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Singapores renewable future

On the vast, sunny plains of northern Australia, investors are planning to turn the sun into a giant power station for Singapore.

A large array of solar panels would capture the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity, which would be transmitted via undersea cables.

There are plans for other immense renewable energy complexes in Australia too, some using wind and solar energy to create hydrogen by splitting water. The flammable gas could be used for industry, transport and power stations, reducing the need for polluting fossil fuels. There’s growing regional interest in “green hydrogen” — so-called because renewable energy is used to produce it — because the non-polluting gas could become an alternative energy source that can be shipped to Asia, including Singapore.

These plans might seem far-fetched. But the technology exists and there’s a growing clamor to make them a reality as the world recovers from the pandemic and seeks ways to rebuild economies that are cleaner and more environmentally friendly.

From the European Union and the United Nations to climate scientists and environmentalists, there are loud calls for change. The message: Use the trillions of dollars pledged to revive economies to drive advances in cleaner technologies, create new industries and jobs, cut air pollution and curb the threat from climate change.

“Economic recovery packages offer a unique opportunity to create jobs while supporting clean energy transitions around the world,” said the International Energy Agency.

Apart from renewable energy, stimulus packages should also fund further development of battery storage and drive down the costs of producing hydrogen via renewable energy. Some of the money could also be used to retrofit public buildings to make them more efficient and environmentally friendly, creating jobs quickly for thousands of people.

Nature gets a look-in too, with New Zealand planning to create 11,000 environmental jobs. People would be put to work killing pests and restoring wetlands. Replanting forests and restoring wetlands feature in other plans for a green post-pandemic world to try to reverse decades of extreme damage to the environment.

National variants

Even before the pandemic, the EU, the United States and South Korea had their own versions of a Green New Deal, which center on ramping up renewable energy investment, slashing carbon dioxide emissions and phasing out fossil fuels. Now there’s momentum to make those deals real.

Singapore’s government has a green vision, too. This includes dramatically increasing solar energy generation and electric vehicle use, reducing household waste, making buildings much more energy-efficient, and growing more vegetables on rooftops.

The Singapore Food Agency in May launched tenders for nine Housing Board carpark rooftops to be converted to grow food, part of the government’s goal to produce 30% of the country’s nutritional needs locally by 2030.

The government is also using HDB rooftops to install a lot more solar panels as well as using floating modules on reservoirs. A recent study by the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore at the National University of Singapore (NUS) found that, far from being a niche provider of power, solar energy could meet 43% of the nation’s electric power demand during midday by 2050, up from about 5% currently.

The government is also considering importing solar electricity and is exploring how to do this via regional grids to tap clean energy, the Energy Market Authority told Reuters in April.

One company, Sun Cable, is planning a 12,000 hectare (about one-sixth the size of Singapore) solar array near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, Australia. The 10 gigawatt solar and storage farm is being designed to transmit 2.2 gigawatts to Singapore through Darwin via 3,800 kilometers of high-voltage direct current submarine cables, chief executive David Griffin told The Straits Times.

The Australia-Asean Power Link is still in the design and development phase and financial close/commencement of construction is scheduled for late 2023, he adds. Large storage batteries would be installed at either end of the $15 billion project (21.4 billion Singapore dollar).

Renewable energy, combined with battery and pumped hydro storage, and green hydrogen hold the promise of eventually displacing coal and gas as the main sources of energy for power stations.

The International Renewable Energy Agency, in its latest outlook, says ambitious spending on green power and energy efficiency measures could dramatically cut fossil fuel use. That could help clear the air and restore blue skies.

The agency says cumulative spending of $110 trillion between 2016 and 2050 could lead to more than 60% of all power generation coming from solar and wind, up from 10% today. And that investment would have significant payback benefits in terms of reduced environmental and health costs.

While that level of spending (about 120% of the world’s present gross domestic product) might sound like a lot, broken down annually over 30 years, it is less than the money pledged to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

To rebuild and to reverse

The key thing about green stimulus plans is that they need to reflect the urgency to rebuild and the urgency to reverse the threats from climate change and the damage to ecosystems, from forests to oceans to grasslands.

“COVID-19 showed $5 trillion can be raised by the big economies of G-20 [Group of 20] in a year. The climate transition calls for half that much a year, but that effort must continue year after year. This can be done, but we need to sense the urgency,” says Vinod Thomas, a former senior vice president for the World Bank and now a visiting professor at NUS.

“In imagining this better world, nations need to put their economies on ‘a war footing,’” much as in the case of COVID-19,” he tells The Straits Times.

“Recent policies have encouraged the deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil, neglected damage to public health in India from unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation, and increased carbon dioxide emissions in Southeast Asia, thereby aggravating global warming. This must change,” he says.

But with the desire for change must come a measure of caution and careful calculation, says Prof. Euston Quah, Albert Winsemius chair proffessor and director of the Economic Growth Centre at Nanyang Technological University.

In Singapore’s case, renewable energy won’t displace fossil fuels entirely for years to come, he says. And Singapore needs diversified sources of energy that are clean and reliable.

“Switching to nonfossil fuels and embracing a direction towards a low-carbon economy is the right initiative and objective. This is a long-term objective. The unique circumstances of Singapore, however, require us to move carefully in planned stages,” Quah said.

Singapore should not rely on one main source for energy or one external country.

“Energy must not only be cheap and clean, but also secure. Issues on energy security often dominate discussions. This is no different for Singapore’s case,” Quah added.

Individual action

In the meantime, there’s no need to wait for policymakers to decide on how the pandemic stimulus money should be spent. All of us can act now.

“Singaporeans could consider switching to a green electricity plan. This sends a signal to the market to continue producing green electricity,” says Melissa Low, a research fellow at the Energy Studies Institute at NUS.

Also, with the plan to phase out petrol and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040, “Singaporeans can also start thinking about selling or trading in their car if it is not needed, especially since working from home may become the norm in the coming months,” Low said.

Car owners could think about electric or hybrid options ahead of the government’s early adoption incentive scheme from next year. The key is using the circuit breaker to change consumption habits and the waste culture, Low said.

In the end, it is public pressure that will drive change and push policymakers and businesses to act.

“The carbon transition does not call for a lockdown of the economy,” said Thomas. “Rather, it calls on everyone to think about the quality of growth and not just its quantity.

“We need to see people making more sustainable choices such as reducing driving, flying and taking cruises. Taking these steps does not sacrifice growth and well-being, rather, not taking them does.

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