Gift of grace

This Christmas, I thought to just repeat to all of us what the gift of grace from God is. Christianity is all about this gift of grace from God, through Christ being born as man to die for our sins. And what this grace means is not that we have to be good in order to earn our place in heaven. Rather, it is that Christ have been that good for us such that we already have a place in heaven, so that we can be good as a response to that. We will never earn our place with the goodness that we can have or do.

It was never the point for us to earn our place with our goodness. But this is what we are constantly fed by the world. And Christianity is this safe spot where we learn that we don’t. Even as Christian myself, I need this reminder. And that’s why this Christmas I’m writing it again, in a different way. To tell all of us that we achieve our place in heaven not by our own goodness. But the goodness of God through Christ, who died for us. This is grace.

And that is what Christmas is about. Christ born for you and I. Grace given to us. Freely. What a joy to be able to receive it.

Pathway to Hydrogen

I keep thinking about the role hydrogen would play in the netzero energy system. It is important because most specialists in the field think it will be incredibly important. But I’m afraid some of them think of the importance not from an energy or thermodynamics perspective but from a technological, socio-economic perspective. I think that is misguided for something that is so nascent and imature.

The solar and battery learning curves cannot be used to project what happens to hydrogen because it is fundamentally a more complex type of project. A lot less plug-and-play compared to solar panels or batteries. For solar panels, the technology takes in light and transform it into power, which in essence is the flow of electrons. There is of course the issue of DC power versus AC power but the inverters will deal with that translation; and you can plug directly to existing electricity grids. Of course, when you have a lot of them the grid must start shifting but at least you get a shot at getting started. And after that you’ve got batteries coming in, again almost ready to work with the existing electrical infrastructure.

Green hydrogen production integrates with the electricity system fine as well; it takes in power, feeds the electrolyser which separates pure water into oxygen and hydrogen, storing away the gas as it is being produced. However, the most valuable output in the process, the hydrogen, needs to be properly stored and transported to where it is needed. And all of these infrastructure do not yet exists! The largest part of the revenue generation problem has not been sorted!

This is why it is so difficult to get hydrogen started, and so expensive to do so even when the technology seem more and more established. The challenge is that a lot of that infrastructure would also serve some of the current fossil gas interests. There are issues of couse with the risks of interest conflicts when the fossil industry push for hydrogen.

The fact that hydrogen is not so plug-and-play to our current system means more evolution is needed before we are ready. Instead of putting direct incentives into hydrogen production, we should be using our resources to solve the problems along the journey to the hydrogen future. A lot of these problems involves collective action, coordination of choices and displacement of swarthe of economic activities that requires proper thought about restructuring.

There is really much more work to do than administering incentives. And this is definitely not an area the government can easily rely on market incentives to accomplish.

Ordering the transition

There is some kind of rational order to the energy transition. It depends on the maturity of the system, the current technologies deployed, the infrastructure in place, and also our views on the technologies ahead. This order will not occur naturally, nor will the economics of it follow naturally. Instead, it is an approach that requires coordination across the energy system, regulatory framework, and the markets to ensure that order proceeds as it should. There is no single right answer, which means there can be some variation but by and large, there are clearly right directions to move forward on.

It is critical to sharply focus on the objective of decarbonisation and organise other matters around it first. Presently, most of the global discussions, and the market narratives are clouded by issues around cost concerns, job losses, stranded assets and lots of doom and gloom around those. Worrying about them is putting the cart before the horse because we need to properly envision a future before we decide whether the sacrifices are worth and how to deal with those secondary problems derived from them. After all, you don’t choose your destination based on the public transport time table.

If for example we want to look at the decarbonisation of power systems, there is first the displacement of fossil generation with wind and solar. So wind and solar must first be installed into the system and ‘traditional renewable power’ such as hydropower and even bioenergy boosted. As battery technologies are not rolling out as quickly, hydropower and even biogas plants can and should help with some of the smoothing of supply. Yet if they are not sufficient, batteries must be put into the system to enhance the reliability and reduce intermittency so that renewable power is able to displace fossil generation.

