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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

Positive cycles in systems

There are certainly some positive self-fulfilling prophecies in life, and they represent positive cycles in life that we can do more to encourage and harness. Students who have teachers believing in them tend to end up doing better than if they were left on their own; encouragement matters, and more importantly, the social dimension of love and nurturing has an impact on the learning outcomes of students. That is an input for teachers beyond pedagogy, but are we training teachers to believe in their students?

The industrial system works best when we can identify success factors and then invest in them to keep those positive feedback loops in the system. The tricky part is how the industrial system seeks to interact with that ‘scientific management’ koolaid about measurability and creating metrics and indicators. As a result, some of those success factors that are strictly unmeasurable get left out. After all, how do you make sure that a teacher can ‘believe’ in the students evenly in the class? But that question, which is precisely what standardisation and industrialism are based upon, misses the point.

Some of these unmeasurable success factors can generate power feedback loops. Consider the culture of graciousness in a workplace, gentleness, kindness, patience. Just because we cannot correlate the attributes with outcomes doesn’t mean they do not exist. And we all are worse off because we have allowed measurability and ‘big data’ to take such a dominant position in our systems.

Electrification Tussle II

This post continues from yesterday’s blog post.

There will be players who cannot electrify their processes, and they will need solutions. Most of them would be using natural gas running through the pipelines. And for them to decarbonize, they would need either a renewable form of natural gas, which is probably the most acceptable solution for them technically. For some of them, burning green hydrogen could potentially work as well, assuming they overcome the issues around the lower energy content of the hydrogen. Let’s consider again the drive to electrify. Using green hydrogen for these industries is equivalent to electrification because green hydrogen production is driven by renewable wind or solar power production. The notion is ultimately to shift the energy demand of these hard-to-abate industries back to the electricity grid, except through green hydrogen. Except, of course, the green hydrogen route is a very inefficient use of electricity because of poor conversion by electrolyzers and then coupled with the fact that more energy might be used to transport or store the hydrogen.

What I’m trying to point to here, is not that green hydrogen isn’t a viable solution – because in due course, with technological improvements, it definitely can and should be used. But in light of the electrification challenges I highlighted in part 1 (yesterday’s post), green hydrogen does not help alleviate the problem. It tends to complicate it and put even more stress on the electricity system when trying to green the grid. The mix of policy stances involving the heavy promotion of green hydrogen, the attempts to accelerate the reduction in gas use domestically, and setting aggressive renewable energy targets (really more like renewable electricity targets) for the grid emissions factor are all putting a lot of pressure on the electricity system while trying to keep electricity cost pressures under control.

Already mentioned in the earlier blog post is that natural gas resources can serve as part of the transition story. Now, there are concerns and worries about an addiction to fossil gas. After all, the economy might actually be addicted to it because it is a very lucrative export for Australia and so even as the country tries to reduce domestic use, it is unlikely to give it up as an export. And the fear is that the addiction would make it harder to decarbonise. This is why the other area for the government to direct its resources and develop policies that channel efforts in the right direction would be to promote biomethane production and displacement of fossil natural gas through the use of biomethane.

It is almost a no-brainer. Yet, there were concerns about the costs of biomethane while the more costly green hydrogen is being subsidised in all directions. There were further concerns about the limits of the resource potential of biomethane when the grid resources for green hydrogen production are even more scarce and expensive.

In providing my opinions, I have not given any figures but assumed that readers can find and discover for themselves the relative costs, and other challenges associated with how the overall policy mix and energy transition conversation is creating needless bottlenecks and distorting the orderliness of the energy transition. I suggest that we direct our efforts as an industry, economy, society and country in a more sensible, coherent, and directed manner to navigate the energy transition. The technically sensible approach is available and on the table, let’s set that as a destination first, and then slowly navigate the political minefield to get to it. This would likely produce better results than to be muddling through the technical solutions while trying to satisfy various political constituents and be none the wiser as to which destination we’re trying to get to.

Just an additional note to say that these entries are purely my personal opinions and do not reflect any views of my employers or any organisations I happen to be affiliated with.