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?

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.

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.

Gas in households

When corporates purchase carbon credits and try to ‘offset’ their emissions, environmental groups would accuse them of greenwashing and to a certain extent, tokenism. Yet when Victoria state government bans gas in new homes from 2024, environmental groups were pleased and herald it as some degree or progress and victory.

It is easy to pass this off as a big move. Developers of new homes may have more planning restrictions. Those buying new homes will need to stop using gas. Gas demand growth from households will slow down but gas use in homes are a really tiny fraction of 17% contribution to the state’s emissions by the gas sector.

At the system level, Victoria’s grid emission factor in 2022 is actually such that it emits 4.6 times more carbon dioxide equivalent than combusting piped gas for an equivalent amount of energy. You can easily work that out by consulting the greenhouse emission factors published each year. Of course, I’m probably ignoring some of the emissions associated with the distribution part of things and also with fugitives. The reason for this big difference is the presence of coal-fired power plants on Victoria’s grid. In any case, all renewable energy injected into the grid from wind and solar will be used. Coal-fired power plants provide the baseload and gas-fired power plants usually absorb the additional load demand. What this means is that during the times (early morning or in the evenings) when you’re using electricity for heating or cooking in households, it is quite likely you’re consuming more gas fired power than solar power (whose generation peak in the mid-day).

There are questions on the efficiency of the whole process. Burning gas at power plants and converting them to electricity will result in some energy loss, and then using the electricity to convert it back to heat will mean a bit more losses (less than at the power plant of course); so heat applications for electricity isn’t all that efficient.

And then there is the question of energy bills. Whether you are consuming gas directly in the house or indirectly through electricity in the system, you are going to bear the cost of the gas that is consumed. In Australia, a large proportion of the cost of energy isn’t really in the energy itself but the share of cost that goes into infrastructure, especially that of distribution. Going full electric in households serves to help decarbonise the system only when the renewable electricity is supplied during the times when household’s demand peak. For solar, this is unlikely to be the case unless the household installs its own battery system to charge when solar generation is peak in mid-day. Batteries, additional distribution network assets to cater to peak renewable generation, are all infrastructure that will add to the cost of electricity.

So let us be honest about it: banning gas in residential use is unlikely to move the needle much in terms of decarbonisation in the electricity system right now. At least not all that much in Victoria. It is going to push the problem upstream where it can potentially be managed better. But a lot more actions will have to be taken. Would it improve indoor air quality for homes? Maybe, if your house is not properly ventilated but I doubt it is a very serious issue. Would it really reduce energy bills across the household? Quite unlikely. What it could accomplish is some degree of tokenism to pacify the groups of people who thinks it is a good idea.

Yet it is probably a setback for decarbonisation because we are narrowing ourselves to decarbonise by using a narrow set of technologies and forgetting about the ability to decarbonise gas through biomethane.

Sniffing industrialism

Professional services are inherently somewhat personal kind of service that depends a lot on the team delivering the service – not just because of the expertise required and involved but also the extent the team actually understands and care about the problem that clients have.

When one enters a professional service environment, it becomes easy to sniff out industrialism when you note that the bosses are just acting as managers, thinking about how they can increase more sales, upsell customers and mainly care about the metrics involved for sales but not delivery. And then when it comes to delivery, the culture is about doing the minimum, leveraging irrelevant previous work, failing to live up to promises.

We have all seen the big consultancies deliver such stuff. Perhaps especially the big four. Mariana Mazzucato talks about it in the Big Con. Workers need to sniff out industrialism in this sector and learn to opt out of it – by leaving or changing the way they serve. Clients need to sniff that out by walking away. The reason why such industrialism perpetuates is because clients sign up for them – they put procurement departments, try to boil everything down to basic metrics and uni-dimensional issues, and negotiate lower prices, driving vendors to cut back on service.

We’ve had decades of doing more, extracting more productivity out of our assets, workers and even vendors. Like the big fossil, you might think you’re winning, until you realise you’ve just driven the world to its end.

Conflicts of interest in professional services

One of the interesting arguments coming out of Mariana Mazzucato’s The Big Con is that because consulting firms are reliant on a continued stream of business from their clients, there is a conflict of interest as they would not be interested to help clients build the capability to solve problems by themselves.