And only then, would the power system be able to start supporting electrification of other industries as a route to decarbonise. There is no point thinking that electrification is a route to decarbonisation if the power system itself is loaded with coal and gas plants, and increased demand is continually used to justify the continued fossil presence. And then only when the power system is properly decarbonised should we start considering and pushing for green hydrogen. Otherwise, having our renewable electricity capacities all caught up in green hydrogen production is definitely not a great idea for the industries looking at electrification to decarbonise – you’re pushing up the electricity cost on both sides, and then you end up complaining that green hydrogen is not cost-competitive.

If we believe that we want to pursue a route of hydrogen production that is based on highly efficient electrolysers then we may only be able to do so when batteries are really cheap. This is because highly efficient electrolysers can only have their costs justified through high utilisation. Yet renewable electricity is expensive when they are scarce which is probably the case for a system full of solar at night, so if you want to keep the electrolysers going 24/7, you need batteries to keep pushing electrons through them. Highly efficient electrolysers, combined with lots of batteries for maintaining high utilisation is a great formula for extremely expensive green hydrogen. Cheap but inefficient electrolysers might actually end up doing the work of pushing down cost of hydrogen earlier (see some ideas here).

Now all that only helps with the production cost of green hydrogen; there are other issues and cost barriers which needs to be overcome. More on them in my next post. But what I’m trying to show here is that there is a rational, orderly way to approach the problem of decarbonising our systems. And the way to consider it is not to load up the emissions problem with all of the other considerations upfront. Rather, we organise ourselves better by thinking first about the best route to decarbonise based on carbon intensity, then we identify the costs, figure out the trade-offs and see what is worth sacrificing.

Transition fuels III

I’ve written about hydrogen (here, here and here) before and I would like to write more about it. Hydrogen is fascinating. It is a sole proton with an electron around it. Well, that’s the element, but it typically doesn’t exist in that form. Instead, it exists primarily as 2 protons bound together by a covalent bond supported by the existence of the 2 electrons sharing their electron orbitals within the covalent bond cloud.

Many people today believe that hydrogen is one of the fuels that the world will eventually transition to in the net zero world. This is one of the main reasons people are excited about hydrogen projects and hydrogen production (‘this is the future’). Much of that is grounded on the elusive quest to find some monolithic solution for the carbon conundrum. Not that the world will universally converge upon a single solution but that all solutions that are ultimately low carbon will stem from hydrogen or find its linkages to it somewhat.

But is hydrogen the future? Sure, hydrogen cars are really quick and easy to refuel. And indeed, a lot of industrial heating process currently running on natural gas can be supported by combusting hydrogen. And even better, hydrogen combustion merely produces steam, a byproduct that can be used for other purposes. There’s something beautiful about the non-toxicity and purity of the byproduct, the elegance of the molecule and perhaps the fact hydrogen is used in different processes in petrochemical industry. Hydrogen will be part of the future, but will it be ‘the future’? I think a lot more other supporting elements needs to come in place. An orderly energy transition is about proper sequencing and targeted shifts rather than trying to leapfrog or take potshots.

Over the past decades of stability, we’ve allowed the whole idea of economic growth and making money to take centerstage in the lives of the most productive people in the world. With the climate challenge, it is getting important to channel that resource and capability towards the energy transition. I’ll write more on my vision for an orderly transition from here. And if we all can align on the mission, we can start evaluating and piecing together various different routes and work through breaking the barriers and blockers. More on that soon.

Transition fuels II

Bioenergy, in the form of biogas or liquid biofuels finds themselves in the nexus of many things. And as it turns out, nexus of unrelated fields tends to languish in obscurity for far too long because no one in powerful places is willing to take hold of it and champion it.

And no bioenergy isn’t the kind of thing that is shown in The Matrix. One Uber driver who picked me up on the way to a bioenergy conference in Queensland thought that was what I was referring to.

Typically, bioenergy takes some kind of organic material and makes uses of various processes (synthetic or biological) to convert them into hydrocarbons that are chemically identical to fossil fuels. As it turns out, the way in which the earth cooks up all the historical organic matter into fossil fuels is not the only way in which organic matter can be converted into fuels. There are natural processes that can return these organic matter to precursors, which can allow us to derive the hydrocarbons we could use as fuels. These products are what we call biofuels and collectively, the use of organic matter within the contemporary carbon cycle (or short carbon cycle) to produce energy is known as bioenergy.

