Delivered in Parliament on 12 January 2022
Combating climate change is the challenge of our generation and, quite possibly, the next two generations. If our generation does not set in motion sufficient changes to mitigate climate change, our grandchildren will pay a painful price for our lack of resolve and action. It will be infinitely harder for successive generations to reverse the impact of global warming, even if they try their best to. It is therefore incumbent upon our nation — and the world — to rise to meet this challenge.
Singapore has in the past approached climate action as a small nation which is unable to make much impact on the vast world. This approach has, thankfully, evolved in recent years. Nevertheless, a greater resolve in our outlook towards this challenge is needed. We are still constantly reminding ourselves that we are a small country with inherent limitations as to what we can do to reduce emissions. We waive the flag that our alternative-energy disadvantaged status is officially recognised by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Certainly, these are realities that we cannot run away from. However we must not, in our attempts to temper expectations, allow these mantras to limit our imagination and innovation.
Decarbonisation within Singapore’s boundaries is important. However, carbon dioxide doesn’t respect national boundaries. Arguably the biggest impact that Singapore can have in averting climate change — and hence saving ourselves from the harm that global warming will do to us — will come from test-bedding and developing new green technologies, and sharing these discoveries with the rest of the world.
Making low-carbon technology widely available and at a reasonable cost will be critical to spurring industry adoption and helping the world to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.
We may be small, but that does not prevent us from working around the constraints of a small land area, high urban density and hot tropical weather, to innovate solutions that could mitigate climate change in an increasingly urbanised world. Our constraints can actually be our comparative advantage over other larger nations.
Our green inventions could spread far beyond our shores to benefit the rest of the world. Climate change is global. We should therefore aim to make a global impact in our climate change efforts.
We should be prepared to make big investments in emerging green technologies and, in doing so, take decisive steps towards wielding the mantle of climate leadership.
In my speech today, I wish to focus on a few of these green technologies and how the Government can play a bigger part to drive their adoption.
First, the transport sector, which is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in Singapore.
Singapore plans to phase out internal combustion engine (or ICE) vehicles by 2040 and replace them with electric vehicles (EVs). Almost all of the current plans for the roll-out of EVs focus on battery electric vehicles (or BEVs). However, it may be risky to place all our bets on BEVs.
For starters, it is still unclear whether we will have the infrastructure to handle an all-BEV fleet of vehicles once ICE vehicles are fully phased out. A study by KBR commissioned by the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS) estimated that approximately 164,000 publicly available BEV chargers will be required for a 100% BEV scenario.
Singapore plans to roll out just 60,000 BEV charging points by 2030. This will equip only about 6% of public car park lots and 3% of private car park lots with charging stations.
Given that it takes anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours to recharge a car, and assuming that people charge their cars only once every five days, my calculations indicate that the infrastructure will support only about 30% of cars in HDB estates and 15% of cars in private estates each night.
I am, in fact, making optimistic assumptions about driver behaviour. In reality, range anxiety will dictate that drivers will avoid waiting for their battery to run flat before recharging them, just like we don’t wait for our mobile phones to go flat before plugging them in.
To avoid hogging the charging stations, one driver will have to hurry down to the car park at 12 midnight to unplug her car and find another parking spot, while another will need to come down at the same time to plug his car into that same charging station. Imagine the disruption to everyone’s sleep-rest cycle and the number of neighbour disputes that would spark!
One possible solution to this problem would be for charging stations to serve multiple car lots at once, with an automated system that recharges the cars on a rotational basis. This will spare drivers the need to unplug and re-park at night. The technology for this already exists, but it is unclear if these types of chargers will be deployed in Singapore’s car parks.
The batteries in BEVs are heavily dependent on two metals, lithium and cobalt. According to a study by Deloitte, BEVs account for about 27% of global lithium demand, while lithium-ion batteries account for about 59% of cobalt demand. More than half of the world’s cobalt comes from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and there are ongoing concerns about the health, human rights and geopolitical risks of mining this mineral.
Any disruption in supply of materials for BEVs may affect their production and raise their prices in the future. The price of cobalt rose by over 90% between January and December 2021. Economists have warned against the possibility of “greenflation” caused by supply chain shortages leading to higher prices for metals and minerals that are essential to EVs and other renewable technologies.
We also have to keep in mind that the mining of lithium and cobalt, and the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries also produce large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. This could negate some of the green benefits across the full lifecycle of BEVs.
A large number of BEVs will also place a heavy load on the electricity grid. Will the grid be strong enough to support so many vehicles being charged at the same time, including many using fast chargers, which will drastically increase peak power demand? The cost and carbon output of grid upgrades will need to be considered if we want to fully electrify our transport using BEVs.
Fuel cell electric vehicles
Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are another major type of EVs which are much less discussed than BEVs. They run on hydrogen, the most abundant gas in the universe. They are more energy efficient than ICE vehicles and produce no harmful tailpipe emissions — only water vapour and warm air. They are powered by electricity generated by fuel cells, through an electrochemical reaction between the hydrogen fuel and oxygen in the air, facilitated by a fuel cell catalyst.
