Cutting subsidies

So having ranted incorrectly about energy subsidies, I saw this article about Malaysia and was reminded of this set of principles I suggested to one of the officials at the Single Buyer of Peninsular Malaysia while working with them on a project. These are ideas on how to move towards a regime where subsidies are reduced and does not apply to everyone:

1. Make them transparent: Start by making clear where there is a subsidy; even when there is a blanket subsidy, make sure that the amount of subsidy is clearly shown to those receiving the subsidy, and that the burden of the subsidy is properly attributed, reported, even publicly. Where price controls are used, the implicit subsidy needs to be made explicit.

2. Share a cross-section of the beneficiaries: Often, fuel subsidies are meant to help manage the cost of living for the lower income. But when it is implemented through price controls or blanket subsidies, it disproportionately benefits the largest energy users. By publicising who are the beneficiaries of the subsidy and how much who gets, you can start considering how to reduce the subsidy for select groups of beneficiary that will be impacted the least.

3. Reduce subsidy for beneficiaries not aligned with policy intents: unless the state policy intention is to benefit the fossil fuel industry, there are always some groups benefiting from a blanket subsidy whose profile doesn’t align with the target group you are trying to help.

4. Keep the subsidy only for groups targeted: once the policy intents are clearer and there is social consensus of who the target groups should be, the subsidies can be pared back to be given only to those who need them. This means that subsidies need to shift from producer-side towards consumer-side. This should be aided by improvements in technology, government data-collection, and new channels for disbursing benefits.

The truth is that economics of renewables have improved and could match fossil energy in some cases. Cutting subsidies for fossil fuel will not just help reduce the reliance on them but free up more government resources to accelerate the transition. We should not allow subsidies to stand in the way of the transition.

Energy subsidies

I don’t really remember the last time I dealt with the topic of subsidies. There are huge transfers that takes place in the economy as a result of government interventions through a combination of taxes and subsidies. It is hard to see what the real effects are because the result is always nett of a combination of different forces and programmes. As a result, it is hard to see whether the end result was intentional or not. Often, the end result can be intentional but brought about through a combination of transfers or policies with differing stated intents.

Take for example the whole issue of fuel and energy subsidies. There are explicit and implicit subsidies and they are applied at different levels, to different parts of the value chain, captured by different parties. Of course, the result is to some extent lower cost of energy, but it is also more energy used than otherwise would be. Well, why would you favour wasting energy? Often, it’s because it can help to divert perhaps certain industrial activities that could have downstream impacts such as helping to alleviate poverty, create employment, strengthen social cohesiveness and the list goes on.

After a while, you realised that in the sphere of politics and governance, economics only holds to a certain extent. And competition often can be defined within a single dimension but actually practised over that. What this means is that if you think you’re working hard for school grades, you’d be outcompeted by someone who recognizes that his grades mean little if it is not directed towards getting to a good school or a good job. There is always a greater arena that you are actually competing within.

What this means for renewable energy is that they are not just competing with fossil fuel in terms of adoption and capital for deployment but also consumption and subsidies. Of course there is lots of subsidies going around – for example, for hydrogen. The question is whether it is worthwhile pouring subsidy into that or a more mature energy vector that has the potential to decarbonise (for example, biomethane). However, there are limitations to biomethane or bioenergy because of feedstock limitations, because of the dispersed nature of the feedstock, and the difficulties associated with deployment.

Well, there are also budget limits and land limits. It is strange how people prefer to invest in areas that have more unknowns and uncertainties rather than areas where limits are more ‘known’, but the market could still be sizable. In Australia especially, I think there is incredible upside to taking the long-term view in things because it is a market where sensibilities do tend to eventually prevail.

Originally the intent was to rant about fossil energy subsidies but look where that got me.

What stays the same

Interesting how just when I was thinking about pivot points for change, I chanced upon this Farnam Street article on Bezos and Buffett’s thinking on the impacts of the new on the financial markets. The focus is not so much what will change but what stays the same.

Governments around the world would benefit from the same way of approaching problems – not so much by considering what will change but rather, what is going to stay the same. It is more important to consider what are the new elements that can build upon the existing than to go wild with considering what could throw things off the current course (why, everything and anything, of course!)

Single pivot point

To make a change, we need a single pivot point each time. The pivot point is where things are fixed in place and do not change, and all the other changes hinge on it. And then when we make the next change, we can have another pivot point. But with any one change, we need to select a point of invariance to ensure some kind of order for the change.

