Coronavirus: Pandemic's disruption of energy sector holds insights for a fossil fuel-free future

Demand for fossil fuels is likely to return once restrictions are lifted.
Demand for fossil fuels is likely to return once restrictions are lifted.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - With nations imposing lockdown measures and restricting movement to curb the spread of Covid-19, carbon-intensive fossil fuels have seen a dramatic drop in demand.

While experts acknowledge that "pent-up" demand for fossil fuels is likely to return once restrictions are lifted, the experience offers insights into its future.

It also provides opportunities for countries to make changes to fight global warming, they said during a webinar on Monday (May 4) to mark the launch of the Singapore International Energy Week (SIEW) 2020.

"This crisis could be an opportunity for countries to accelerate their transition to a more secure and sustainable energy future," said Mr Ngiam Shih Chun, chief executive of Singapore's Energy Market Authority (EMA).

He added while economies may eventually recover from the pandemic, the urgent need to combat climate change remains.

During the webinar, Mr Ngiam unveiled the "Creating Our Low Carbon Energy Future Together" theme of the global energy conference, which will be held at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre in October.

Dr Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, said the theme highlights how governments and industries are faced with the urgent challenge to grow the economy in a sustainable manner.

"The uncertain global economic outlook would present even more challenges for the energy sector.

"I look forward to the meaningful discussions at SIEW on how we can create a low carbon energy future together," he added.

Singapore is doing its part to decarbonise its energy system, Mr Ngiam said.

The renewable energy-disadvantaged nation gets most of its energy needs from burning natural gas, a fossil fuel.

 
 

It is cleaner than oil, which when burnt for energy releases carbon dioxide - a heat-trapping gas that is driving climate change.

Mr Ngiam said Singapore is trying to soak up more of the sun's energy - the most viable form of renewable energy available to the Republic.

It achieved its 2020 solar deployment target of 350 megawatt-peak (MWp) in the first quarter of this year, which is the equivalent of powering about 60,000 households for a year.

He said the next step is to increase this to at least 2 gigawatt-peak (GWp) by 2030.

This new target is equivalent to powering about 350,000 households for a year, and would account for up to 4 per cent of Singapore's energy power mix today.

However, there are limits to how much solar energy Singapore can use to power its economy.

For one, the built-up landscape can block solar panels from absorbing the sun's energy.

But Mr Tan Cheng Guan, head of renewables and environment business at Sembcorp Industries, said during the webinar that the deployment of renewables would likely accelerate, especially with technological improvements and renewed governmental focus on energy security.

 
 

Due to suspended travel and other economic activity, the price of a barrel of benchmark United States oil had plunged below zero dollars a barrel on April 20 for the first time in history, crashing 300 per cent from US$17.85  a barrel to minus US$37.63.

This drop may prompt a major rethink in national energy strategies, said international observers.

The World Economic Forum, for instance, noted the importance of a "diversified, secure and reliable energy system that will ultimately support the future growth of the world economy in a sustainable and equitable way".

Speaking during the webinar, Mr Neil Atkinson, head of the oil industry and markets division at the International Energy Agency (IEA), said there are signs that investments in the upstream oil and gas sector are "going to fall back very considerably in 2020".

 
 
 

"But the renewable sector looks to be faring rather better," he added, citing the example of his home country Britain.

The Guardian newspaper reported that the UK had gone without coal-fired power generation for its longest stretch since the Industrial Revolution, breaking the existing record of 18 consecutive days last week.

Said Mr Atkinson: "So there is an enormous momentum behind renewables and the IEA believes and indeed advocates as a policy recommendation that investments in renewables should be maintained, and indeed increased if possible."

LISTEN TO GREEN PULSE PODCAST