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.

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.

Among us

There are imposters around us; they pretend to be doing their work but are actually creating problems for their coworkers to solve. They are starting fires around workplaces that we all have to put out. The only issue is that companies are trying to get people to practise teamwork and they are not trying to sniff out imposters who are just pretending to be teammates. Unless you start playing office politics and all that.

What this means is that if you have been doing well, and keep doing well even though you didn’t seem to have previous experience or built any credentials around it, you’ve already proven yourself. What this means is that if you have some suspicion about yourself as an imposter, consider your intentions rather than your qualifications. What makes you an imposter is when you have drastically different intentions from the rest of the team.

It’s not just your qualifications that gets you there. It’s your intentions as well.

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.

Government bashing

The government tends to be an easy target for most of the problems, or the lack of solution towards them. In most cases, the lack of technical solutions tend not to be the barrier towards solving the problems. It is a matter of adoption. And people look towards the government to drive the uptake of solutions. The struggle today, in the market economy where there’s a multitude of technical solutions backed by various different economic interest, there’s some kind of gridlock towards having governments select solutions.

Historically, the popular beliefs, ideas and thoughts drive the directions of democratically elected government. Influence from businesses probably will contribute to some of that. But the options are limited (automobiles or horse carriages, internal combustion engines or electric engines, AC or DC transmission, etc.) and there are certain dimensions by which governments can justify their choices and move forward.

Today, it is less clear. Should we electrify homes completely or allow them to continue using gas, albeit having to encourage the development of renewable gases? Should the government be driving the choice of technologies used in homes or industries by enabling or making difficult the development of more biomethane for grid-injection? Or should they be encouraging full electrification not just of homes but also industries, and even heavy transport, redeveloping infrastructure to be able to deliver lots of electricity, enabling battery swapping or ultra-fast charging along highways?

What are the dimensions that the government should be optimising along, should they be taking positions to propagate certain solutions or standards? Are they in the position to make those choices? Yet some of these innovations and technological adoption can only move forward with enabling policies. The issue is that being in a standstill and not enacting any policy is in itself a choice for status quo, for the carbon-intense way of life, and dooming our system. Yet making a choice can mean excluding certain options or causing certain options to be more or less expensive than they otherwise would be, hence favouring one over another.

Taking policy positions and ultimately making some kind of technological choice implicitly is inevitable. So it is just a matter of what are the priorities.

Green race

The beauty of the market system emerges when there’s competition along the right dimensions just when we all need them. But competition doesn’t always require a market economy – there’s always limited resources, time and other constraints that requires us to somehow compete. There’s also reputation, attention of people and recognition that drives us to compete. In the 20th century, the space race during the cold war led to phenomenal technical and technological advances which powered the growth over the 21st century.

There was an alignment of political, and public interest. The economic interest was not entirely foreseen and only realised much later. But it seemed that entire economies of Europe, US and Soviet Union were engaged in this mission. It seemed like a conflict and perhaps competition of egos but eventually worked for the good of mankind.

Today we need to shift this mission for space to a mission for mankind on our planet. Developing a green race probably takes a good alignment of the public and political interest, as well as some kind of competitive tensions. We are beginning to observe this with first sound of the trumpet from US with its IRA focus on Clean Energy and climate transition last year; and then Canada followed with its own programme to fund indigenous clean energy projects. Australia’s announcement last week with a highly targeted programme focusing on hydrogen reflects the same sort of tension around the competition to attract the competent hydrogen players to develop required projects in their backyard.

As an energy transition consultant, I welcome this. As much as we might think the competition can result in duplicative efforts and inefficiency, it is what we need to align the incentives in the market with the interest of the overall society. Moreover, harnessing the public interest and pressure upon this topic through directing the workforce and human capital towards the low-carbon economy is much needed. The green race should hopefully create the necessary ecosystem we need to drive further changes and ensure the climate transition.

Planet, people and profits

Open dialogues with investors are needed by management of companies emitting lots of carbon dioxide. The investors are pushing for companies to decarbonise, disclose their emissions, create long term roadmaps for decarbonising their businesses. But what about making sure executive compensation is aligned with those goals?

