Asia's smart cities and the need for policy to catch up

The dramatic rise in urban populations necessitates an equally dramatic increase in energy capacity and sustainable waste management. Meeting this energy demand will be one of the major challenges for Asia's cities

Smart cities use technology to allow growing urban areas to manage the challenges of urbanisation, pollution, diminishing resources and to encourage sustainable economic growth.

Advanced Plasma Power, a UK-based waste to energy and fuels technology provider, took part in a UK Government Smart City mission at the end of 2012 to understand the capacity and potential for urban technological innovation in the Southeast Asia region.

The conditions on the ground are ripe for smart city technologies; technology could help growing urban populations and the corresponding rise in affluence in Southeast Asia by minimising the impact on the environment and optimising the use of resources. However, there is an urgent need for policy to catch up to drive this agenda forward. 

The United Nations Population Fund predicts that the population of the Asia-Pacific region is set to increase from 4 billion to 5 billion by 2050. This population expansion will take place predominantly in cities. Currently more than half of the world’s population is urban and it is predicted that this figure will increase to 70 per cent by 2030.

The dramatic rise in urban populations necessitates an equally dramatic increase in energy capacity and sustainable waste management. Meeting this energy demand will be one of the major challenges for the region’s cities in the coming decades. Renewable energy should form a central pillar of this to reduce pressure on resources, and ensure security of supply and low energy costs in the future.

The investments made thus far in developing renewable energy will not bear fruit until the right market conditions exist. Further government intervention and support is required to make fossil fuel energy sources less attractive than renewable energy as a long term financial investment.

This will be necessary, not only to cope with increasing demand, but also to ensure that countries meet their carbon targets.

In Asia, many cities are being built from scratch to accommodate the population influx from rural areas and this presents the perfect opportunity to integrate smart design within city planning. 

Many countries have set aggressive targets for renewable energy. For example Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore have pledged to increase installed renewable energy at a rate equivalent to five to six times greater than 2010 capacity over the next 20 years.

These targets are being supported in some countries with feed-in-tariffs similar to those which have led to an escalation of renewable energy deployment in Europe, particularly Germany. Elsewhere, investments are being pumped into the renewable energy sector. For example, Singapore is investing over $200 million in solar and Malaysia is investing $100 million in biodiesel production.

However, there is still a huge dependence on coal as it is cheap and abundant. Moreover, energy subsidies have to-date distorted the energy markets creating an unfair market advantage for conventional fuels and technologies in power generation. Coal producers in Indonesia still receive government incentives for mining, exploration, development and research. In 2008, energy subsidies for Southeast Asian countries totaled $61 billion. 

As a consequence, large scale renewable energy deployment cannot happen until the regulatory and financial frameworks are in place to correct current market distortions.

The investments made thus far in developing renewable energy will not bear fruit until the right market conditions exist. Further government intervention and support is required to make fossil fuel energy sources less attractive than renewable energy as a long term financial investment.

This will be necessary, not only to cope with increasing demand, but also to ensure that countries meet their carbon targets. For instance, Singapore and Thailand has voluntarily pledged carbon emission reduction targets in support of the Copenhagen Accord under the United Nations climate change framework.

APP believes that the waste to energy sector is vastly under-developed in the region but has some of the greatest potential.

Waste management is a growing problem. For example, in Singapore, waste is expected to double every decade, and this abundant resource could be sustainably used to generate clean and renewable heat, power and fuels. This would reduce the impact on the environment and pressure on resources whilst simultaneously providing energy security.

Advanced Plasma Power’s Gasplasma® process is an innovative combination of two well-established technologies – gasification and plasma treatment, both of which have decades of proven commercial operation.  

The highly efficient process creates a clean gas that can be used directly in gas engines and gas turbines (or fuel cells) or can be converted into substitute natural gas, hydrogen or liquid fuels. Gasplasma has very low emissions and can be situated close to centres of population, using the waste from the community and providing heat, power and fuels in return.

Local government policy needs to plan for the future and put renewable energy and sustainable waste management at the centre of its planning in order to deliver real smart cities. 

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