As much as these fuel and products are chemically identical to fossil fuels and can utilise all of the oil & gas infrastructure we have built over the past century, their production is so radically different from fossil fuel processes that the oil & gas companies seem to struggle with them. Or at least they find it hard to wean themselves off traditional production and capture new demands using bioenergy. On the other hand, the smaller, emerging players who wants to start bioenergy businesses find themselves shut out of the larger infrastructure base that is used to distribute these fuels because they are firmly locked within the fossil fuel ecosystem. And fossil fuel is just way more competitive if it’s about economics. Regulation does not see a clear path for bioenergy to take hold because they perceive it as a fringe activity, and the fossil lobby could easily quashes those thoughts from emerging. Across the world, bioenergy only took hold because regulation stepped in with blending mandates or direct subsidies to encourage the integration of bioenergy into the existing fossil energy system.

So while there are huge advantages in bringing in bioenergy because it helps prevent those oil & gas infrastructure assets from being stranded, they find themselves in the crosshairs of those parties whom they could help partly because they are in the ‘green camp’. On the other hand, the green camp doesn’t want to adopt and champion the bioenergy cause as much as wind and solar because bioenergy could potentially cement the position of the big oil. In markets where regulations require blending, oil & gas players have gotten involved in the bioenergy value chain, probably reluctantly and not without grumbling. They just try to meet the basic standards while taking all the political credit for having made the change.

There is also another group that bioenergy serves, which ends up becoming their enemies as well. They are the agrifood processing facilities or other food value chain players generating lots of organic waste. In countries where disposal of these organic wastes is well-regulated, anaerobic digestion plants are used for waste treatment. The biogas produced were seen more as a waste gas to be flared than an energy source to be harnessed. To harness these energy, more investments have to be made on the part of these distributed networks of players who might not have the capital readily available. They may not have the decarbonization ambitions either. There are also concerns that once we start harnessing energy from these, there will be more demand for organic waste and even agricultural residues which were traditionally used as substitutes for organic fertilisers. At the end of the day, getting the agrifood value chain involved in bioenergy seemed to be more like a distraction from their core business without contributing significantly to their business. In fact, there is increasing opposition to bioenergy that is driven by the view that it would pit energy against food production, which would be detrimental to a more fundamental need of mankind.

Hence, even though I would argue bioenergy is the most important energy source to support the transition, while playing a significant role in the net-zero world, there’s still so much wanting in this space. There is still no clear space that is adopting and championing this enough to mainstream it.

We will really need to change the narrative on bioenergy. More on this soon.

Transition fuels

When Blunomy first started out as Enea Consulting in 2007, the world was not that different. We were burning lots of fossil fuels, except a lot more coal and oil. There was also less renewables then. Solar panels were incredibly expensive and people thought wind turbines were so clunky (and expensive for the amount of power it generates) it was not possible for the world to have more wind turbines than combustion turbines.

The period of 2000s saw the mainstreaming of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and gas was broadly touted as the transition fuel as the world cross from coal towards renewables. Emissions from combustion of gas was less than half that of power generation with coal, and gas power plants could fire up faster than coal power plants. Energy transition then was about fuel switching and the metric was more around carbon intensity per unit energy. Unfortunately, there was no regulations to push for shifts in this metric and so when the economics doesn’t line up, it simply was ignored. Coal power continued propagating in the world especially in the developing countries. Even in developed countries, coal plants were continuing to operate or even refurbished to extend their lifespans. Singapore’s Tembusu Multi-utilities complex which burns a mix of coal and other fuels, was commissioned as recent as 2013.

All these meant that as energy demand increased, the mainstreaming of gas especially through LNG was only serving incremental demand and not exactly displacing coal. Today, it gets lumped as ‘bad’ with coal and there are calls for it to be eliminated from the system. In many sense, people are considering gas no longer as a transition fuel but to be leapfrogged somewhat. The leapfrogging makes sense from a carbon intensity point of view. But by most counts, gas is a superior technology even to renewable power generation as gas power can still serve as baseload and is dispatchable unlike wind and solar which do not respond to the beck and call of power demand. Batteries help to overcome this but as long as the economics of renewables-plus-batteries is not superior to coal or gas, it will be a tough sell.

