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Seminar on Crafting a Technology Roadmap Towards Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability in Singapore: Beginning the Journey

Date: Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Time: 3.30pm – 5pm
Venue: Seminar Rooms 2 and 3, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, S4, Level B4
 

Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.

Speaker: Dr Cheng-Guan Michael Quah, Principal Fellow, Energy Studies Institute (ESI), National University of Singapore
Chairperson: Associate Professor Mely Caballero-Anthony, Head, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies

INTRODUCTION

The technology roadmap illustrates the need for technology. However, technology is a totally insufficient element for addressing the energy security challenges in our carbon-constrained world. While fossil fuels remain a ‘fuel reality’ over the next few decades, the world would gradually have to transition towards a future of alternative energy solutions. Doing so, Dr Quah contended, would require an understanding of the ‘systems of systems’ interaction on the use of ‘low energy density’ sources such as solar energy and biofuels.

PRESENTATION

Dr Quah began his presentation by first highlighting the resource and environmental challenges the world faces. Thereafter, he stressed the need to strike a balance between economic development, energy security and environmental sustainability. In concluding his presentation, Dr Quah then proposed some recommendations on improving energy security while promoting environmental sustainability, by combining technology with new thinking.

Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability: A ‘Systems of Systems’ Approach

The world is currently facing the twin challenge posed by resource scarcity and environmental degradation. Energy crisis and climate change pose serious threats to human security, with technology often revered as a panacea to these problems. As the world struggles to maintain a colossal balancing act between reconciling the needs of economic development, energy security and environmental sustainability, Dr Quah argued that technological innovation is only half the solution. While creativity in technology is absolutely necessary, new and innovative ways of thinking are also indispensable. A ‘systems of systems’ approach is thus necessary for a viable, more sustainable solution.

Dietary Considerations

‘Dietary considerations’, a term used by Dr Quah in his presentation, refers to the energy or power consumption mix (i.e. the types of energy resources consumed) of an organisation or country. These ‘dietary considerations’ are divided into the broad categories of ‘electronic diet’ (fuel for power plants) and ‘process diet’ (fuel for manufacturing, for instance). An understanding of the ‘dietary considerations’ would greatly facilitate the conceptualisation of measures to reduce energy security vulnerabilities and, at the same time, tackle carbon constraints. It was also observed that energy security goes beyond the security of supply to encompass the security of the entire energy supply chain and its associated infrastructures.

Citing the US as an example, Dr Quah noted that energy security vulnerability for the country essentially lies in its ‘liquid diet’ (fuel for vehicles). Given the US’ heavy reliance on the ‘liquid diet’, with up to 60 per cent of its total fuel consumption being imported from overseas, innovative solutions are needed to address and reduce its inherent energy vulnerabilities. The same applies to small countries such as Singapore. While the tiny island-state does not have as big a ‘liquid diet’ as the US, its energy mix is predominantly skewed towards an import dependence on fossil fuels, and hence exposed to the same vulnerabilities.

However, due to differences in resource endowment, geography and other national contexts, solutions for countries vary. For instance, in contrast with the US, solar energy can only satisfy a small portion of Singapore’s electronic diet given the low energy density and limited land space. As such, the technology roadmap for the energy security and environmental sustainability of individual countries should be customised and fine-tuned with country-specific contextual differences in mind.

Sign Posts and Guard Rails

Given how technological innovations are touted as solutions designed to address the challenges posed by the energy-economics-environment nexus, Dr Quah conducted a brief study of these innovations to see if they lived up to expectations. His study revealed some underlying pitfalls. For instance, the idea of implementing a smart grid or ‘intelligrid’ system, which utilises an advanced micro-grid concept/ vision, may not be applicable to Singapore as it can adopt a reliable centralised grid system. However, such a micro-grid concept would be more relevant for the rest of Southeast Asia and in particular, regions that suffer from regular power outages due to disruptions to their centralised grid networks. Thus, in the application of new technological solutions, prudence has to be exercised to prevent an underestimation of economic costs.

In addition, some areas are often overlooked, yet carry vast potential for energy conservation and efficiency. For example, waste heat can be recovered and meaningfully harnessed, as the use of waste heat to generate power potentially exceeds the combined power of all forms of renewable energy sources. However, not all technological innovations adequately address the energy-economics-environment challenges. Some renewable energy sources, such as solar energy and biofuels, while popularly touted in the press as the way forward do carry practical limitations, primarily due to their low energy densities.

