Sunday, August 29, 2010

Energy Policy & Sustainable Urban Development in Singapore

So why study these things, and why Singapore?

I think the answer to both these questions is best summarized by the theme of the Shanghai World Expo: “Better City, Better Life” (I will be visiting here next week – to learn more about it see In 2007, for the first time in history, the majority of the world’s people lived in cities rather than in rural areas. In the next 20-30 years, it is projected that some 300 million Chinese will migrate to the countries booming cities. The story is similar in India and other large developing countries. If we are going to prevent environmental catastrophe and improve health, safety and standards of living for people around the world, the answer lies in the world’s cities.

In order to make cities more sustainable and less reliant on dirty energy, better city planning and more city-wide energy efficiency and clean energy programs are needed. Singapore, perhaps more than any other city in the world, has planned its growth carefully – mainly out of necessity – has focused above all else on improving life for its citizens, and is home to some of the most progressive urban environmental experiments. I wanted to learn more about what is being done in Singapore to see how it could be applied to Chinese cities, which in contrast often lack careful urban planning and are reap with environmental problems – in fact 7 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are in China.

Thanks to Michael Quah at Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute, I learned a lot about Singapore’s energy policies and was able to meet with a key decision maker at the National Environment Agency. While in Singapore I also observed first hand the implementation and effectiveness of some of the cities environmental programs.  

At the Energy Studies Institute with Michael and another researcher Valerie. Looking awkward for yet another research picture...
My meeting with Michael above all got me thinking about energy and sustainability policy in the context of different political systems. And while I believe strongly in the American political system – based above all on liberty and equal opportunity – Singapore’s success does raise some doubts about the ability of the American system to address long-term problems. Energy policy and planning in the US is plagued with subsidies, the influence of special interest groups (whether it be the energy companies themselves, environmental groups or others), and elected officials who often don’t think beyond the next election cycle.  This makes something like energy policy, which requires long-term goal setting and system-wide thinking (i.e. considering how various aspects of our society interact with each other and how they are related to energy policy, such as transportation systems, electric power systems, trade policy, social welfare, economic growth, environmental problems, food production, urban planning, etc.) very difficult.

As Michael pointed out however (Michael is an American, originally from Michigan) Singapore has virtually none of the political problems that America, and even China, have. Because it is a small city-state, run by one party that does not have to spend millions of dollars to run for re-election, there is very little influence of special interests on energy policy planning. This leaves Singapore’s leaders (who I might add almost all have PhDs) to rely on the people who they should be listening to: scientists, economists and professional urban planners, who study the trade-offs to different energy policies from a fairly pragmatic and unbiased perspective. Case in point: Singapore may be one of the only countries in the world that does not subsidize it’s energy industry – at all. I know for those of you who don’t study energy policy it’s hard to understand the significance of this, but it’s actually quite amazing. This means that gas prices are not artificially depressed to encourage car ownership – in fact car ownership is generally discourage in Singapore (although there are still a lot of cars). It also means that people pay high prices for electricity, so they tend to conserve that as well. At the same time however, it means that renewable energies also are not subsidized, making them currently uncompetitive in Singapore.

What Michael told me then is that Singapore wants to act as a laboratory – a testing ground for the latest environmental and new energy technologies. It will not encourage them through subsidies – which are market distorting – but through innovation incentives, like research grants. It also especially encourages environmental solutions if they also mitigate another major concern for Singapore: energy security. As a small island nation with very few natural resources, Singapore was until recently dependent on its sometimes-unfriendly neighbor, Malaysia, for water. It also imports the majority of its food, oil (which it then refines into gasoline), and natural gas for electric power generation.

Taking environmental concerns, energy security and economic development into account has resulted in energy and resource policies that put Singapore at the cutting edge of innovation in this field (although an important note: many of the technologies that made this possible were developed in the US). Here are the main energy & resource initiatives that Singapore has implemented in the last decade:

1.     Converting almost all of it’s electric power production to natural gas. This makes economic and well as environmental sense – natural gas has gotten cheaper in the last two decades, as has the cost of transporting it as Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). Of all the fossil fuels, natural gas also emits the least carbon dioxide.
2.     What power isn’t produced form natural gas comes from trash incineration. The ashes from this process are then put into a landfill built on reclaimed land that has been designed to preserve marine ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves. The ash acts as a strong fertilizer for these ecosystems, and just burying the ash rather than the garbage saves valuable land space. This also eliminates the problem of methane leaking from landfills (methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2)
3.     Non-CO2 air pollutants are strictly regulated, giving Singapore very clean air and water.
4.     Singapore is exploring the best way to implement battery-charging stations throughout the city to encourage electric cars.
5.     Singapore has a top-notch mass transit system – you can get almost anywhere in the city by subway or bus with ease.
6.     Singapore is one of the greenest cities I’ve ever seen in that there are parks and trees everywhere, and the government is working on a plan to connect these parks to encourage more recreational use. There are also several experimental green roofs in the city. This vegetation helps absorb carbon dioxide and decrease the “heat island” effect.
7.     The Marina Barrage that I mentioned earlier is an ingenious plan to create a barrier between the ocean and the fresh water at the mouth of Marina Bay, where most of the islands river run into. This effectively separates the salt and fresh water, creating a large fresh water lake in the middle of the city that can be used as a reservoir.
the Marina Barrage barrier
The Marina Barrage exhibition/ education center
8.     With the help of NASA technology developed for the space station, Singapore recently finished a project to recycle the city’s wastewater back into drinking water. Between this and the Marina Barrage, the country is now 80% water self-sufficient.
9.     In the last 10 years Singapore as pursued an ambitious, citywide energy efficiency program. This has helped to reduce the country’s energy intensity by 15-20% in the last decade. There are many components of this program, which I learned about from the energy efficiency director of the National Environment Agency. If you want more details on this, I can send you my final case study.

Not to paint a completely rosy picture of Singapore, there are a few problems with all this. The first is that in order for all these initiatives to get passed – indeed, the tradeoff of having a government that can conduct such careful planning – is limitations on personal freedoms. For example, because the government has strict control over all property development, there isn’t much room for creativity or innovation. On a side note, it was a little disturbing to see to police officers chasing after someone who was crossing the street in the opposite direction of everyone else on a crosswalk during national day. Another problem is that despite all these improvements, Singapore’s overall energy consumption is still rising because of rapid economic growth, and the only thing that will truly combat this is throwing some renewables into the energy mix. Finally, by some definitions, Singapore’s status as the world’s largest port makes it highly energy intensive. Ships that dock there have to fill up with fuel, which is then burned on their international voyages. Determining who is responsible for that CO2 is a big challenge that will continue to perplex policy makers for a while to come.

Overall however Singapore can serve as a model for China – and for the world – on how to effectively manage energy and water resources, promote sustainable economic development and resource security. If we can find a way to inject some of Singapore’s secret sauce into the world’s major cities, we will be well on our way to solving our energy challenges.

1 comment:

  1. In terms of role models, I think Singapore, being the only city in its nation, has a lot of advantages. The political system can be more managable and straightforward then any other bigger countries. The idea of not subsidizing energy industry sounds interesting, I think mostly because they don't manufacture anything that relates to renewable energy, which subsidings doesn't help the growth of the industry in Singapore.