Transition economics

What happens in economics when technological innovation happens? There’s a bit of dilemma between technological progress and economics because technology needs to progress to a stage when it upend the economics of an established technology – yet the incumbent is often enjoying scale economies as well as other effects such as network economies that can make it incredibly difficult for the new comer even if it is superior to existing technology at the scale that the incumbent operates.

In the Innovators’ Dilemma, that was being described and the strategy as well as the market approach is always for the new technology to chip away at the market of the incumbent technology by being appealing enough to a small group in the market to help it grow its scale and challenge the incumbent on more fronts gradually. Can the new technologies that we are trying to cross over towards make their way through this path in order to break the dominance of the incumbent technologies?

They probably won’t be able to move fast enough. And that is probably the justification for government to intervene and encourage developments. Yet governments do not want to be seen as favouring particular technologies. There is also a concern about creating inefficiencies in the market by distorting prices or forcing the taxpayers to shoulder the wrong costs.

Yet in reality, for the world to create a better future, there’s no real ways around it. The modern world was not built by shielding taxpayers from the wrong technological investments nor from carefully betting on the right technologies to take off. The complex problems around climate issues today are not so different from the public infrastructure challenges that people faced in the time before government had the kind of powers they have today. They are more complex, and we probably need more talented people working on them, both in the private sector as well as in government. In fact more so in government than ever.

The challenge remains the cost-benefit paradigms and all the free-market type principles to government and what intervention should be like. Without more mission-oriented policy-making principles and a system that is properly leveraging talents and passion, it will be difficult for governments around the world to assume the kind of role and leadership it needs to lead the transition.

Tailpipe emissions

We moved to Sydney earlier this year and one of the main highways that the buses move on to get to our place in the suburbs is Parramatta Road. It was a highway leading into the western suburbs but now it is just a road – a relatively narrow one for the heavy traffic that goes through it.

I recall one morning when I walked along the road to get to the bus stop that gets me a bus to the city. There were heavy trucks going down the road, with large SUVs and smaller passenger vehicles as well. I didn’t recall tailpipe emissions bothering me that much back in Singapore – perhaps only the heat that the cars were emitting then. But I noticed how much the tailpipe emissions were stinking up the air even in Sydney where it was less humid than in Singapore and smells tend not to linger or stay strong in the air.

It did make me wonder what the roads would be like without those tailpipe emissions. And that’s probably the dream of those EV companies and the policymakers who are trying to push for more EVs on the roads. Singapore could have done that way earlier; given our ability to manage the vehicle population through COE. Moreover, Singapore already has one of the highest taxes on vehicles in the world. This means the population was ready to shell out the kind of money that an EV would cost.

It is a fine balance to strike given that there’s a lot more consideration around the readiness of our electricity network infrastructure to develop the charging capacities needed. There’s a lot of thinking around whether our vehicle refueling infrastructure is going to be disrupted – and how we can manage those disruptions. Sometimes we just want the transition to happen immediately and for all of us to gain access to the latest technology at reasonable costs. Singapore has done a good job juggling these difficulties and we can do more to explain the linkages between systems to allow us to pinpoint and put pressure on the bottlenecks.

The monolithic system

What if the sun could give us all our power and energy, to drive everything we need to power our economies, perform our activities and live life? Or what if we can afford everything that we ever want and need? What if money can buy us everything? What if this one thing can solve all your problems?

If all that hypothetical questioning sounds like a bunch of marketing crap or storytelling, they are actually fantastic devices that somehow appeals so much to our psyche. But they can simultaneously be truth with caveats and also complete bullshit.

In case you are curious, I provide the solutions:

  • The sun does power a lot of things and is capable of providing sufficient energy for all of our activities and more but capturing it and channeling them properly is had.
  • We, as a collective earth, already is able to afford everything we produce and will be able to satisfy all of our needs – wants on the other hand are completely manufactured by ourselves and can be managed.
  • Money can buy us everything that can be bought (or sold).
  • One thing that can solve all your problems is a mental reframe to see them not as problems but challenges to help you grow.

There is always some kind of rhetoric to get you out of those conundrum but doesn’t really address the actual psychological appeal of those questions. The thing is that we naturally gravitate towards some kind of monolithic system or idea where we want a single solution or something that becomes a common denominator for everything else. Money comes close to becoming that. Yet that has probably demonstrated that such a system do not actually deliver what you think it would.

Likewise, the market economy and market system isn’t going to be the one that delivers us all from the problems around energy, climate change, innovations and poverty elimination. The market system needs to be rightly placed for what it is good for just as we should see wind and solar power in their place within the energy system rather than expecting them to deliver all our needs. Even oil and gas was not able to power all of our world’s energy needs even if they came close to that. Monolithic systems reduces resilience even if they provide scale economies.

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.

Small firm in energy transition

The energy transition exposes the weakness of the current energy system of the world. It reveals how much we are reliant on a few resources to draw our energy to power the economy despite how dispersed and distributed energy resources are.

Take for example a rural area in Indonesia, where there are small farms and villages – and they are relying on diesel or kerosene refined and fetched from some far flung areas in order to power their generators or farm equipment. All the while just sitting beside heaps of bioenergy resources that are seen as waste.

