservoir area, Nenggiri Dam is the nation’s fourth largest hydro project; and with the dam’s height brushing just over 88 metres (m), it is equivalent to the length of a football field.
The expectations are clearly high for a project of such magnitude, but the project appears promising on a multitude of levels. Upon completion, the project is expected to deliver 300 megawatts (MW) of clean energy to the grid, while avoiding some 355,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the operation of thermal plants that typically run on fossil fuels.
From an energy security perspective, the hydropower dam aims to strengthen the country’s self-sufficiency and reduce dependency on imported fossil fuels. The project will also contribute to the reinforcement of power generation for Kelantan.
Hydro dams as a flood protection mechanism
The Nenggiri Dam is unique in the other prominent benefit it offers – the reduction of floods that persistently hit Kelantan. Doubling up as a water catchment and control system, water levels in the main reservoir area will be lowered to hold ample rainwater downpour during the monsoon season.
Researchers have explored the advantages of hydro projects as excellent defence against floods in many similar instances. In China, the Three Gorges Dam reportedly restricted water discharge at 19,000 cubic metres per second despite a higher average inflow of around 40,000 cubic meters per second into the reservoir. This catchment and control process is replicated in various other projects, including at the Maruyama Dam in Japan and in hydro dams in the United States, where floods downstream are mitigated by the presence of ponds that divert the flow of water from upstream.
In a region prone to dire climate shocks, the project could double up as a source of clean water for surrounding communities; supplementary facilities that follow the dam’s construction, such as water and sewage treatment facilities, form an additional source of clean water for household consumption and agricultural irrigation.
Local benefits underscoring project
Locally, the project is expected to deliver new job opportunities in both skilled and unskilled sectors. Manpower in area maintenance, security, project operation, and other fields of work will be required upon the project’s completion. Eco-tourism opportunities also present themselves with the construction of the reservoir lake, through attractions like potential aquaculture activities and recreational parks.
An ambitious and lengthy relocation project, taking into account the various requests and requirements of the indigenous (Orang Asli) communities affected, will also be rolled out. At present, indigenous communities have responded with an 80% buy-in rate to the project, after manifold engagements with the community’s households.
As part of the exchange agreement, households will receive guaranteed monthly payment packages and new, more comfortable housing, in addition to being involved in the project’s impact through community development groups and training. Other supplementary developments include the construction of clean water supply facilities, sewage treatment systems, driveways, clinics, multipurpose councils, school complexes, shop houses, sports and recreation facilities, and other functional community infrastructure.
Driving Malaysia’s clean energy transition
Perhaps the most singular rationale for driving ahead with the project is its contribution to the nation’s renewable energy mix. Earlier this year, Malaysia announced its ambitions to achieve 40% of renewables in its energy mix by 2035. On the same thread, TNB recently released a pledge of its continued commitment to a swift and successful clean energy transition which includes expanding its renewable energy portfolio.
In many ways, hydropower is positioned most suitably to help Malaysia, and many other countries, achieve its renewable goals. Unlike solar and wind which are intermittent and variable, hydropower is able to balance out variability and supply the peak load, since the source of power comes from a steady, repetitive movement of water waves. Hydro is a reliable and affordable source of clean energy, and the only clean energy option that can provide continuous energy at a large capacity.
The Nenggiri Dam project is a timely and significant project for the nation’s ambitious energy aspirations
Hydropower is also inexorably tied to the success stories of countries that achieve their renewable targets. From a multitude of case studies, we see how countries like Turkiye and Vietnam continuously make headwinds in their respective energy transitions, thanks to the inclusion of hydropower in their industry dictionaries.
In the long run, electricity generated by hydropower could contribute to cheaper electricity pricing and tariffs, given the long-life expectancy – more than 100 years – of a single large hydro project. With the world marching ahead on its renewable targets, it’s imperative that Malaysia is not left behind. The Nenggiri Dam project is a timely and significant project for the nation’s ambitious energy aspirations, and it’s vital that the right action steps are taken to ensure such a vision is executed cohesively into reality.