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On the green power train
CHANGE starts at home.
Seven years after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster - which forced resource-scarce Japan to rethink its energy fuel mix - Mitsubishi Power began building the world's most advanced thermal power plants there as part of efforts to restore and revitalise the damaged prefecture.
The integrated coal gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plants - one is already in operation while another will be up and running sometime next year - employ cutting-edge technology that promises to pump more juice and cut carbon emissions compared with conventional plants and spur the disaster-hit region's goal to be energy-efficient following the closure of its nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the catastrophe.
Mitsubishi Power's role at its home base no doubt adds great heft as the Yokohama-headquartered energy company sets out to shore up its business in multi-faceted Asia-Pacific that is shifting into a new gear towards clean and reliable energy to fight climate change.
Leading that charge is Osamu Ono, who in April this year was appointed managing director and chief executive of Mitsubishi Power Asia Pacific, and left behind his "small farm" of okras, cucumbers and eggplants in Nagasaki, Japan - he loves gardening - for Singapore, his new base and the firm's regional headquarters.
"I have been here many times for business purposes but this is the first time I've been stationed here. I enjoyed the quarantine and lockdown," Mr Ono says. If he sounds almost facetious, he's in fact simply appreciative of the city-state's resolute approach to tackle the spread of the coronavirus.
Few could serve as a better point guard than Mr Ono to energise the power company's presence in the region - from New Zealand, Australia and Bangladesh to all of South-east Asia - where it has operated for half a century and built more than 100 power plants, nearly as many gas turbines and over 300 steam turbines.
Over the past two decades, the 60-year-old has been involved in the firm's after-sales business, covering multiple markets including far-flung Middle East, and the United States to South America.
Mr Ono, who plays golf as well as dives, is a through and through Mitsubishi lifer. He has stayed put in the conglomerate since he began his career back in 1983 at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) - the Tokyo-listed parent company of Mitsubishi Power and one of the world's leading industrial firms with a market value of some 740 billion yen (S$9.6 billion) and which last year earned US$40 billion in revenue.
The chosen career path of Mr Ono, who speaks in soft and measured tones, is hardly off the beaten track.
He was born in Nagasaki, a port city on the northwest coast of the island of Kyushu and the second-oldest Japanese port to be open to foreign trade. MHI has deep roots in Nagasaki and owned many dockyards as far back as the 19th century in the city which was a centre for heavy industries, chiefly shipbuilding.
Mr Ono grew up amid the hustle and bustle of a shipyard near his hometown and it could have been familiarity, among other factors, that won him over during one of MHI's recruitment drives at Kyushu University, where he was studying economics.
"It was then that I learnt that MHI provides power to countries all over the world, even emerging regions. Their commitment to improve the lives of people in less well-off countries impressed me. So I decided to join them," he recalls. "I was not a city boy. I love nature. I wanted to be environmentally friendly... treat the earth well. I felt that through MHI, I could contribute to the environment and improve society," says Mr Ono.
Of sashimi and tandoori
Not too long after he joined MHI's department for domestic nuclear power plants, he was faced with a daunting task - an overseas posting in New Delhi, India to oversee the firm's first export gas-fired combined-cycle project.
The posting lasted six years - double the original duration - and proved to be challenging, not least for his sashimi-seasoned palette that had to very quickly get used to the rich spices and aromas of Indian cuisine.
"The lifestyle, culture and weather were completely different. I love Indian food, but I did not enjoy eating it every day. There was no Japanese food (there) at that time... around 1987," he remembers.
By the time the New Delhi stint was up, Mr Ono - who attributes his "great discipline and agility" to his "traditional and strict" grandmother as well as kendo, a traditional Japanese sport similar to fencing - would add cross-cultural resilience under his belt as a skill set.
"This project in India is something I am very proud of because I survived and completed it. In this company, the completion of a project is something very important and celebrated."
In 2014, he joined MHI's power generation arm, Mitsubishi Power, and later spent a year based in Manila, the Philippines, where he led the operations there as senior executive vice-president for Asia Pacific.
For the financial year ended March 2020, Mitsubishi Power reported revenue of 1.12 trillion yen and, as at that period, had 1.26 trillion yen worth of orders across its power systems business. Presently, as the group's Asia-Pacific chief, Mr Ono leads, out of Singapore, a team of 2,000 across the region and oversees the firm's planning and execution of growth strategies.
Up until September this year, Mitsubishi Power was known as Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems. Under a re-branding exercise - which included a new logo (and mission statement to boot) and saw the firm drop the "Hitachi" and "Systems" from its corporate name - the company has electrified its green pitch.
The goal is to get a bigger bite of - and contribute to - the region's push for a carbon-free energy future (or decarbonisation) alongside the rise of renewables.
As a result of the exercise, Mitsubishi Power has become wholly owned by MHI Group - and it is now looking to tap new verticals from working with its sister companies and build on its investments in digital solutions, including emerging energy solutions such as hydrogen, ammonia and solar power.