The reason for expansion of LNG was because of the superiority of gas in terms of technology, the way it matches our energy use, and the falling costs in the early 2000s. Projecting the way forward, this is unlikely to be true anymore as exploration in certain jurisdiction have slowed or ceased, existing gas fields are no longer as productive, and material costs have risen to counter the competitiveness. There is also a question of the new generation of engineers bothering to enter into this space if they perceive it as declining.

This is where bioenergy comes in and becomes positioned so awkwardly that it finds itself a little stuck. More on this soon.

GST hike & discounts

As we move from 2023 into 2024, Goods & Services Tax (GST) in Singapore will rise by another 1%. Given the prevailing rate is 8%, the 1% rate increase is actually a 12.5% increase in the consumption tax. No doubt companies will try to convince you to buy stuff before 31 December 2023 to benefit from the lower GST, rather than wait till next year. And if we were to project this logic forward, knowing that GST might eventually be 10%, there is a question of whether we should bring forward some of our purchases even more.

This is more of a psychological trick than anything. Take for example, your interest in an iPhone that may cost you $1000. Buying it before end of the year will save you $10 at the most because of the 1% additional GST that you will need to pay next year. That is hardly a ‘discount’.

Let’s say you got 10% discount from a Black Friday sale instead. Would it compel you to change to a new model rather than stick to your old one? You might. But what if instead of using your existing phone for 1 additional year (eg. 3 years instead of 2 years). If your original phone was also costing $1000, you’d effectively get a discount of 33% just by using it for 1 additional year. Obviously, it goes down if your base time length is longer.

But you get my drift. The biggest discount is when you can use your goods for longer and get more life out of it. There is no point chasing after lower prices of new goods upfront if you keep replacing them quickly. This is an element where sustainability on the consumer end actually lines up with economics but the challenge is psychology.

Structuring incentives for waste

As we try to navigate the climate transition, we are working within a framework of incentives and economic structure where incentives are sometimes mis-aligned to driving climate-positive behaviours. Not just climate but sustainability overall. Waste management represents one of the more problematic area. In many situations, the cost of waste management is pretty much socialised with the cost spread out across a large number of people while the economic benefits accrued by only some. Take electronic waste without proper framework in place for disposal and attribution of responsibility to producers, the society bears the overall cost of managing these difficult waste while the benefits are borne only by the users (especially those who are replacing devices extremely often, and the producers who are selling electronic products.

By incorporating producer responsibility, the cost of disposal and waste management should preferably be priced upfront to customers so that they are paying for the lifecycle cost.

The same should be done for various product packaging. After all, the producers are typically the ones responsible for handling the packaging in the first place so it won’t be too bad for them to take on the responsibility. They can then put the cost into the price tag of the users, who would then be the ones paying for those goods that require the particular packaging. The thing about packaging materials and electronic waste is that they have value as recycled materials anyways – which means that if the ‘disposal’ logistics cost can be at least in part offset through the value recovered from aggregation of these materials, it is a win-win.

What about food waste? Food waste should not be the responsibility of the producers since it is the consumers who determine the level of waste based on how much they purchase and eventually consume. Likewise, those in-between the value chain from farm to table would also be responsible for some of the food waste through their utilisation of the ingredients. The way to make them responsible for the disposal cost is to allow only specific channels of disposing food waste and pricing it properly. The cost of disposing food waste will necessarily be the logistics involved, and then offset against whatever residual value the food waste can generate. What kind of residual value is there? After all, food waste cannot be used to remanufactured food (unlike cardboard whose fibre can be used for recycled paper, or e-waste where the extracted metals can be turned back into materials to produce new products).