What about the amount of returns they are willing to sacrifice in the short term to build greener supply chains? Must it be quantified in terms of reputational risks and climated-related financial risks? Are we overemphasizing the financial KPIs at the expense of the environmental values we should truly be caring about. Is our people and planet really put before profits? After all, businesses would claim that profits keep them alive to drive the goals of people and planet?

Maybe it is about agreeing on a minimum viable return or profit to keep investors there. Perhaps anything beyond that minimum viable return should be directed towards greater climate ambitions. If we truly believe that the future unit of competition is making a contribution to green rather than profits, we need to start acting as such.

Coffee stories III

Continuing on the theme of business models, hacking the target audience in multiple dimensions, and also incentivisation by government for social objectives. More governments can learn from this but with the clear objective of advancing social good and making sure that the help they render to the populace lands in the right hands. And that people are behaving in the socially desirable direction.

This is different from the typical incentivisation that is driven by cost-benefit calculations of corporates, and enabling companies to cross certain cost hurdles to invest in certain activities in an economy. The sort of incentivisation that we are operating on here deals with longer term, more strategic directions that the government is driving at – not just trying to hit GDP growth targets or stimulating the aggregate demand of the economy.

And these strategies also gets at cultural shifts and change. Done properly, they create a new, better culture that treasures the future. That does not claim the present or the short term at the expense of the future. Parts of this incentivisation could be about a mixture of regulation that creates demand while subsidisation that buffers the costs of compliance. For example, applying a hefty carbon tax while subsidising decarbonisation technologies and programmes.

It’s not about sticks or carrots but sticks and carrots.

Con-sulting

Chanced upon Mariana Mazzucato’s The Big Con in the bookstore today and took the chance to read a bit of it. I first heard of the book from the media and my curiosity was piqued, not least because I’m a consultant myself. The firms highlighted by the book are the usual big consulting groups and Mariana’s main area of attack was on their work for governments enfeebling the public sector and exercising undue influence on the decision and politics of countries.

Being focused on the energy transition, I thought perhaps that my work is less implicated by Mariana’s attack but having been a public servant myself, I do wander if the government contracting out work to the consulting industry is a problem in itself. I think for Singapore, we can safely say that Mariana’s attacks don’t have teeth because the public sector in Singapore maintains a lot of the critical capabilities and information even whilst drawing upon consultants to help drive forward its work.

The Big Con then has in mind very specific governments as targets and in some sense, cherry-pick specific stories, case studies and situations to make its argument. Nevertheless, I still empathize with what the authors are driving at and the change they are hoping to make. Mariana Mazzucatto also wrote The Mission Economy and while I have not read it, I understand the underlying ideas and how The Big Con interacts with some of those fundamental notions. I do think that governments and more actors in the economy needs to get together to galvanise the economy and wider society to collectively embark on the joint mission for a future that is worth creating.

Social redistribution by moral suasion?

As Singapore steps into the prosperity of modern society, we recognise increasingly that our prosperity and success isn’t about us as individuals but something we need to develop as a society. And that is driving the whole Forward SG exercise: the idea around reworking our social compact. Prime Minister Wong declared, “Here I have a plea to all: For a new definition of success to become a reality, all of us – as consumers – must be willing to bear a higher cost for the goods and services we consume. We must recognise the important work that our fellow citizens undertake to keep our society going, and do our part to uplift and boost their wage prospects.”

For this plea to work, it is not just about consumers and cultural mindset changes, the whole economic engine of the government including our policies on trade and industry. Essentially, our government needs to develop new ways to think about inflation: that it may be part of the consequences of uplifting the wages of our fellow Singaporeans and tradesmen. And the mechanisms around public sector procurement might need to change too if the PM himself is suggesting that consumers must be willing to bear higher cost?

We all are consumers, taxpayers, employers or employees somehow; the whole economy works such that we have these overlapping roles and what we fail to spend through consumerism, can be spent by the government through taxation. If the government genuinely wants to uphold certain principles of social distribution, it would be really hard to do so by moral suasion and avoid damaging the pro-growth stance.