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.

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.

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.

Profitable transition

What does it mean if companies declare that they are committed to the energy transition including committing resources towards it, and massive investments, only to make a U-turn when oil & gas turns out to be way more profitable? It tells you that it had always been about the money it makes rather than the transition. Never mind that the fossil fuels continue to drive up carbon emissions and hurting the climate. In fact, maybe climate change would drive up demand for energy – especially in terms of heating or cooling, or requiring more activities in the economy to deal with and mitigate the impacts.

Can the work of accelerating the energy transition be left to the markets? Can profits really motivate companies to support the transition and reduce carbon emissions? Does the market demand understand, appreciate and would be willing to drive and pay for the transition? I don’t think so. Absent regulation, it is unlikely for the markets to drive the emergence of the solution. It is as if we want seat belt manufacturers to drive the messaging around safety and benefits of having seat belts rather than legislate it as a requirement in cars. Or just waiting around for cars to adopt them as the standard feature in a car.

We probably don’t have enough time for all that to make an impact on mitigating climate change. Regulations will be required. To put a price for carbon on the market, to push technologies and options in the market that will reduce emissions. We must also evolve and steer the regulation as our understanding of the technologies and impact on environment advances. We don’t have to get everything right on the first try but we do need to be trying.

Hoarding resources

New York Times just ran an opinion piece about Big Oil and whether the rhetoric about these big international oil companies actually push for the energy transition or not, their contribution to the development was probably not that significant anyways. There is minimal capital redeployment from oil & gas towards renewable energy. The truth is that capital coming into renewable energy is largely from other sources and areas.

The big oil players were in any case just trying to defend their turf when they invest into renewable energy; and in other instances, it was probably just more of a PR exercise. The recent big retreats from the rhetoric around energy transition can only serve to create more climate anxiety amongst the younger ones, and discourage us further about our ability to get the climate transition right. There’s really limited plan B options for us as the human race on earth facing climate change so everyone needs to work together regardless what the big oil is trying to do.

The biggest challenge for the world with the big oil not doing much to withdraw from the fossil fuel business is not about the market, the demand from the energy users but perhaps more about the people who are continuing to work within the big oil’s supply chains and operations. If we are serious about the transition, we need to give oil rig workers something new to work on that can help with the climate transition; we need to get the refinery process engineers to work for some other sort of plants. In general, we need a coordinated effort to transform our economies by making it a mission to do so.

When the world sent people to the moon decades ago, we were creating new industries using taxpayers’ dollars. We were using military spending to drive advancements that would usher in a new era. We could do the same with energy transition. It will take a lot of political will and convincing people but there is enough resources to redirect ourselves from the global warming path that we are on.

Going in circles

Our spray bottles for cleaning the kitchen counter, pump bottles that come with our body foam, as well as that shampoo bottle are all going to outlast our use of the fluids stored within them. They can be reused – and in reusing them for the same applications, we are reducing their usage. Good for the overall economy in terms of saving resources, for our pockets and also the environment. Except that it is in the interest of the fossil fuel companies to churn out more plastics, for the consumer goods company to create more new packaging and mark up the price of these products, for logistics companies to handle a consistent set of quality, new containers rather than re-used, non-standardized ones.

We’ve created incentives, built our economies around sheer wastage and environmental destruction. Can new business models be created, alongside the harnessing of forces to drive change in consumer culture and consumption practices? Grist reports on some interesting examples recently.

Indeed, we already have vending machines and public water fountains. Why not make soda fountains where people pay for soda that goes into their water bottles? Scoop Wholefoods already tries to retail all kinds of products by having customers bring containers into store where they are filled up.

Laundry detergent, hand soap and all can definitely be sold in bulk dispensed from big containers into the containers brought by the consumers. During the Covid pandemic, Singapore had deployed vending machines and various physical outposts around community centers where Singaporeans could bring their containers to refill and get alcohol-free hand sanitisers. Why not make that the norm?

It will be difficult for the market capitalism as we have evolved it to stomach and put up with all these changes. People want to carry on with proliferation of brands and ‘choices’ – they want to make different containers and so many different kinds of detergent, soaps and handwash that makes it hard to retail all of these in bulk.

Would you rather have more options of soap and less possibilities of a future we would want to be part of? Or less option of soaps so we can choose better futures to exist in?

Who is the enemy?

Is it fossil fuels or the fossil fuel companies?

Biomethane (or upgraded biogas) has a challenging reputation in some markets. It is chemically indistinguishable from natural gas which is a fossil fuel. It burns identically and emits carbon dioxide when combusted. However, it is considered a low-carbon fuel because the carbon content from biomethane is actually the short-cycle carbon dioxide. It is great because you can combust and generate power or heat using a conventional gas turbine or other gas appliances with it without having to retool or change the equipment.

Biomethane is a clear pathway to support decarbonisation of gas and yet it is being shunned by critics. Part of the reason is that the fossil fuel companies are getting involved and could extend the lifespan of their fossil fuel assets and infrastructure using it. And some people are unhappy that they even receive low-carbon funding for the gas infrastructure.

When we see fossil fuel companies as enemies, then anything they do will be wrong and things that continues driving their asset base even tangentially related to fossil gas seem like a problem.

But if the enemy is carbon emissions, then those companies need to be given a chance. We need to demarcate some boundaries: for example, they could set a profit margin cap on themselves and commit all the funds above that towards clean energy investments. Or even better, they could funnel those funds into a ring-fenced facility which then dole out the resources towards anything proven to be low-carbon.

New site for Mondo Gondo

For those who know, I started a podcast late last year named Mondo Gondo and finished a single season with six episodes and have not revived the podcast since. This was largely because I got busy with my work that involved a bit of relocation early this year. I still intend to keep Mondo Gondo going and have recently invested into centralising all my web content into my self-hosted platform.

Therefore, Mondo Gondo’s website had a facelift. It is much simpler now with less heavy graphics. It continues to hold only the show notes for the podcast and the intention is to eventually get back to creating another season, featuring rants, thoughts and ideas around sustainability, incentives and how we could make the world a better place.

I have some ideas around more in-depth topics on energy, discussing whether hydrogen should be used in residential applications, considering if AirBnB can potentially make tourism and hospitality more eco-friendly, thinking about how we need new models of thinking about infrastructure in order to drive more sustainable development, reconsidering the role of urban centers and more.

It might still be a while more but watch the new site for season 2.

Making the contribution

For first time in history but it’s already been a while, the world collectively seem to have abundance. The total amount of food produced could feed the entire world one and a half times over. If energy is used efficiently and excesses trimmed, the entire world should have decent amount of power to live normal modern lives. Of course that depends on what you mean by normal but I’m covering the same point that there’s enough in the world but the problem is distribution.

And distribution is not just a physical problem of course. Distribution can be an economic problem in itself. The fact that the market doesn’t really care that much about the distribution of resources, buying power / puchasing power is actually a problem. It skews the global economy towards what the people with means needs rather than producing for the best outcomes of the world. And this is perhaps why energy continues to be skewed towards the developed, high energy consumption countries or markets.

So making a contribution to this world isn’t really about production. If the world continues in the same fashion tomorrow, you can really make a greater impact on someone’s life – from an incremental perspective – by improving the distribution in the system. By bringing access to higher quality energy, better nutrition, bringing critical and vital knowledge to the communities which can use them properly. That sort of contribution is of unparalleled value. Probably not the kind of contribution involving helping companies break into new markets or keeping fossil fuel businesses alive to emit more carbon.