I’m concerned about this argument because that argument can be made in many other situation such as a lawyer not wanting to help client get out of legal trouble or doctor not desiring his patients to recover, etc. It opens a whole can of worms and at the end of the day, boils down to a matter of professional ethics and the standards we need to uphold within the industry and sector.

I’ve an episode in Mondo Gondo about the financial advisory industry’s conflict of interest. Interestingly, Christopher Tan from Providend revisited this topic again recently. This matter of commission-induced conflict of interest underlies his motivation in founding of his firm. Yet he still struggles with the inherent tension across:

  • the need to make money,
  • the need to motivate and retain his good employees as well as
  • to uphold the interest of his client base.

There may be inherently some industries that are better off for the customers if they were not subject to complete free market type conditions.

Perhaps consulting firms should all continue to stay in the form of partnerships and not allowed to get too big. Likewise, financial advisory might be better off as an industry of freelancing individuals. They can be subject to strict industry and professional body standards rather than be firms operating with huge overheads.

Sales or professional service

Whether you’re in a law firm, accounting firm or consulting firm, as you rise up to Partner status, your major contribution to the company is deemed as sales. Nevermind you’ve accumulated lots of experience and is able to solve very tricky issues for clients, if you fail to bring business in, you have failed at your role. This is a challenging thought and it made me wonder whether the end point of growth in professional service and being able to serve clients well is just sales? Or is that all a false dichotomy to begin with?

How can we set up sales situations such that it is less adversarial, where we can be really win-win rather than see it as a zero-sum game. In some sense, it is true that a client can still get some kind of service from another firm, a competitor whereas when they walk away from you, your firm gets nothing. So it is very easy to see it as a win-lose kind of deal. And moreover, the client will be putting in process and structure to try and get the best deal out of their vendor. That is simply the way the mature market economy is set up. Can there be really different rules and different ways of working to contextualize situations in ways that are less tense and difficult?

Can sales be driven by the desire to serve and not to profit from the client? How can sales be set up such that the joy of service pays and profit is just a byproduct? I think the missing piece in the puzzle is really around the purpose and the conviction of the service to be rendered. When one is truly able to deliver superior service and product, with a strong faith that it will satisfy the clients’ needs, then the sales situation will be more of a win-win deal. The client loses out by walking out because you are the one who is able to bring the solution to the client.

The question is how do you know? Perhaps that is for another day.

Demand for energy is growing

We’ve been seeing on the news that 2023 will probably go down in history as the year oil majors backtracked on their promises towards the climate transition, and continued their trajectory of emissions as the demand for fossil fuels continue to grow.

This is exactly the kind of behaviour that makes it easy for people to keep painting them as the enemy. As a matter of fact, they risk painting themselves out of the low carbon future when they allow their “core” fossil fuel business to continue cannibalising their renewables business. Yes you heard me right; in refusing to see their core business as that of providing the world with sustainable energy, they are rapidly destroying a market they want to be part of.

Instead of seeing it as demand for fossil fuels, the oil majors need to recognise that there’s demand for energy – and it is growing. The opportunity to convert their customers to green users, energy users of the future rather than keeping them in the past. Their behaviour will at some point push the authorities to act even more aggressively against fossil fuels. The trouble right now is that they think the world needs them to go on spinning.

Mission of energy transition

The market has a role to play in the energy transition but the market is not responsible for the transition. Technological improvements and our sense of purpose or mission does not come from the market – they are exogenous inputs. What is challenging about the market is that it does have a life of its own and there are always entrenched interests pushing against the direction of the mission that the world is on. It is not just about gaining buy-in to the mission but unraveling the interests vested in it.

That is a serious conundrum especially when we need to transition fast. The bigger the vessel, the harder it is to steer and change directions. So it is with the market economy. The most vested the market is with the status quo, the greater the reach of the tentacles of the market through the system across areas of life, the harder it is for change to happen. Or at least directed, meaningful change.

It is probably time to recognise that the market can help drive the demand for greener fuels and renewable energy if the incentives are put right. It is also critical to recognise that the economics around change can be arbitrary and a snapshot in time. Cracking the puzzle is not just about performing a cost-benefit analysis and saying whether to proceed with this or not. It is about identifying the pain-points, challenging the status quo, re-jigging incentives and rallying the champions.

We have done that before, with ushering more peace, with managing overpopulation, with feeding hunger, dealing with poverty. We can deal with the challenge of climate change and the transition of our economy. If we make it our mission to do so, rather than to wait for the market.