In Mr Ono's view, the agenda to cut the carbon footprint or greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, is one of the greatest challenges facing the modern world.
The 2015 Paris agreement has set a global goal to reach net zero emissions around mid-century to halt climate change and dangerous overheating.
Asked for his thoughts on the US move to pull out of the Paris accord in 2016, he says: "That was America's political decision. So, I cannot say anything. We fully understand the climate change movement along with its challenges, so we are constantly trying to improve to fight climate change."
He adds, however, that he believes that many US companies were already on a cleaner energy path before the change in policy and that most have not deviated from that track.
Is net zero emissions a lofty goal?
Mr Ono replies: "While it may not be possible to reduce carbon emissions to zero immediately, that is still what we aim for. We firmly believe that through innovation and with the help of world-leading technologies, our dream of a completely carbon-free society gets closer every day."
None of this is going to be easy, especially for Asia-Pacific, given the wide-ranging complexities and nuances of its various markets, be it in terms of fuel resources, climate, energy policies or budget and economic standings.
To pull this off and tailor-make its products for the region, the company is banking on omotenashi, which means hospitality in Japanese. Mr Ono explains: "While in origin we are a Japanese company, we conduct our business with omotenashi in mind and spirit. We have very long relationships with some countries like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Hence, we understand their needs.
"This allows us to take unique approaches compared to our competitors. APAC are growing economies. So, they prioritise affordable and stable energy supply as well as mitigating economic loss."
In Thailand, the company deems itself to be an "all-round player", having supplied coal and oil-fired steam power plants as well as gas turbines, with an installed base of half the country's current power generation capacity.
Given the strong anti-coal protests there on the back of environmental and health concerns, Mitsubishi Power has supplied the country with its J-series air-cooled ("JAC series") gas turbines - one of the world's most efficient heavy-duty gas turbines which are also less carbon-intensive.
In Vietnam, a market faced with looming power shortages in the coming years on the back of a demand surge and where coal remains the most practical option, Mitsubishi Powers is developing two sets of steam turbine power plants.
That's not to say that coal is going to run out of style anytime soon.
The Australian Energy Market Operator reported that even with 63 per cent of coal-fired generation plants set to retire, the country would still need coal to be part of the energy source up to year 2040.
In Indonesia, which still relies on coal, some regions are exploring co-firing with non-fossil fuels. Although the country is concurrently exploring solar and wind energy, there are limitations, especially with solar power, as the panels require abundant land and the tropical climate (with irregular amounts of sunlight) is not ideal.
"There is still demand for coal usage due to its availability. So we have developed an IGCC plant in Japan that will have less emissions despite coal usage. This is the latest technology in coal firing," Mr Ono explains.
All fired up
Apart from advanced class gas turbines to support Asia-Pacific's green agenda, the company also offers biomass co-firing, hydrogen gas turbine and geothermal power plants.
Hydrogen, dubbed the fuel of the future, seems to be a sweet spot.
"We are now developing hydrogen-firing technologies for gas turbines. Using hydrogen as fuel does not emit CO2. That is why we are constantly innovating to support hydrogen combustion," Mr Ono says, adding that the company has a large project in the Netherlands to convert an existing 440MW natural gas-fired power plant to fully operate on hydrogen by 2025.
Another example is its latest technology or what it calls the power plant of the future - TOMONI, based on the Japanese word for "togetherness". TOMONI is essentially a customisable suite of digital solutions, which enables remote monitoring for autonomous power plant operation aimed at raising efficiency and operability. So far, it has been installed in a facility in Japan's Hyogo prefecture, which is set to become the world's first autonomous combined cycle power plant.
Mr Ono says: "This will catapult power generation into a future where digital technologies are fully integrated into plant operations. We have four bases for remote monitoring - one in the US, two in Japan and one in the Philippines," adding: "It is not only automation but also autonomous operation."
Managing Director and CEO
Mitsubishi Power Asia Pacific
1960: Born in Nagasaki, Japan
1983: Bachelor's degree in Economics, Kyushu University, Japan
1983: Joined Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) (sales department of domestic nuclear power plants)
1986 - 1996: Person-in-Charge and Deputy Manager, export sales section, MHI Nagasaki
1987 - 1992: Commercial and Administrative Manager, MHI India Project Office (based in New Delhi)
1996 - 2002: Deputy Manager, Power Systems Export Department, MHI HQ
2002 - 2006: Manager, Export Sales Section, MHI Nagasaki
2006 - 2011: Deputy General Manager, Service Department, MHI Nagasaki
2011 - 2017: General Manager, Service Department, MHI Nagasaki
2017 - 2019: Deputy Head, Service Headquarters, MHI HQ
2019 - 2020: Senior Executive Vice-President of Asia Pacific, Head of Philippine Branch, MHPS Asia Pacific (based in Manila)
Since April 2020: MD and CEO, Mitsubishi Power Asia Pacific (based in Singapore)