Our energy future demands action today, by Valerie Choy and Catrina Yeo

Imagine flicking on a light switch and the light does not come on. No gas emits from the gas stove when it is switched on. Transportation systems come to a halt as fuel supplies are restricted.

Regardless of one’s inclinations on scientific or economic persuasions concerning energy and climate change, the security of energy supply to maintain human survivability is a pressing and fundamental concern. The imagery of modern life rendered deficient of energy sources in the probable future calls for a shift in mindset.

At a forum held by Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute on 5th May 2010, three speakers, including Dr. Jay Hakes from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, Dr. Michael Quah from the Energy Studies Institute and Mr Lee Eng Lock from Trane Singapore spoke at length on the various energy solutions they hope to see.

The common message is that our energy problems are looming and more can be done. As Dr. Hakes succinctly explained, there is no silver bullet but there are many silver buck shots to the world’s energy problems. Hybrid engines, algae biofuel, more efficient public transportation systems, energy-saving LED lighting and nuclear power are all part of a multi-prong solution.

In 2009, U.S. consumption of crude oil outstripped its production by 57%. This surplus in demand was fulfilled by foreign imports. Closer to home, ASEAN primary energy demand is expected to expand by 76% between 2007 and 2030. This rapid rise in energy demand is expected to rely primarily on foreign imports. In Singapore, crude oil consumption increased by 84% from 1995 to 2008.

Eventually, supply has to catch up with this fast growing demand for modern life as we know it to be sustainable. Dr. Quah foresees a continued dependence on fossil fuels in the near-term and a transition to critical regional cooperation in developing new and sustainable energy sources in the mid-term before they become more economically feasible in the far future.

The solutions to the world’s energy problems typically fall into three key approaches: Developing new sustainable sources of energy, conservation of energy, and boosting energy efficiency with new infrastructure, innovations in processes, and new “systems thinking”.

Together, they help to boost energy resilience. Relying on energy sources outside of indigenous production exposes a nation to vulnerabilities outside of its control. Political factors can and have proven to significantly impact national and regional energy security.

As a case in point, Russian monopoly of European gas supplies literally left the residents of many European nations in the cold during the bitter winter of early 2009 when Russia cut off gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine over monetary disputes. Incidents such as this would be better buffered if the aforementioned strategies are properly in place.

Developing new sources of energy mitigates the risk of energy shortages. New sources can either refer to new points of supply of an established energy resource or tapping into altogether new energy resources. Although the former strategy spreads out the risk of engaging a particular energy resource, it is still vulnerable to the changing political and economic climate of that resource.

The latter strategy involves tapping into several alternative energy types, such as the high potential for geothermal energy and biofuels in Indonesia, which may be locally harnessed and controlled with less extra-regional influence.

Conservation of energy is crucial in determining a nation’s resilience to changes in energy supply. When less energy is used, the probability of energy shortages also diminishes. Boosting energy efficiency involves not just infrastructural changes but also requires robust policies and a healthy dose of common sense. Mr Lee and Dr. Quah believe that any system that is locally optimized is globally sub-optimized and vice versa.

New systems-based approaches and measures to promote energy efficiency have to be customised to individual situations for them to exert most impact. When properly executed, such strategic innovations in energy efficiency will help reduce energy usage into the future. Advancements such as smart grid systems also help to maintain grid stability which further contributes to energy resilience as energy diversity also adds to energy security.

As seen through the recommendations by the Economic Strategies Committee released in February 2010, the Singapore government has recognized these strategies for ensuring energy resilience in the country. Market forces have also made investment in such innovations an increasingly lucrative one.

The best one can do when not directly involved in implementing new professional strategies lies in the age-old adage of reducing personal energy consumption. The biggest message to be driven home however is the undeniable fact that energy is crucial to human survivability in the modern world. Solutions to our energy problems can no longer be delayed.

Energy is a resource as precious to modern living as is food and water. If we can all begin to think this way, we should support the search for the solution to our energy problems more enthusiastically with a lot less debate.

Valerie Choy and Catrina Yeo are energy analysts at ESI.

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