Rapid digitalization and skyscrapers that tower over the city – Singapore is known to be an energy-intensive city with high levels of development. The average Singaporean consumes about 9,068 kWh of energy in 2019 — more than 4 times the average global electricity consumption which is about 2,100 kWh!
What’s worrying is that our consumption has also been growing year after year. The total consumption of electricity grew by around 11.4% between 2014 and 2019. Since Singapore’s energy mix consists mostly of fossil fuels, this means that fossil fuel reliance will keep rising, exposing Singapore to greater risks due to the political nature of oil, the rising instability of fossil fuel supplies and concerns over energy security.
Furthermore, high levels of carbon emissions can lead to environmental issues like climate change, rising sea levels and extinction. Knowing all these challenges in the system and other constraints, Singapore is not idle in ramping up energy production while mitigating potential risks.
Singapore’s Energy Generation
The 4 National Switches.
The term the 4 National Switches was first used in 2004 and provides a framework on the different sources that contribute to Singapore’s water security. The 4 National Switches model, which was first used by the Energy Market Authority in 2019, heavily references the success of the Singapore Water Story in hopes for a likewise successful Singapore Energy Story.
Infographic on Singapore’s Energy Story. Source: URL
Switch 1: Natural Gas
Cleaner Fossil Fuel Mix with Lower Emissions
Coal and petroleum products are some of the most pollutive energy sources in the world and contribute to air pollution, poor health and higher carbon emissions. To mitigate some of those effects, the energy mix has shifted towards natural gas instead of other fossil fuels as it releases fewer carbon emissions per unit energy generated.
Graph showing increases in natural gas over time. Source: URL
Over the years, Singapore has replaced petroleum products with natural gas since the early 2000s. It used to make up 26% of the energy mix in 2001, but by 2019, it’s almost 96%. Between 2000 and 2010, Singapore managed to reduce its emissions by 21% while having a 76% increase in GDP due to the switch to natural gas.
Despite that, opponents have raised the need to shift away from natural gas as it is still a fossil fuel and emits carbon emissions. The marginal increase from 96% to 100% cannot mitigate the climate effects from carbon emissions that come from natural gas.
According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2018, Singapore is 27th in the world for emissions per capita, not what we expect from a small country that only emits 0.11% of the global emissions. However, with difficulty in meeting the long-term supply in the face of growing demand and pressure to be responsible for the environment, other strategies have to be considered.
Switch 2: Solar
Singapore’s Renewable Energy of Choice
Singapore has turned towards specifically solar energy in the endeavor towards a more sustainable energy supply, with the intention of increasing its solar capacity by more than 7 times the current level by 2030. Singapore is experimenting with solar panels on the rooftops, floating in the reservoirs, and on the facades of buildings and walkway shelters.
Solar panels on the rooftop of some HDB flats
Taiwan: What solar panels can look like in the future
While Singapore has not actually started fitting solar panels onto building facades, it is planning to do so. This will open up new opportunities in the construction and innovation space for new buildings and retrofitting around the sides of the buildings, and even the shelters of walkways and bus stops. We can look at countries like Taiwan and Spain that have gone ahead to invest and construct such structures.
Floating solar panels testbed on Tengah Reservoir
This is the world’s first set floating solar panel testbed and it is currently aimed at reservoirs that people do not have great access to like the reservoirs in the West and Tekong. To manage the intermittency of solar energy, storage systems have to be built and to overcome the lack of space, Singapore has also invested in building energy storage facilities floating out at sea and offshore islands like Pulau Ubin.
Currently, much of the government work is for domestic electric consumption. However, as the 3rd richest country in GDP per capita, Yale-NUS Assistant Professor Angel Hsu believes that it’s a matter of will to commit to building out these technologies.
Of course, businesses should be involved too since they have a huge share of carbon emissions as well. Research has already shown that the unit cost of solar energy is lower than the unit cost of fossil fuels. This means that privately investing and installing solar panels for buildings can be cost-saving and additional electricity can be sold back to the grid for a profit, hence it is probably a profitable endeavour to start using solar panels.
While it sounds great that solar energy is going to increase by more than 7 times, it is slated to be only around 4% of the nation’s energy mix. Such a marginal increase in solar energy does very little to raise the energy security of Singapore or mitigate emissions and climate risk. Other than involving businesses, alternative forms of renewable energy may have to be considered like biomass and offshore wind farms at the Southern Islands in Singapore.
Switch 3: Regional Power Grid
Importing to Cleaner Electricity from Neighbouring Countries
Additionally, Singapore is looking towards increasing its sources of available renewable energy through bilateral or multilateral agreements with multiple countries in the region to provide a greater supply of renewable energy.
Minister Chan Chun Sing announced one of the first pilot trials toimport hydroelectric energy from Johor in October 2020. The trial will start as early as end-2021, leveraging on existing cables between Malaysia and Singapore. About 100 megawatts will be drawn from Malaysia over the 2-year trial, equivalent to 1.5% of Singapore’s peak demand usage.
