A conversation with professor Subodh Mhaisalkar

How Singapore became a leader in sustainability and where it’s headed next

Highly urbanized and with little in the way of natural resources, the city-state of Singapore might have once seemed like an unlikely place to prosper in the 21st Century, let alone become a world leader in sustainability, clean-energy and clean-tech, but that’s exactly what the Southeast Asian republic has done.
How Singapore became a leader in sustainability and where it’s headed next

Beginning in July 2008, when its Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development announced an aggressive “green” agenda for the future, Singapore has been following through on a commitment to spend $1 billion (€759 million) through 2014 on a series of green-tech initiatives.

These include developing a smart grid, adopting green building guidelines, promoting the use of electric vehicles, and becoming a significant player in Asia’s wind, solar, and bio-fuel manufacturing sectors.

Everywhere one looks, it seems, some major new activity is getting under way – little wonder that Singapore has been referred to as “a living laboratory for urban solutions” to climate change.

“We have a four-pronged strategy,” the Inter-Ministerial Committee said when it unveiled its proposals. “[These are] boosting our resource efficiency, enhancing our urban environment, building our capabilities, and fostering community action.

“We will improve the way we use key resources such as energy and water, even as we seek to expand our use of renewable resources, so that we can achieve growth with fewer resources and make Singapore more competitive in the long run,” the committee declared.

Among its specific goals are:

  • To achieve a 35% improvement in energy efficiency from 2005 levels by 2030;
  • To make optimum use of land;
  • To attain a recycling rate of 70 percent by 2030;
  • To reduce domestic water consumption to 140L per person per day by 2030;
  • To reduce the level of fine particles in the air (PM 2.5) to 12µg/m3 and cap Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) levels at 15µg/m3 by 2020, and maintain the same levels up to 2030;
  • To have 0.8ha of green space for every 1000 persons and increase greenery in high-rise buildings to 50ha by 2030;
  • To improve accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists and have 70% of all journeys made via public transport;

Among those actively engaged in this revolution is Subodh Mhaisalkar, a professor in the School of Materials Science & Engineering at the Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

At NTU, he also holds the posts of Director, Advanced Materials Research Centre, Co-Director, Energy Research Institute @ NTU.

His main areas of research comprise printed electronics, sensors, organic photovoltaics, and printed charge storage solutions including supercapacitors and batteries.

Common to all these projects are methods of solution processing of semiconductors (organic, carbon nanotubes, or inorganic nanowires), fundamental device physics studies, and device integration.

He’s also spoken of and chaired symposiums on the potential of nanonets and nanomaterials for energy harnessing and storage.

The thrust of these events is that the emergence of inorganic nano-scaled materials as viable electronics enablers – coupled with the ability to fabricate nanowires, nanoflakes, nanoparticles, and nanofilms from practically any material -- has allowed for the creation of a toolbox of nano elements which holds the promise to bring new functionalities to applications in green energy systems.

The following interview with Mhaisalkar was conducted via email as he traveled between Singapore and Munich, Germany.

Singapore has developed a well-deserved reputation in becoming a world-centre for clean-tech and renewable energy manufacturing and research. What were the factors that got the city-state to where it is today?

I think it all started with water. With no supply of natural water resources (except rain), scarcity, constraint, and necessity led to a water initiative that now refers to "Singapore’s four taps" which includes water from local catchment areas, recycled water (NEWater), desalinated water, and imported water. The same factor also applies to energy (and perhaps also human resources!). With sunshine interrupted by rain and humidity, and very poor wind and ocean energy, Singapore could be easily classified as renewables-disadvantaged. [But] clean-tech and renewables is yet another area where Singapore believes that it can beat the odds, just like it has done in developing excellent infrastructure, governance, and knowledge-based economic growth.

What part did academia play in that story? (And how do you help to keep the momentum going?)

Given that Singapore is a very small country, it is common for the academics to work very closely with the civil service and also the politicians in policy, road-mapping, and implementation initiatives and strategies. As early as 2001, the Water initiative began to take shape and eventually led to the creation of the Nanyang Environmental & Water Research Institute; whereas the Energy Initiatives which began 2005 onwards led to setting up of the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS) and the Energy Research Institute @ Nanyang Technological University (ERI@N). These were complemented by the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) with its focus on Volcanology, Tectonics, Climate Change, & Earth Sciences and the Singapore Center for Environmental & Lifesciences Engineering (SCELSE) which leads efforts on Bio-films based environmental solutions.