Some may have safety concerns about the FCEV vehicles becoming Hindenburgs on wheels. In terms of vehicle fires, leaks, and explosions, FCEVs are measurably safer than ICE vehicles. Hydrogen is much lighter than petrol vapours and dissipates much faster if there is a leak, reducing the potential for explosions. In any case, safety regulations will dictate that hydrogen fuel stations must store the gas above the ground in well-ventilated areas.
FCEVs bring with them some advantages over BEVs. First, they can be refilled much faster than BEVs are recharged. Each BEV bus will require at least 90 minutes to fully charge using a fast charger, and up to six hours using other types of chargers. In contrast, FCEV buses can refill their hydrogen tanks in as fast as 10 minutes.
Second, with improvements in technology for the production and distribution of hydrogen, FCEVs could eventually have a lower carbon footprint than ICE vehicles and possibly even BEVs.
Third, a study by Deloitte forecasted that the total cost of ownership of FCEVs will be less than BEVs by 2026. Currently the cost of production and distribution of hydrogen is much higher than diesel or petrol. However, many countries are devoting significant efforts to developing sustainable hydrogen production technologies. With improvements in technology, hydrogen prices are expected to decline over 40% in the next 10 years.
With the benefits that FCEVs bring, and some of the risks and disadvantages of BEVs, it would be prudent for Singapore to include FCEVs in our local mix of EVs. The KBR hydrogen study commissioned by NCCS found that taxis, buses and heavy goods vehicles are well-suited for hydrogen fuel given the high daily distances they travel. What are the steps the Government is taking to transition our public transport and goods transport systems to use green hydrogen?
National renewable hydrogen strategy
Hydrogen is not just useful as a source of clean energy for vehicles. It also has multiple other industrial applications, including in clean power generation.
This national renewable hydrogen strategy will spur the creation of a hydrogen economy in Singapore. It should map out our plans to invest in the development of hydrogen technologies, propose new legislation, set national targets for low-carbon hydrogen, and develop a pipeline of local talent to take advantage of careers in this emerging sector.
This will set Singapore on a path towards being a global player in the hydrogen industry and benefit Singaporean workers.
Bigger push for solar energy
The Government is targeting a 2 gigawatt-peak of solar energy by 2030. Yet even if this target is met, solar energy will still supply only about 4% of our total electricity demand.
Given that solar energy is one of Singapore’s most promising renewable energy sources, we have to make a much bigger push to develop it, and set bolder targets for solar energy in our electricity mix.
Rooftops present one of the most promising platforms to deploy solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, given our highly urbanised landscape.
The Government’s SolarNova programme is looking to install solar PV systems on the rooftops of public sector buildings, including HDB flats.
I asked the Minister for National Development on 10 January whether HDB intends to install solar PV panels on all HDB block rooftops, where feasible. I’m glad to note that the Minister has replied in the affirmative. We should make a stronger push to install solar panels on all rooftops — both public and private — that do not have physical incumberences. This is similar to a call made by my honourable friend, Mr Leon Perera, back in 2017. This will greatly increase our solar energy capture.
Currently, EMA allows consumers to be paid for channelling their excess solar electricity back to the grid and BCA has a Green Mark scheme for solar panel adopters.
However, from a reply by the Minister for Trade and Industry to the Member for Sengkang, Assoc Prof Jamus Lim, I note that the Government does not provide grants or subsidies to further incentivise the adoption of solar energy.
The Minister also stated in his reply to A/Prof Lim that “the cost of solar energy is now generally cheaper than the retail electricity price and regulated tariff”. It would therefore make economic sense to encourage widespread installation of solar PV panels among private property owners and to purchase electricity from them. This rings especially true in view of the current high electricity prices caused by supply shortages of natural gas, which we are currently over-dependent on for power generation. This is a subject which I elaborated on during the debate on the Energy (Resilience) Bill last November.
The Government should rethink its current approach and provide more incentives for solar adoption in the private sector. Landed properties, condominiums and commercial buildings provide a significant amount of rooftop space for solar panel deployment. Incentivising all of them to install solar panels could greatly improve our solar panel coverage.
It could help Singapore derive more than the projected 4% of our electricity from solar energy. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Government should unconditionally subsidise landed property owners or companies to install solar panels, which they can later profit from by selling electricity back to the grid. They should be required to transfer excess electricity back to the grid without receiving any payment until their installation subsidy is fully covered. At the end of the day, this will still be a win-win for property owners and the nation.
In conclusion, Mr Speaker, Singapore needs to be bolder and braver in setting green goals to secure our future. Some of these may be stretch goals today, but we have to trust that future generations will discover breakthrough technologies to overcome our disadvantages.
Technology is improving all the time — and more so when the huge resources of governments are being poured into research and development into low carbon alternatives. We need to ride the technology wave, not fall behind it.
If we take a wait-and-see approach to hydrogen and other technologies, we might start seeing even our neighbours overtake us. Let’s push harder on the adoption of fuel cell electric vehicles, come up with a bold hydrogen roadmap and incentivise the installation of solar PV panels in Singapore. This will move the needle significantly to advance Singapore’s transition towards a low-carbon society.
I support the motion.