Food waste can be turned into energy through anaerobic digestion. And the process will generate methane that can be used as a fuel. The fuel potentially displaces fossil fuel and emits biogenic carbon dioxide in the short carbon cycle. Of course, there are plenty of other biofuels that can also be produced from food waste. If we start putting a value on the food waste, does it mean more of such waste would be produced? It is quite unlikely since the value will probably represent some kind of residual value from the primary use of the food. Yet we find CEO of multi-national company Lufthansa thinking otherwise.

The challenge we have today is that the incentives around recovery of residual value from waste. We will need to redesign how we are able to extract residual value, offset against the disposal costs. We will also need to ensure disposal costs are properly priced and applied to the right parties responsible for the waste generation. We need to set up incentives such that waste is properly sorted and pushed into various streams. The cost of mixed-stream convenience needs to be costed to reflect the cost of sorting.

There’s a lot of work ahead. We need people to get on to them.

Who is the polluter?

There was a recent piece on Eco Business about Singapore’s packaging recycling scheme being delayed and how the polluter-pays principle seems to have failed to take hold in this particular situation. It was partly because of a speech by an activist in the recent SG Climate Rally.

The principle of polluter-pays is important because it helps to internalise the social cost of pollution and allows the market to price it in correctly. The result would be that the production and eventual consumption of the relevant goods stays at the level which is socially optimum.

Product packaging is itself a massive problem where it is clear certain social costs of the waste production is not properly internalised. The fact that supply chains are such that buying a new product is cheaper than the refill version, and the fact that massive amounts of materials are used in packaging without producers having to foot the cost of disposal, seems to be an issue. But the situation is also because waste management is not properly priced. Today, in Singapore, the amount of cost you shoulder for waste disposal is based on where you live and the type of dwelling you live in rather than the amount of waste you generate. This in itself is already not exactly adhering to the polluter-pay principle.

Creating a plastic bottle or aluminum can refund scheme would also jack up the cost of the products but sometimes we forget who are actually the polluters. The ultimate polluters are still the consumers and in making our purchase decisions, if we recognise the cost to the environment and decide that accordingly, it changes the dynamics of the situation and allows the producers to ‘suffer’ the cost from the lack of demand despite the low-ish prices. But that still doesn’t produce a very reliable signal in the marketplace. And that’s why it makes sense to properly ‘tax’ the producers or the consumers somehow to get the market back in line.

As it turns out, the identification of the polluter does not matter much. What matters is that the associated product gets the pollution priced in somehow. You can charge even the shops that are stocking the products. The reason is that the cost will reverberate through the supply chain; the higher price will result in less customers buying it, sending a demand signal that reduces the orders and stocking by the shop, who will order less from their suppliers and so on. Eventually, at the default price point the producer will realise the market isn’t taking as much of the product that they are producing hence reducing their production and hopefully the pollution as well.

The tricky issue is pricing the pollution and getting a sense of how much the marginal reduction in production could reduce the pollution. This is tricky because the average pollution per product isn’t the same as the marginal pollution. And indeed you may have to curb consumption/production very drastically in order to reduce a bit of pollution if there is significant non-linearity involved. I won’t go into the mathematics here but suffice to say, there is reluctance to tinker too much with the pricing of more ‘ordinary’ consumer goods in Singapore. And it might be a shame for sustainability.

Room for charity

I love this recent article by Toh Yan Yun in Rice Media, it makes an important point about Singaporean’s perspective on inequality and also our perceived sense that our meritocratic system will continue to serve us well. I frequently question this point about how well our meritocratic system is working; but more than that, whether our overemphasis on the workings of the meritocratic system we have is squeezing out room for charity. So much so that government needs to use tax deductions as a means to further incentivize donations. Question then, is whether the tax department is the one being generous or the philanthropist?

In believing that we are entitled to the successes and achievements we receive, and seeing that as a system that works, we are also thinking that those who are down and out deserves to be so. Like what Yan Yun says in the article; the belief implies “So long as you play your cards right, your big break lies around the corner.”

Those who have been in reality will certainly respond, ‘Yea, right’. A society that does not see luck and chance playing a part becomes less forgiving for people’s mistakes and even for failures. And this has become so serious in Singapore that people are struggling even with being average. There is some obvious implication for mental health and our functioning as a society.

Do we want to start caring? Do we deserve it?