Furthermore, new technologies may not be the only answer. For instance, clean coal technology involving the revolutionary technique of carbon capture and sequestration is inevitably expensive, hence precluding its widespread application so far. At the same time, coal exists in abundance and can be exploited with minimal damage to the environment. Thus, instead of using new technology for full carbon capture, partial capture to allow natural gas parity may already suffice; partial capture uses only existing technology, hence cutting costs.

Lastly, a regional, collective effort is required to formulate the technology roadmap that addresses these challenges. In doing so, a host of other factors would need to be considered. For instance, geopolitical constraints could become stumbling blocks to pertinent issues of nuclear waste disposal and fuel storage for some geopolitically sensitive regions.

The Action Plan

In concluding his presentation, Dr Quah proposed some interesting ideas on how best to move forward with the technology roadmap.

It would be essential to maintain the balancing act through phased actions, which he divided into near, mid and long terms. In the near term (the next decade), dependence on hydrocarbons would be inevitable but efforts to better understand carbon constraints and manage them would be imperative. In the mid-term (10 to 50 years), Dr Quah proposed greater regional cooperation to devise solutions and for countries to systematically transition to ‘low energy intensity’ economies. The long-term would be characterised as ‘The Age of the Renewables’, he argued. In addition, instead of looking at only new technologies, exploring new thinking with old and existing technologies would also go a long way in crafting a sustainable technology roadmap. For example, Dr Quah brought up the idea of possibly harnessing solar energy directly from space-based facilities; combining creativity in thinking with existing technology.

DISCUSSION

Pondering the Effectiveness of Fuel-cell Technology

A couple of participants raised the issue of the limitations of fuel-cell technology, by highlighting some of the pitfalls that prevented its application in domestic circumstances for instance. To that, Dr Quah replied that while fuel-cell technology essentially works, the question of cost-effectiveness requires deeper study. He argued for the need to be rational, by distinguishing between hype over new technology and the practical solutions such means offer for specific problems at hand. 

Re-examining the Utility of Certain Actions Contributing to Energy Conservation

One participant asked whether personal actions like switching off unused lights in the home etc were meaningless in terms of energy conservation, as it made for very miniscule, negligible savings. Given that such actions had no real consequence for energy savings, compared to attaining energy efficiencies on a large scale, he questioned whether such habits only amounted to a moralising of personal behaviour.    
Dr Quah felt that, while individual effort may look insignificant in the broader scheme of affairs, the need to inculcate individual habits of energy conservation remains essential notwithstanding its utility.  

Thorium: A Panacea for Nuclear-related Problems?

Thorium has in recent times appeared in debates surrounding the pros and cons of nuclear energy, with some even claiming that it could solve the pertinent problems regarding radioactive waste management. One participant raised the issue of whether thorium could be viewed as a practical long-term solution in this aspect. To that, Dr Quah expressed scepticism and stressed again, as in the case of fuel-cell technology, the need to exercise caution and rationality in distinguishing reality from hype when it comes to technological innovations.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER

Dr Michael Quah is currently a Principal Fellow at the ESI, National University of Singapore. He has a PhD (1980), an MPhil and an

MSc in chemical engineering from Yale University and a BA (magna cum laude) in chemistry and physics, from Harvard University. Dr Quah worked for the company DuPont from 1979 to 1999, including stints with DuPont Japan and Singapore (1990–1993). At DuPont, he held positions in R&D, product and business development, and management. His technical work revolved around membrane technologies for reverse osmosis, gas separations, and electrochemical processes; the last area stimulating his interest in alternative energy innovations. While working for DuPont in North Carolina (1993-1999), Dr Quah also served as Adjunct Professor in Chemical Engineering, at the North Carolina State University. After his early retirement from DuPont, he held management positions in several small commercial companies and non-profit organisations, including a stint with the US Army.

Dr Quah has lectured extensively in the following areas: Nafion® and perfluorinated ionomers for use in electrochemical systems (electrolysis, redox flow cells, and fuel cells), membrane separations, micro-grids, and energy/ environmental sustainability.


Posted on: 17/3/2010 8:30:00 AM  |  Topic: Energy Security


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