Moreover, a $20 billionsolar farm in Australia that will be generating and sending electricity to Singapore is on its way with the first export of electricity and is planned to start in 2027. Projected to be the largest solar farm, it spans 10,000 km2 and will power about20% of the peak demand of Singapore.
The ability to tap into other countries allows us to access geographical spaces that we could have never imagined. Without access to Johor River, we would likely never tap into hydroelectricity and if we didn’t have the expanse of land in the Outback of Australia, we may not even dream to have the level of renewables in our energy mix. Hence, Singapore is greening its energy sources while the exporting country financially gains from it. Proponents also support the fact that developing such technology helps exporters further innovate and develop more efficient and compact systems.
Dams producing hydroelectricity. Source: Pixabay
Although it is true that diversifying the sources of energy could potentially be beneficial for Singapore, it is important to note that similarly to importing water or having a heavy reliance on external sources for food, Singapore might be exposing itself to possible geopolitical risks, despite the offset from risks from the fossil fuel industry. Perhaps, it is the lesser of the two evils, but only time can tell if these relations will pay-off geopolitically.
Also, there are some criticisms on how Singapore might be exporting its environmental problems elsewhere. The river or land used could have been reserved for Malaysia or Australia for them to transition and decarbonise.
For instance, dams required to produce hydropower are known to disrupt water supply and the delicate ecology. One could call that out as dumping those externalities on the exporting countries so that Singapore does not deal with them directly. Hence, Singapore should focus on either creating more diverse local energy sources and internalizing externalities of importing electricity are crucial so that communities do not suffer. If done right, there is a possibility of investments by Singaporean companies to other Southeast Asian countries for imported energy.
Switch 4: Low-Carbon Alternatives
Non-Renewable Fuel Sources and Carbon Capture
Singapore is also looking at alternative sources of energy that may not necessarily be renewable. The source that is of interest, in particular, is hydrogen gas.
Essentially, hydrogen burns cleanly with oxygen to form water. This is promising as it is a less pollutive gas than natural gas and has much lower carbon emissions. One issue is the ability to store the gas in compressed manners where it can be easily transported.
Another issue as highlighted in the video is the way we produce hydrogen.
Ultimately, about 95% of the hydrogen gas produced globally still relies on fossil fuels as the initial input. So, the nation is pretty much still knee-deep in the fossil fuel industry which may give a false sense of energy security since hydrogen comes from natural gas anyway.
Hydrogen might burn cleaner than natural gas, but the process of generating hydrogen from methane still generates carbon emissions. We’ve merely pushed the emissions upstream. Arguably, when we push the emissions upstream, it is much easier to capture at the power plants, since it is at the source of production. However, many hydrogen-producing regions still do not capture their carbon emissions right at the plants.
To alleviate carbon emissions, Singapore has been introducing carbon offsetting for emissions from fossil fuels in the aviation industry and might slowly extend offsetting to other industries too. On top of that, a new possibility of carbon capture is being explored as well, with hopes of being able to convert the carbon to useful products in the future.
At the moment, hydrogen is still a more expensive energy sourceand carbon capture technology requires high levels of investment. More research and development is still needed in this nascent field and that more corporations and businesses direct the funds towards them.
Future Energy Morphology
Some overall critiques are that the look of how much is going to change does not look like we are diversifying as much, with the majority reliance on the fossil fuel industry even with hydrogen. We also have to be mindful of the emissions and any environmental risk that we or others around us have to bear as that is the responsibility of Singapore.
Evaluating the 4 Switches
Can Singapore Live Up to Its Green Reputation?
The short answer: yes.
But a lot of work has to be done considering both security and sustainability in tandem. Perhaps it is important to prioritize those that can achieve both goals to ensure that the allocation of resources is well-managed.
Arguably, locally generated renewable energy (whether it is solar or not) can ideally achieve both local energy security with lowered reliance overseas and improved sustainability due to lower pollution and carbon emissions.
Of course, in Singapore’s case, our land and even offshore constraints have made us consider working with other countries. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong but it is important to keep in mind that the nation possibly loses direct control over these external energy sources. So long as these sources are renewable, there will be less environmental impact.
While hydrogen could be viable for a country like Singapore due to the ease of integrating within current natural gas systems, carbon dioxide has to be captured at the source of hydrogen production. Singapore has the responsibility to help these plants capture carbon dioxide since it directly benefits from the lowered emissions of burning hydrogen at the end-user (like hydrogen-fueled cars). Even the current petrochemical plants require carbon capture and the future of the climate requires us to take out carbon from the air. Then, we simply have an overreliance on natural gas that we need to shift away from.
What Else Can Singapore Do?
There are many other strategies that can help to move the needle forward in terms of the security and sustainability of energy. For instance, other renewable sources, incentivizing businesses to participate in choosing better energy sources. A carbon tax and research and development into renewables are important.