In our climate transition today, too many people are trying to change things without a pivot point, thinking that the whole world has to transform. Determining what can be kept constant first is probably a good way to use consensus to drive actions. Then you’ll begin to realise what you are trying to keep the same can have far reaching consequences. For example, if you want to keep energy demand constant and start switching out existing demand into renewables, then you’re making it difficult for economic activities to expand. If you want to keep energy cost constant, then you risk keeping things to status quo and banishing adoption of costlier but greener technologies.

Laying out the trade-offs matter but one can consider how we fix certain parameters and move others first before coming back to revisit these. Take energy costs for example; given the cost of living issues and challenges, governments might want to focus on expanding proven, existing low cost green energy sources and pushing through all manner of regulations, and coordination necessary. Capture of landfill gas to be upgraded into biomethane and upgrading the biogas produced in wastewater treatment plants are low-cost sources of renewable gas that can be plugged into the existing system to displace fossil fuels. Malabar’s biomethane injection plant has just received the Greenpower certification and is the first biomethane plant in Australia to do so, ushering in what we hope to see as an era of using market mechanisms to drive renewable gas and fuel growth as it had done so for renewable electricity in the past decade in Australia.

Some may argue that prolongs the life of fossil infrastructure but we are calling them fossil infrastructure only because they are majority driven by fossil fuels as a result of legacy. One day, those infrastructure could be 100% driving renewable fuels.

Exploring sustainability

I first learnt about Hannah Ritchie‘s book, Not the end of the world, from Bill Gates. Guardian recently published another review of it as the book had just come into the market.

As Bill Gates pointed out, the interesting perspective that Hannah brings is that humans have not quite achieved the notion of ‘sustainability before. The UN notion of sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. We were not ‘more sustainable’ in the past as living standards were not great and life was pretty savage; ie. the needs of ‘the present’ wasn’t achieved in the past.

In a sense, it was as though nature had been too harsh to us and we somehow tried to survive that – mostly by ‘conquering’ and ‘reclaiming’ nature. Of course, that somehow begins to push the frontier of the planetary boundaries, and we end up breaching some of them. So the result is that the future needs become somewhat compromised.

Another important aspect of Hannah’s contribution to the book is to encourage people to look into the science and the facts. There had been so much bad press about palm oil and a very sustained assault by Western media on the crop that the productivity of the crop was overlooked. Turning to oilseed alternatives could result in more, rather than less deforestation and hence environmental destruction. Agriculture in the modern times for most part is more about taste and preferences as well as the sway that narratives have – as opposed to optimising agriculture for environment and the world.

Ultimately, we realise from Hannah’s fact-based approach that a lot of the challenges and problems do already have some kind of solution. It is all about adoption, and integrating new narratives in the way we live, and consider what is success for ourselves. Dietary choices are largely a matter of culture and what diet people aspire towards. People’s preferences can be shaped (and hence economics’ attempt at distinguishing exogenous variables from endogenous ones are somewhat moot).

For people to be more aware of the costs, and the challenges of the coordination problem, they must begin from this very fact-based approach that Hannah is leveraging in her optimistic storytelling about the history of human development. We may be struggling towards the solutions that we know (eg. putting a price on carbon and making people pay for it), but at the very least we can agree that this is how we need to move forward with and be aware of the costs and consequences. We need to get people to the bargaining table and work out who has how much to gain or lose. Without creating the transparency and acknowledging the financial, political costs, we end up being caught up in false arguments about technical solutions.

Abating the easy stuff

Electrification is often easy in many cases. It is just about changing appliances. Of course, it is also about lifestyle and way of life. I personally still prefer to cook over a gas stove. But I won’t stop cooking without one; I’ve used various electric stoves before as well and didn’t face any major issues.

I’ve lived in house that had gas heating and also one with electrical heating. Regardless, the level of thermal comfort tends to be a trade-off between use of energy and insulation rather than necessarily the equipment for heating though the efficiency of the appliances would play a part. Going on to bigger things, there’s the electrification of transport. For most part, this can be based off just taking public trains or trams instead of driving. It can also involve using electric bikes. Of course finally, there’s the transition to electric cars.

None of these really do reduce emissions in and of themselves assuming no particular changes in energy efficiency of the basic fuel used. It is the energy source that matters. Electrification must be paired with switching power generation to renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydropower and so on. It is meaningless to have electric vehicles on the road and heating of homes with heat pumps when you are generating the power. The challenge of the energy transition is that many things are taking place together and people are not able to really keep track of how much emissions are going to be or might be. Therefore, the direction and rate of change is perhaps more significant to give a sense of how much change can or will happen.

