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An electrified future for Asean: turning on tomorrow's power, today

Modernising our power infrastructure will help to reduce our dependence on non-renewables

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The rapid adoption of renewables and batteries will see the urgent need to modernise city grids that are capable of meeting the increase in power generation and consumption, an endeavour further complicated by climate change and ever-growing cyber threats.

ASIA has made vast strides this past decade as the region transitions towards a digital economy. Asean in particular, with its meteoric growth and soaring Internet penetration, is drawing significant attention on the global stage as a testbed for many emerging technologies, from digital banks to superapps.

Accompanying this rapid digitalisation is the surging demand for energy to power new and innovative technologies. New base stations for 5G are expected to consume significantly more energy, with some analysts anticipating a 200 per cent to 400 per cent increase.

Likewise, our ubiquitous implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) will see appetites for energy soar. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US estimate that training a single AI, such as those used in automated text generation or natural language processing, could produce as much as 284 tonnes of carbon dioxide - a significant impact on the environment that is equivalent to five times the lifetime emissions of an average car.

While awareness and access to cleaner energy has grown considerably, many recent reports reveal that coal still remains the dominant fuel in South-east Asia. Commodity consultancy Wood Mackenzie and the International Energy Authority both predict that its consumption will continue to grow before finally peaking in several years' time.

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With increased pressure from both the public and government bodies to realign priorities and embrace sustainable development, can businesses keep pace with digital transformation yet remain competitive, while being mindful of their impact on the environment? And if such a balance is attainable, what does an electrified future for Asean look like?

Envisioning an electrified future

The argument for electrification has many merits, and the "electrify-everything" approach is seen as a quick way to start reducing our carbon emissions. However, before we begin this mammoth task, it will be important to define where to begin and how much can we change today. To get things started, the Climate Works Foundation has identified three end-use activities that are the biggest sources of carbon emissions today but also possess the greatest potential for scaling: transportation, industry and buildings.

Encompassing various modes such as air, maritime and land, transportation is one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions. Diving deeper, road vehicles like buses, trucks and cars are believed to account for about 72 per cent of these emissions, according to the World Resources Institute. While the introduction of electric vehicles (EVs) is heralding a wave of transformation in the automobile industry, the next phase of electrification will see EVs being deployed on a much-larger scale, for functions such as public transport and the delivery of goods. This will be especially critical in markets like Asean, where overcrowding and booming e-commerce growth are increasing awareness around the environmental impacts of our consumption habits.

The global manufacturing ecosystem responsible for producing our food, clothes, medicine and technology, still largely hinges on the burning of fossil fuels to power industrial processes. While some processes with higher heat requirements remain a challenge, other newer, less energy intensive production techniques such as 3D printing and the manufacture of carbon fibre are already being electrified. At the same time, vast progress is also being made in the development of new techniques for established manufacturing processes, such as the production of cement, a big culprit when it comes to carbon emissions. A team from MIT has successfully developed an electrochemical technique that allows carbon dioxide to be safely separated and sequestered, replacing the burning of coal traditionally needed to produce heat. The development of such technologies will serve as individual pieces in the bigger electrification puzzle, replacing each step at a time where feasible as part of a step-by-step approach to addressing industry challenges at a sector level.

Likewise, for the electrification of building systems for heating and cooling, the challenge lies in replacing existing infrastructures. From retrofitting roofs with solar panels to installing giant batteries, the goal is to help buildings make the best use of renewable energy adoption. While the technology in many instances may already be available today, the costs involved in an immediate retrofit may remain prohibitive for many in South-east Asia.

Depending on their emissions intensity and energy requirements from the grid, it is important for us to remember that a blanket electrification approach may not be the most feasible, depending on the resources available. While some businesses may be ready to scale today with an observable impact on emissions, others may still face considerable social, economic or technological barriers to adoption. In many cases, a viable and sustainable option has simply yet to be invented, such as batteries capable of supporting electric flight at a commercial scale.

2020: the year of energy action

That said, there's much that can be done today; and 2020 is a good starting point for making this electrified future a reality.

For starters, batteries are increasingly seen as a viable way forward as we deepen our relationship with renewables. They help building owners store energy from sources such as solar or wind when available and release it when needed during peak periods. Today, batteries have already been put to work in a myriad of developments, including the Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia. One of the first mega battery projects, it has helped reduce intermittency and manage increased energy demand to power cooling during the intense Australian summers. We've even made this work with second-life EV batteries, to power some of Europe's major public landmarks such as the Amsterdam ArenA. Through our partnership with Nissan, this initiative has also helped create a circular economy for these used EV batteries.

This rapid adoption of renewables and batteries will also see the urgent need to modernise city grids that are capable of meeting the increase in power generation and consumption, an endeavour further complicated by climate change and ever-growing cyber threats.

Devastating wildfires from California to Canberra have highlighted the need for modern decentralised grids to reduce the frequency and impact of outages, while adherence to international cybersecurity standards and the ability to interact with data in real time will ensure a more resilient power infrastructure that's ready to face tomorrow's challenges.

Modernising our power infrastructure will go a long way towards reducing our dependence on non-renewables and helping South-east Asia meet tomorrow's power needs today. However, in order to build a strong foundation for the next chapter, companies must first commit to a thorough assessment of their electrification strategy and invest in the right technologies and partnerships to kickstart this long-term process. After all, it will be essential for businesses to be hyper aware of their impact on the environment and the societies they operate in, as customers increasingly place emphasis on shared values and accountability - whether it is carbon-free cloud services or cleaner everyday utilities. And with much of this technology already commercially viable today, there's no reason not to start in 2020.

  • The writer is vice-president at Eaton