The momentum and impetus was provided by research funding and infrastructural investments from the governmental agencies such as the Economic Development Board (EDB) and National Research Foundation (NRF). The last part of the equation was putting together a dream team to execute on the vision and here Singapore has really benefited by its successes in the biomedical and other sectors and has been able to attract talent from both academics and multinational companies to pursue quality solutions.

Many communities talk about developing technological clusters as a way to both foster an industry sector -- like renewables -- and enhance their own economic development efforts. Does Singapore adhere to a similar technological "clustering" philosophy, and if so, could you describe it?

I would not describe the strategy as clustering. I think it was more a genuine necessity for solutions for Singapore to reduce its carbon intensity and to implement sustainable solutions across all sectors that would include residential and commercial buildings, manufacturing, transportation, and a focus on lifestyle.

Sustainable development efforts have permeated into increasing public transportation, greening the city, comfort and livability considerations which would include making Singapore a more vibrant and a fun global city. The economic contribution of Sustainable technologies has always been in view, but perhaps not been the backdrop rather than being a singular priority.

Energy efficiency is a huge part of the Singapore agenda. What efficiency measures have proven most effective?

One of the easiest ways toward reducing our carbon intensity is to leverage energy efficiency. This can range from energy labeling for electrical appliances, energy efficient process designs, designing a Green Mark scheme (extending the LEED rating scheme in the USA) that places significant emphasis on energy use and efficiency (Platinum rating requires >40 percent energy efficiency improvement) for existing and new buildings including natural ventilation, increasing emphasis on public transportation, congestion charge to reduce traffic and pollution.

The energy efficiency charter also extends to low-energy means of water recycling and desalination, increasing productivity across all sectors (including construction), waste resource management (only landfill is incineration waste), and focus on increasing land-intensity use for example with vertical living as well as industrial production in high-rise or multi-story complexes. In this case however, Singapore being a city state, without an urban sprawl, has a clear advantage given that in general the carbon footprint of a well planned city is much lower than city sprawl or even a large first world rural community.

It seems to me that things like retro-fitting existing buildings can be very expensive. How is Singapore funding these initiatives? (And is there any concern that the funding may run dry?)

Singapore has stayed clear of subsidies and has focused more on incentives. Setting a target of Green Mark Certification for at least 80 percent of our existing buildings by 2030 and supporting it with a S$100 million incentive scheme, and basing certain land sales on a minimum GoldPlus/Platinum rating are just some of the ways of encouraging energy efficiency.

Incentives include additional Gross Floor Area (GFA) of up to 2 percent for Green Mark Platinum buildings. About 85 percent of Singapore’s population reside in public housing, and the Housing Development Board (HDB) has undertaken test-bedding of new technologies as well as new business models including Solar power leasing to reduce overall energy consumption in common areas by 20 percent.

What's being done to test-bed renewable technologies in the country? Is the university playing a big part in that?

The Economic Development Board (EDB), the Energy Market Authority (EMA), and other government agencies have promoted its “Living Laboratory” concept with incentives to try out novel energy solutions in Singapore. Examples include the Intelligent Energy Systems (IES) smart grids test-bed in the Nanyang Technological University, Clean Technology Park, and Punggol Eco-town.

A green island, Pulau Ubin, in Northeastern part of Singapore will serve as a distributed energy test-bed that will include solar PV, wind / tidal, and also bio-fuel. Besides the smart grid test bed and the CleanTech parks Living Lab trials, the Nanyang Technological University is also participating in micro-Grid Energy Management test bed that manages multiple resources into the grid including Solar PV, Wind, and Fuel Cells.

An electric vehicle test-bed has also been launched with Bosch providing the charging infrastructure and Mitsubishi and other vehicle manufacturers making vehicles available for test bed in 2011. Besides the charging infrastructure, the test bed will also address consumer behavior, range anxiety issues, and performance of the EV’s on Singapore’s road conditions.

What can you tell me about the experimental power grid?

The Experimental Power Grid Center to be situated on Singapore’s Petrochemical hub, Jurong Island, would serve as a vehicle to test-bed new technologies for intelligent and decentralised power distribution, interconnection and utilisation. Areas of focus would include intelligent and decentralised power distribution networks, control and management of distributed energy resources, and smart and interactive energy utilization.

The facility, rated up to 1 MW, would include flexibility to connect and manage a wide range of distributed energy resources configurable in different topologies and capable to emulate / simulate a wide range of grid conditions and disturbances.

You’ve mentioned the limitations of deploying renewables in Singapore, but the republic has become a major manufacturing sector for many of the associated technologies. Couldn’t one or two renewable work their way into the energy mix?