The emphasis on low-carbon economy helps us recognise that we may have to start shortening our supply chains and reducing its complexity if we want to decarbonise our economies. Part of this has to do with how stuck we are between the CAPEX and OPEX distribution of the manner we consume energy. By consuming fossil fuels, we shift the burden of costs mostly to the OPEX since equipment are mostly standardised and so they are cheaper to procure and use while we adopt the long supply chains needed to achieve the delivery of fossil fuels on regular basis.

If we were to shift to shorter supply chains where the distributed energy resources were consumed instead, there might be more local equipment needed, the CAPEX might increase. But OPEX may actually decrease because now you’re saving on storage or disposal costs of some of the feedstock that might go into making the fuel you need.

If the world is to develop shorter supply chains, it will need more small firms. And governments all around the world needs to know better how to encourage, support and empower small firms to rise up to the challenge. We need local firms who are familiar with the local constraints, context and needs. They need to be upskilled technically to rise up to the challenge and generate solutions.

This mode of development is vastly different from the old school model of having a big multi-national firm come into a less developed location to help ‘develop’ it by reshaping local demands. Aside from how much this harks back to colonialism, it is creating long supply chains which seem to create more jobs but is not doing much for the climate and environment.

Hydrogen ecosystem II

When I first penned the blog post on hydrogen ecosystem, I had a couple of ill-fitting ideas that I thought could come together but I did not successfully pull them together beyond putting them in a single blog post. What I really meant to say is that the government will need to do more work understanding and studying the nuances of the ecosystem and industrial value chain that makes sense for green hydrogen and then perhaps take action to ease the struggles of the market in developing projects.

The thing about green hydrogen is that it is something that requires quite a fair amount of new infrastructure. And the situation is uncertain because governments are thinking that maybe electrification will be more dominant and want to avoid investing in white elephants. Or they think that it is all a zero-sum game due to budget and resource constraints and that investing into transmission and distribution which meant favouring electrification would naturally be inconsistent with investing into more gas infrastructure.

In reality however, green hydrogen is made from renewable energy and hence the alleviation of electricity grid issues that foster more wind and solar can also support the development of a green hydrogen sector. The key here again is that the government needs to have better knowledge of how different parts of the value chain works and the value they are contributing.

Only in appreciating that, the governments can make the right moves.

Making the transition III

I have written about green ammonia and hydrogen before. And I might keep talking about them because they are important candidates as energy vectors in a decarbonised world. They are quite likely what is considered as the end points of the transition for the world towards zero carbon or low carbon. What does it mean to transit to green ammonia or green hydrogen? What needs to take place, and who will move first? What should the players be looking out for in order to make the switch?

We need to start defining intermediate steps for the switch. There is actually very little doubts about the inevitability of the switch. Yes there are concerns that it might be energy intensive, the costs are high, and the market is not formed yet. But realistically, most new things are like that. When the Apollo mission took up 60% of the computing power of United States in order to perform its calculations for the project, there wasn’t anyone saying the industry is not formed yet we should wait for better computers before we send man to the moon. We just viewed the mission as a series of problems to be solved, within the budget constraint.

The transition needs a budget; it can be a small one or it can be a large one. The issue is that the businesses needs to take a stance and say that climate change and the transition is a mission I want to be on, and to explore the series of problems to be solved in order to complete the mission. And we don’t wait for costs to come down before we make the transition, we take active steps towards it. That is also what leadership is about. That is really the only issue people should be considering.

So for example, if you’re providing equipment for natural gas systems – be it power generation, cogeneration, for steam methane reforming, etc. You need to start thinking about the smaller pieces of things: are your valves able to handle hydrogen? Do the membranes in your cryogenic tanks work if it was to be filled with hydrogen? What about your manpower, are they able to be trained in the safe handling of the gas? All these to prepare for the transition. You won’t be able to make the transition overnight or achieve it through a single project. It takes much smaller steps.

So start making them now.

Making the transition II

Transition means being in an in-between state, crossing over to something which is supposed to be perhaps a less temporary state. The challenge, however, is that one can get stuck in transit. Natural gas as a fuel risk being in that state because it wasn’t really adopted fast enough as a transition fuel. And now renewable electricity from solar and wind has more or less leapfrog it in terms of cost advantage. Once battery or other energy storage technology moves along the cost curve and decline sufficiently, natural gas might even be bypassed.

So the world is in a somewhat confused state. When is it right to use gas? What should be counted as alternatives for decarbonisation? In any case, gas prices are spiking now so what does it mean? Should that mean we move forward into more renewables which might even be more expensive? Or we move backward into coal?

These decisions are not meant to be made in categorically; because the entire system needs to be considered. And what is at the margin in terms of choice needs to be clearly identified. If the additional unit of power that satisfies both energy security and the quantity demanded can be obtained through renewables, it should be used. Of course if that is not available, one might have to step back into more carbon-intensive processes. Availability can also be based on budget.

Natural gas itself, needs to be displaced by greener fuels without threatening the underlying combustion technologies that underpin the gas turbines. But that is perhaps for another day.