How will Singapore power the future? Experts discuss energy options

As the world's energy demand increases in tandem with population growth and advances in technology, it needs to find new sources of energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
As the world's energy demand increases in tandem with population growth and advances in technology, it needs to find new sources of energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.PHOTO: DARREN SOH

Experts at roundtable discussion chaired by The Sunday Times clue us in on our energy options

Flick a switch, and the lights come on.

Turn a tap, and the water flows, pumped to the top of the tallest skyscraper.

Tap a remote, and the smart TV springs to life.

These are everyday realities, often taken for granted in Singapore.

They are made possible by readily available, generally reliable, and relatively affordable energy sources that power a modern economy.

The advent of new technologies, from robotics to 3D printing to electric vehicles, will increase the demand for energy, not just in Singapore but the world over.

 
 
 
 

As societies move up the development curve, more people will choose to buy computers, mobile phones and cars. Those trends, plus the projected growth in the world population to 10 billion, will see energy demand double by mid-century.

Amid all this is the urgent imperative to check greenhouse gas emissions which give rise to global warming, as nations agreed to do at the Paris climate summit in December.

The world, in short, will need a lot more energy, but with a lot less carbon dioxide (CO2) produced in the process.

Fail to achieve this, and the world faces serious economic and environmental problems in the years ahead.

More energy with less CO2

Which is why any discussion about the Future Economy, in Singapore or elsewhere, rightly begins with exploring future sources of energy - just where the energy to power tomorrow's growth will come from, at what cost, and with what impact to the environment. So, the first ST Future Economy Roundtable held last month took up this issue.

Shell Singapore's country chairman Goh Swee Chen, who was one of the Roundtable panellists, sums up the challenge this way: "We're a very carbon-based economy and we need to recognise that as we continue to prosper, we will need more energy. And so, we are in an energy transition, one that gets us from the high CO2 emitters all the way to a lower CO2 emission solution.

"In order for us to get to a scenario where we can have better living in a healthier planet, governments, private companies and society all need to work together to allow us to have an environment where we can prosper and at the same time live in a world of lower CO2 emissions."

While recent headlines have been dominated by plunging oil prices, the past few years have seen high energy prices, she notes.

The result: a boon time for investments in alternative energy sources, from solar to shale gas. New technologies and economies of scale brought prices of these energy sources down dramatically, she adds.

In the United States, the discovery of huge reserves of shale gas and advances in techniques to extract it helped the US become an exporter of gas - with economic and geopolitical implications - which few imagined possible just a decade ago.

It was also this wider use of shale gas for power generation that enabled the US to achieve significant reductions in its CO2 emissions in recent years, as promised by President Barack Obama, more so than his push to promote renewable energy sources such as wind or solar. So, technological change in the energy sector can have major disruptive effects which are felt way beyond the industry itself.

In Singapore, for example, solar power has seen a major ramp-up in recent years, with efficiency rising and costs falling to the point where the cost of harnessing energy from the sun is now in line with that of more conventional sources.

The Energy Market Authority's director of industry development, Dr Alvin Yeo, points out that since 2010, Singapore has seen a 19-fold jump in solar-powered energy, helped by several government initiatives to give it a push.

"That's very encouraging and the question now is how the Government can work with business, as well as push some technologies, to make sure that we have more of these renewables in the energy mix in the future," he says.

One major player in the field, Mr Frank Phuan, co-founder and director of home-grown solar energy firm Sunseap Group, notes that more local and foreign firms are now seeking out his company for clean-energy solutions that are less pollutive. They do so not just to shave their energy bills, but also to check their carbon emissions.

Solar power, he adds, also allows them to hedge on energy spending, since low prices can be locked in for longer periods, unlike other sources which are more dependent on fluctuations in oil and gas prices.

The pressure on governments to deliver on pledges made to curb CO2 emissions, as well as companies recognising that they had best prepare for the eventuality that some form of price for emitting CO2 will be adopted, is driving this development, notes Ms Jessica Cheam, editor of Eco-Business, a website on green issues.

Carbon pricing aims to set a cost to polluters and create schemes to pay that cost - for instance, through "cap and trade" systems where they buy and sell carbon credits.

But while recognising that the government has been proactive in driving solar power adoption, Ms Cheam laments the lack of a similar push to promote electric vehicles.

Agreeing, Professor Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of the Nanyang Technological University's Energy Research Institute, points to recent advances in storage capacity of batteries, which not only give solar power a boost, but also make electric vehicles more viable.

Boosting energy efficiency - improving the way energy is used in homes, offices and factories - could also see big gains being made, he adds.

Leading the way in developing such clean energy solutions could be a new competitive advantage for Singapore, he continues, just as the Republic turned water from strategic disadvantage to economic opportunity.

This is especially significant since 70 per cent of the world's burgeoning population will live in cities by 2050, consuming 75 per cent of the world's energy and accounting for 80 per cent of the CO2 emitted.

"Singapore is an ideal mega-city in the tropics and if we can get a handle on how to reduce our CO2 emissions, the solutions that we develop could be exported to every part of the world," said Prof Mhaisalkar.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 10, 2016, with the headline 'How will Singapore power the future?'. Print Edition | Subscribe