Renewables options in Singapore are definitely very limited. Solar PV and solar thermal seem to be the natural choice. But diffuse sunlight and rain makes the solar irradiance in Singapore to be about 35 percent more than in Berlin! Furthermore, Singapore is a very dense city with 90-95 percent of the population living in multi-storied buildings. Deployment of solar PV in all available areas including islets, inland waters, and facades may need to be considered in addition to covering every rooftop with PV systems.

Nevertheless, the Housing Development Board (HDB) has undertaken a broad test-bedding program that will install up to 3.1 MWp solar PV panels by 2015. Another notable solar effort is the solar thermal installation by SOLID GmBH (of Austria) with a collector’s area of 3,900m2, that will provide 100 percent of the United World College’s hot water demand and supplement the conventional chiller system with up to 1575 kW cooling load.

Besides solar, although Singapore is situated in an area of low winds and ocean energy, offshore wind and marine potential needs to be studied a lot more carefully. I also see the strong potential of Singapore contributing in the renewable energy space by providing an excellent technology development and demonstration base for the south-east Asia region.

You're expertise is in advanced materials. How does advanced material research figure into the growth of renewable energy research and implementation?

Advanced materials arguably will provide the x-factor, the breakthrough that will transform the energy landscape ranging from energy generation, harnessing, storage, conversion, conservation, as well as capture.

These materials would include new catalysts, absorbers, conductors, semiconductors, phase change materials, energy and gas separation and storage materials, lightweight composites, and materials for waste immobilization to just name a few.

What new technologies, approaches and/or materials seem the most promising to you? What excites you as a educator and technologist?

We’re launching into the second 10-year cycle of most nanomaterials programs. In the past 10 years, the nanomaterials which have made the most difference have been catalysts and microelectronics.

In the coming decade nanomaterials will lead to breakthroughs in generation and conversion, capture and storage, efficiency and recycling, and transport and logistics. Some of the exciting materials and classes of materials would include nanocomposites and light weight materials for structural applications, organic molecules for PV, high surface area Metallorganic Frameworks (MOFs) for catalysis and gas storage, nanocarbons / graphene and similar two-dimensional materials for energy conversion and storage applications, nanomaterials for high energy density and reliable lithium ion battery cathodes and anodes, and nanomaterials for catalysis as well as carbon capture and storage solutions.

Let me switch gears on you. Speaking as an educator, do you find that there's a shortage of young people wanting to get involved and study courses that will lead to a career in renewables or clean-tech? Here in the US there's an overwhelming amount of competition for young, student minds from Google, Apple and the gaming sector. Is the same true in Singapore?

Being a magnet for talent is always a challenge. In the past decade, in Singapore, lifesciences or biomedical engineering has been the most attractive area for students; however in the recent years we see great interest in sustainability studies.

There is a genuine excitement and commitment towards renewable energy and sustainability; and it is a great time as an educator and researcher in this field where it is clearly recognized that “…no single issue is as fundamental to our future as energy...” as President Barack Obama put it back in Jan 2009.

What educational programs or changes to education programs need to be put in place to prepare young people to become the next generation of renewable energy entrepreneurs, researchers and workers?

Energy and Sustainability are highly multi-disciplinary topics and cannot be taught in one particular school or department e.g. Mechanical or Electrical Engineering. More than ever before there is an urgent need to revamp our curricula and structure mobility for our students so that they would be empowered to take courses in aerodynamics, power engineering, and chemistry and nanocomposites, and perhaps energy economics such that they can contribute to solutions in wind or ocean energy.

Similar arguments can be made for Electromobility where Materials Science, Mechatronics, and Power Engineering intersect in Battery Systems, or in thin film solar cells where nanomaterials interfaces with chemistry and device physics. New major and minors in sustainability at the undergraduate level and Interdisciplinary Graduate Schools at the postgraduate level would need to be formulated.

Where do you see Singapore being, in terms of renewables and energy efficiency five years from now? Ten years from now?

In 5-10 years, I see that the majority of energy generation will be through natural gas with Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) contributing significantly to the fuel mix. Large scale installations of Solar PV, perhaps as high as 10 MW total, and Solar Thermal for chiller systems. Biofuels and Fuel Cells would start playing a modest role, whereas coastal wind and marine generator installations would be in its advanced stages of evaluation.

With average driving distances of less than 60 km, adoption of electric vehicles looks promising, but may be tempered by cost and reliability of batteries; however widespread adoption of hybrid electric vehicles would be seen in both public and individual mobility options.

Hopefully, the energy efficiency opportunities in buildings would be firmly entrenched and sustainable building design would be in its advanced stages of implementation.

For additional information:

Subodh Mhaisalkar website

Sustainable Singapore

Singapore government website

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