Abatement of emissions through increasing power generation through renewable energy combined with electrification remains the simplest and most effective way to decarbonise our economies. However, the complexity lies in the fact that power prices affects the economy broadly and in many countries, they are subsidised at least for some sectors of the economy. By increasing the demand for power through electrification, the plans for subsidies for certain sectors might be affected. If supply is not increasing fast enough, power prices may increase in a way that reduces the competitiveness of other sectors and the economy as a whole. At the same time, there is also a risk that renewable power supply that is coming online is much more expensive, leading the overall electricity prices to increase anyways even if the supply is keeping up with demand.

Governments are afraid of adversely affecting the power prices as it has very broad sweeping economic consequences. Additionally, power transmission and distribution investments will also have to accelerate to cope with the increased demand and supply for power. Unlike the older set of infrastructure invested over time and much longer ago, we are looking at a huge ramp-up during a short period which means the infrastructure cost will have to be passed on to customers during an intense period of change. So while electrification combined with renewable power generation is the easiest pathway to decarbonise, there are systematic and political challenges around the distribution of the cost of energy transition to consider. Overall, the players who are electrifying some of the previous energy uses actually pass on parts of their cost of transition to the overall system as their participation in the market raises the cost of power for everyone.

For the typical electricity consumer, they would expect their share of the energy transition cost to be converting their load to be drawn from renewable energy sources. However, they now have to pay a share of the heightened infrastructure cost from the increased load, as well as the increased energy cost due to competition for renewable electricity. These complexities are slowing down a process that needs to happen much more quickly.

Human resources and sustainability

The world is getting impatient. For results, for success. And corporate training for employees have become shorter; often so short it is non-existent. People and companies are pressing for results and when they do spend, they want the results immediately. And the quality of HR suffers; they are just trying to sift the market and find the talents to hire. Those with experience but are not capable will no longer be able to find work when they are planning to switch. That’s if they are not made redundant yet.

The ones who are inexperienced may find themselves somewhat discriminated against. But if they prove themselves to be capable, they’ll be able to move pretty fast in the private sector. The market will reward them richly; but rarely would companies incentivise them to help train up more people to be like them. Companies would just want to get them for their performance. And drive their results with better rewards and compensation.

Is this sustainable? I’m not sure. I personally don’t think it is going to work. Because the ones who are capable would rise and then eventually grow bigger than the organisations themselves. Or if they are actually keen on upskilling and developing people, they might move out and start businesses themselves because existing businesses out there are not really rewarding employees for developing others and fostering better work environments. Why so? Because collective results are hard to properly attribute to these champions. It is easier to attribute individual results; or allocate achievements to specific individuals.

Scientific management is showing its cracks. I’m not sure how long it will take to manifest in company valuations and the reputation of companies.

EV charging incentives

For a long time, EV charging infrastructure has been seen as something in the domain of public goods and should be driven by the government. The challenge on the government side is the question of whether it makes sense for them to invest ahead of EV adoption. Investors are nervous about it because EV chargers seem to them like something, which can pop up pretty much anywhere, and there’s no ‘moat’ to support stable revenues even if they serve as an infrastructure practically. Without proper government-regulated structure, it is difficult for investors to put capital into infrastructure in a place where there’s going to be limited utilisation.

Contrast this with petrol kiosk franchises – they are well-established and have demonstrable cash flow, with strong support from the oil & gas companies backing them. Electricity companies are sometimes backing EV charging point networks in order to increase electricity retail but the truth is that electricity distribution works on an entirely different business model from fuel distribution. A lot of investors believe that the petrol kiosks will themselves be the best location for very fast or ultra-fast chargers (usually 10-20 minutes for a full charge). The other fast chargers (1.5-4 hours for a full charge) will likely be in destinations like shopping malls or other commercial buildings.

Yet EV charging infrastructure is so important as a basis to increase EV uptake which the energy transition desperately needs. Electrification of energy needs from transport enables an easier decarbonisation as we can focus on renewable energy in the power sector while transport and other sectors just have to focus on electrification (which of course, can be quite a pain for some sectors – that’s for another day). So how do we increase and improve EV charging infrastructure? Where can we align the incentives? What role should the government play, if at all? And what if it becomes an extremely profitable business down the line?

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.