Thoughts on Singapore's new energy future, by Dr Michael Quah, Energy Studies Institute

As an American migrant worker, recently stationed in Singapore, I am both puzzled and fascinated by the high-wire balancing act executed recently by Singapore’s Economic Strategies Committee.

Why the puzzlement? In the US, where I have lived for almost four decades, technology policy is often heavily influenced by lobbyists and special interest groups, and once policy is set, someone asks “Gosh! Did the policy violate laws for science?”

For example, the 2008 debacle in Texas was caused when too much wind resources were installed (because of well-intentioned excitement over renewable energy resources) and that fact effected more blackouts! Why? Non-demand resources need the complementary energy storage systems, which were not in place; hence when demand remains high, when the wind dies down, system imbalances trigger blackouts.

A systems understanding or more importantly, a “system of systems” analysis would have pointed that technical detail out; but if legislators wanted to “out-green” one another by increasing the fraction of renewable resources, such system errors occur for lack of deep technical understanding.

Why the fascination? The ESC Sub-Committee 7 report truly reflected the background deliberations in a serious attempt to maintain the delicate balances among:

-Concerns for energy security

-Issues of climate change challenges, and

-The “Imperative” of sustained economic growth for Singapore (and the region.)

The broader committee recommendations also reflect the delicate balancing act between “allowing market forces to reallocate scare resources” and government “intervention” into stimulating specific industrial sectors. I contend that the effort to maintain the diversity of energy/environment recommendations is to be lauded.

In my past talks in Singapore, I have always contended that “energy security comes from energy diversity.” But given Singapore’s small geographic footprint, and given the “physics of low energy density” of renewable sources, such energy sources will play a minor role in supplying Singapore’s energy diets. Thus the importation of electricity from the next nearest neighbours (provided the electricity is derived from renewable sources) will:

-Indirectly enhance the renewable portfolio for Singapore

-Catalyze greater regional collaboration and cooperation.

Second, the knee-jerk reaction from anti-nuclear activists would be that the recommendations call for a nuclear plant within the confines of a small island. My reading of the recommendations, however, is different. The ESC simply calls for studying the feasibility of nuclear energy.

From the regional news reports, it is likely that within the next few decades, ASEAN will go nuclear and whether or not Singapore hosts a nuclear facility in the country, I contend that the long, extended logistics tail for nuclear technologies is such that all the countries of the region will benefit from riding the logistics bandwagon.

Beyond the supply of carbon-neutral electricity, the adoption of nuclear power in any one country in the region triggers a proliferation of new jobs and new skill-sets which span the entire supply chain: from the logistics of safe fuel transportation, codes and standards, monitoring, quality controls, oversight and verification, safety and security, occupational health, education and training, waste disposal, and the safe disposal and long-term storage of spent fuel.

These new challenges present new growth opportunities in value-added jobs and skills. Equally important, it must usher in a new era of closer functional regional cooperation.

Likewise, an initial reaction to the use of coal in place of natural gas will be that we will be retrograde relative to increased carbon emissions. Yes, and maybe no. If Singapore is emerging as the test-bed for innovations and new technology development, why not improve upon emissions controls for carbon dioxide in the coal plant that Singapore will consider? Why not participate in global initiatives on carbon capture and sequestration?

In a roadmap for energy security and environmental sustainability that I prepared for the Energy Studies Institute (ESI) last year, I articulated 3 time periods for considering our “back to the future” scenario for Singapore and the planet. In period 1, the next 10 years, we will still be in a fossil-fuel dominant era and hence, energy efficiency and conservation programs should be the top priority because of the climate change challenges.

And while technology is a necessary condition, it remains an insufficient condition, meaning beyond looking to new technology, we have to consider new processes and develop new habits to reducing our energy intensity.

In period 2, up to the next 50 years, we need a rapid transformation towards increasing our renewable energy portfolio standards and many of the ESC recommendations are in line with that vision.

Transforming our transportation diet to electrons from petrol or diesel, especially when electricity is from nuclear or renewable sources will drastically diminish emissions from this sector. Developing “smarts” within the grid systems will do the same for the electricity sector.

And setting a price for carbon emissions, such that the price of energy includes the fuel price plus that of the carbon emissions will help businesses plan their growth strategies a lot better as we transition to period 3 in the distant future, where we are truly “back to the future” because our ancestors prior to finding the “rock that burns” indeed used only renewable energy sources including geothermal.

In conclusion, the devil is in the details. The ESC’s high-wire balancing act between charting a new energy future that considers both energy security and sustainable growth is commendable.

The author is a Principal Fellow and Head, Energy and Environmental Technologies and Systems at the Energy Studies Institute at NUS.

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