As Asian heatwaves require burning more fossil fuels, fears of a slower transition grow

Gas and coal demand is up in South and Southeast Asia, as governments look to get people enough power for live-saving air-conditioning. Greener solutions come with steep price tags, and policy momentum is not guaranteed, experts say.

Hanoi air con
Workers fixing an air conditioning unit in Hanoi, Vietnam. Hanoi experienced temperatures over 35 degrees Celsius in early May, while another northern district in the country saw a new temperature record of over 44 degrees Celsius. Image: Liang Lei.

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Gian Bermudo, a university educator from Iloilo, central Philippines, spent most of her days at home with the air conditioner turned on in early April, as a humid heatwave settled over the city.

Coal and oil plants make up 52 per cent of installed power capacity in the Philippines’ central Visayas islands, where Bermudo lives. The 31-year-old isn’t aware of the size of her personal carbon footprint, but says she feels guilty thinking about how her electricity usage for air conditioning could add to climate change.

That is despite keeping cool being a health necessity for Bermudo. A three-day power outage while temperatures soared triggered her asthma and landed her in hospital for a week.

As temperatures exceeding 45°C swept over South and Southeast Asia in the past weeks, governments have been struggling to meet record-breaking power demand as people turn to air conditioning en masse. Over a dozen people have died from the heat in India, Malaysia and Thailand.

Faced with a steep public health challenge, policymakers are relying on fossil fuels to do the heavy lifting. Commodity analyst S&P Global reported a surge in natural gas demand from Thailand, Bangladesh and India in April. Asia is also importing significantly more Russian coal and fuel oil last month, Bloomberg reported, citing data analyst Kpler.

It is a familiar pattern whenever heatwaves strike, but one that could be increasingly risky as climate change worsens.

Experts fear that regular hot weather episodes will keep policymakers returning to tried-and-tested fossil fuels for power generation, instead of ramping up clean energy infrastructure. While more solar and wind generators have been installed in recent years, some analysts believe they are not yet able to handle large heatwave episodes. 

“My worry is that because of the heatwave, and because of the current [energy] infrastructure development, countries in the region may turn to coal more aggressively than ever,” said Dr Victor Nian, chief executive of Singapore think tank Centre for Strategic Energy and Resources (CSER).

Cheap but pollutive coal, along with natural gas, contributes close to 60 per cent of Southeast Asia’s power capacity. Sticking to fossil fuels would worsen both climate change and future hot weather spells. Already, the latest Asian heatwave was made 30 times more likely, and 2°C hotter by global warming.

Southeast Asia does not have the “climate burden” that long-industrialised nations have and countries could opt to be lax on their decarbonisation commitments, Nian said. Thailand and Vietnam, both of which have net-zero emissions commitments, have been betting big on imported natural gas for the next decades, while countries like Indonesia and the Philippines still rely heavily on coal.

Some of the challenges could also stem from inherent characteristics of renewable power sources, and Southeast Asia’s geography. Wind and solar power are dependent on weather conditions, and it is possible to be hot while cloudy in tropical Southeast Asia – making solar panels less effective, Nian noted.

Meanwhile, hydropower dams, which form the bulk of Southeast Asia’s renewable capacity, could also face water shortages if heatwaves come with low rainfall. In Vietnam, 10 dams reached “dead level” in early May and could not generate electricity, according to its state-owned power company.

These challenges mean that policymakers should look to diversify their clean power sources and build excess generation capacity, said Marc Allen, an energy consultant and co-founder of climate-tech platform Unravel Carbon.

Renewables could help to meet peak demand during hot days, but the key lies in building enough power storage capacity, Allen said. Technologies like large batteries and pumped-storage hydropower, where water reservoirs are filled using excess electricity, could give regulators more flexibility in dispatching power from intermittent sources.

These tools could be too expensive for Asia’s developing markets. For instance, each kilowatt-hour of energy stored in a battery could cost US$300, according to energy research firm BloombergNEF, compared to mere cents for the same amount of power generated from renewable sources.

In Vietnam’s latest 10-year power development plan, batteries are only expected to contribute 0.3 gigawatts (GW) of capacity in 2030, compared to 41GW of solar and wind power. Pumped hydropower is to contribute another 2.4GW of storage.

At the household level, buying solar panels to bolster electricity supply could be out of reach for many Southeast Asians too. Bermudo said she has been quoted between 100,000 to 300,000 Philippine peso (US$1,775-5,324) to install photovoltaics.

“It is not accessible even to middle class people,” Bermudo said.

“Right now, [solar panels] seem to be a nice-to-have thing. I’m sure if they are more affordable, more people would opt for solar panels,” she added.

Cost issues mean that governments need to shift subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy, said Lidy Nacpil, coordinator of umbrella advocacy group Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD).

Continued reliance on fossil fuels is bad given its price volatility and monopolistic market structure globally, Nacpil said, adding that most people in Asia cannot afford air conditioners because of their high electricity cost.

As it stands, Asian natural gas prices are low and stable, in part due to lower demand from bigger nations like China, Japan and South Korea. Coal prices are also heading back to 2019 levels after the post-pandemic spike.

Nacpil says she does expect the heatwave to be used as an excuse to backpedal on renewable energy commitments, given the health risks that governments also have to contend with. 

“[But] I don’t see why people have to feel uncertain [about the transition]. The idea is that you do it at the same time – the pace of fossil fuel phase-out should be matched by renewables development,” Nacpil said. Renewable energy power plants take less time to build, with costs mainly front-loaded, to meet the higher future power demand, she said.

Cutting demand judiciously

Several Asian countries have been grappling with blackouts in past weeks as power usage overwhelms generation. Vietnam has shortened the operation hours for streetlights to save electricity; power regulators across the region have also been appealing to residents to use their appliances sparingly.

Such efforts could pile more risks on people, particularly the most vulnerable. Recent research in Japan suggests that the country’s energy-saving policies after its 2011 nuclear disaster caused 7,710 premature deaths a year. Many of them are suspected to be heat-related casualties in hot summers as people used less air conditioning.

Still, policymakers need to have a clear plan for where and how to cut electricity should their resources be overwhelmed, Allen from Unravel Carbon said. He pointed to how Australia funds power-intensive industries to shut down some systems when electricity demand is high. Singapore launched a similar incentive programme last year amid high fuel prices.

There should also be a greater focus on energy efficiency and proper disposal of coolants, experts told Eco-Business.

Allen noted that common refrigerants used in air conditioners today are powerful greenhouse gases – hydrofluorocarbons are 14,800 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at exacerbating global heating. Discarding cooling units without draining these gases can result in massive leaks.

Government subsidies would be needed to help people switch to power-saving models, APMDD’s Nacpil said, noting that more efficient air conditioners in the Philippines can be up to US$200 more expensive – again out of the price range of many households.

Bermudo said money should also go to providing public schools in the Philippines with electric fans. Weathermen across Asia expect recurring heatwaves in the coming months, driven by “El Niño” weather conditions that keep rain away from the region.

The reality, in such conditions, could be a clash of “politics against policy”, CSER’s Nian said. There will be an “intuition” that the clean energy transition needs to be accelerated, but also a flight towards more conservative moves when the challenges stack up, he added.

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