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Energy in Transition

Energy in Transition


The Engineer, The Energy Trilemma and The Smart Nation

The world population is expected to grow to nine billion by 2050, and up to eleven billion by 2100. Meanwhile, energy consumption is expected to continue growing at the rate of 0.7% per capita per annum. However, we continue to live on a finite planet. How are governments and energy providers to meet rising demand while balancing costs, reliability and the environment, i.e., the so called Energy Trilemma? Engineers have a critical role to play in developing and executing solutions to manage the trilemma and realize global sustainability.

Urbanisation is arguably the most important global trend. The increasing number of people living in cities is expected to grow from 3.5 billion (50% of world population) in 2008 to almost 7 billion (70% of world population) by 2050. A majority of GDP will continue to come from urban areas[1], and cities will be projected to be the source of 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Cities allow for the efficient use of infrastructure and facilities, and can act as a great catalyst for upward social mobility. City councils are increasingly embracing the concept of the smart city, with a focus on liveability (in general), information, and clean energy. Those interests inevitably lead on to matters of water, sewage, waste treatment, transportation, health, resource efficiency, social infrastructure, sustainable economy and many others. Other important characteristics of a smart city are green infrastructure, interconnectivity and co-creation.

A city can be defined as ‘smart’ when investments in human and social capital, and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development through a wise management of natural resources, participatory action and engagement (Caragliu et al. 2009). Recently, the Singapore government introduced a slew of initiatives as part of its goal to become the world’s first smart nation, including a smart nation operating system, Internet of Things scheme targeted at homes, and pilot trials at a designated residential-business estate (June 17 2014).

Bringing these bold aspirations to life will however not be possible without a strong role for the energy sector. Not only from the perspective of being smart, but also from a perspective from being sustainable. Despite its relatively small size, Singapore’s greenhouse gas emissions per capita are among the worlds highest. As an island city, Singapore is vulnerable to climate risks such as rising sea levels, increasing intensity of storms, and heat waves. Singapore can nevertheless have a big impact on reducing climate change if it can demonstrate urban solutions to drive down absolute emissions per capita, potentially inspiring cities around the tropics to do the same. The key global trends in the energy sector that Singapore needs to be aware of in order to incorporate them into infrastructure planning are:

  • rising share of renewables
  • electrification of vehicles and process heat,
  • improved policy and consumer attention on energy efficiency to reduce emissions, costs and risks
  • deepening complexity and interdependency of power systems
  • increasingly vocal and engaged consumers conscious of new energy options
  • greater reliability (less acceptance for outages and failures) because of increasing dependency on electricity
  • the growing threat of cyber-attacks with increased automation of the energy infrastructure
  • the advent of more disruptive technologies, e.g., power electronics, energy storage, PV solar, and electric vehicles that will possibly be game changers as the cost of technology drops
  • the need to manage “Big Data” with increased penetration of smart meters, sensors and M2M communication
  • increased demand for transparency and progressive policies with more openness and publicly available information.

During the last five years, Singapore has positioned itself as a living lab with bold ideas. However, it has also been hamstrung as policy makers struggled to make the right bets around the applicability of emerging technologies and their impacts on system reliability and electricity market dynamics. Despite the tentative steps over the last five years, we have still witnessed an increased commitment to venture into new and unchartered waters through investments in research and availing living platforms for demonstration projects. This has captured the imagination of entrepreneurs and researchers resulting in the influx of new solutions and ideas both local and foreign into the energy space in Singapore. However, we are losing this “advantage” of being a leader in using our island state as a “living lab”. This idea has caught on in many cities around the world especially with increasing political will, enabling policies, and the availability of finance spurring technology development.

To regain the initiative and become the model smart city of the future with sustainable energy solutions, Singapore will need to take advantage of its highly robust power system, prolific vertical dwellings and IT enabled society to create more platforms to pilot solutions using the city infrastructure in an integrated manner. System-level solutions integrating multiple technologies need to be deployed on singular platforms. A silo approach resulting from conflicting interests or inability to design system-level solutions will cut short opportunities to deliver meaningful impacts and develop new products and services needed in cities worldwide. Pioneering policies, standards and designs for truly sustainable power systems and open electricity markets which empower consumers as active players, underpinned by much greater resource efficiency, will position Singapore as the blueprint for urban sustainable energy management.

At the heart of all this grand visioning and hopes for a sustainable future for not only us, but for our children and their children, is the key enabler, the engineer. The complexity of system on system level integration cannot be underestimated and its importance to realise the vision of a smart nation cannot be overstated. We will need engineers, be it home grown or imported. We will need engineers who not only excel in their field, but can also take a step back, and thoroughly understand energy within the grand challenge of sustainability, a challenge we cannot avoid nor fail.

If we cannot encourage or entice Singaporeans to take up the vocation of being an engineer, the group of whom by the way has created the technological world we live in today, we will need to turn elsewhere. It is due to this reason that the Energy Market Authority announced last year the establishment of a new $20 million Energy Training Fund to build a strong core of Singaporean technical professionals for the power sector. This fund will help meet the sector’s manpower needs by supporting manpower training. Mr Chee Hong Tat, then CEO of EMA is quoted saying, “It is important for EMA to support and work with the industry to develop a strong Singaporean core of technical professionals for the power sector. This includes opportunities for skills upgrading and continuous education and training, so that our workers are well-equipped to meet the sector’s current and future needs.” Therefore, it is quite apparent, if not already in order, that to help solve the complex equation posed within the Energy Trilemma of reliability, environment and affordability, or in other words as described in Singapore’s Sustainability Blueprint, “Security of Supply, Environmental Protection and Economic Competitiveness”, we need our best engineering minds to come together, remove silos, and work at system on system level solutions that can help solve the so Trilemma.

Sustainable energy solutions, from generation to end-use, therefore must be an integral part of a smart city, and be integrated into the architecture of an intelligent infrastructure which enhances the synergies of technologies, business models and policies to ensure the liveability for all inhabitants of the city. These solutions must be able to address the Energy Trilemma, and at the heart of discovering and deploying these solutions especially at a system on system level, is the engineer. After all, the heartbeat of a city is in its people who must assume responsibility for its future. And with that, Singapore can use technology to enhance the lives of her people and constantly re-create a city of the future by investing and acting on bold visions.


[1]    The urban world is shifting. Today only 600 urban centers generate about 60 percent of global GDP. While 600 cities will continue to account for the same share of global GDP in 2025, this group of 600 will have a very different membership. Over the next 15 years, the center of gravity of the urban world will move south and, even more decisively, east. Source: http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/urbanization/urban_world.

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