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Declining polar bear populations and disappearing bees are one thing, but is the beloved California grape now also threatened? An Environmental Sciences study has shown the possibility of contracted production as well as shifts in areas suitable for fruitful harvests—making oenophiles rethink clean energy policies.

2014 marked the beginning of The United Nations Decade for Sustainable Energy for All (2014–2024). Further, in November 2014, President Obama announced a US $3 billion contribution to the Green Climate Fund in Brisbane, Australia to “help developing nations deal with climate change, reduce their carbon pollution and invest in clean energy.” Just days later the US and China sealed a groundbreaking climate change commitment that will cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

Despite these announcements, the energy debate is a highly nuanced one with climate change deniers like Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, leading the cause. Part of the reason for the difficulty in drawing all sides to the table, says Dr. Michael Quah, a Singapore-based energy professional (who recently moved from Michigan), is that the term “clean energy” is poorly-defined in a landscape littered with buzzwords.

Hippo contributor Grace Segran sat down with Dr. Quah to understand the challenges impact organizations face in dispelling myths about clean energy. Dr. Quah, a professor at the National University of Singapore, adds nuance to the conversation from his perspective as both a scientist/engineer and energy professional. He notes that the interview is only the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the overarching conversation about clean energy.

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Professor Michael Quah Cheng-Guan

Professor Michael Quah Cheng-Guan holds several positions in the National University of Singapore (Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, NUS Energy Office and NUS Enterprise, the NUS incubator and tech transfer entity). His current work in Singapore revolves around energy/environmental systems and technology, sustainability and security challenges and their impact on policy and economic development and climate change. Michael has 3+ decades of work experience in industry (chemicals, polymers, membranes, filtration media, and energy), 20 years of which were with DuPont in the US, Japan, and Singapore. He had a 2-year stint with the U.S. Army in Fort Belvoir, VA (Research, Development, & Engineering Directorate and the Communications and Electronics Research, Development & Engineering Command.) Prof. Quah graduated magna cum laude in Chemistry and Physics from Harvard University, before receiving M.S., M.Phil and Ph.D degrees in Chemical Engineering from Yale.

GS: In what ways are key impact organizations leading the clean energy movement?

MQ: If the definition of “impact organizations” includes NGOs such as WWWF, 350.org, FFI, Earthwatch, and associations such as IPCC, US EPA, and WHO, then the greatest value these groups provide are education and outreach. “Clean energy” is, in my view, a term where five different people will give eight different definitions. Lifecycle assessments may not be fully carried out and what constitutes “clean,” for example, hydropower, to some city dwellers may involve development that upsets the eco-system in the areas where forest dwellers have to be re-settled, thereby disrupting lives.

Similarly, coal emissions may be rendered “clean” at some cost, wind farms sometimes affect the land immediately downwind, and solar in inappropriate areas may not be as benign as is generally believed. 
So, we need to get “clean energy” better defined. Do you mean renewable systems, appropriately sited? Do you mean improved “energy efficiency” projects?

Awareness that we have to rethink our diversity of energy sources and the need to improve energy efficiency or reduce profligate consumption are of prime importance.

GS: In 2013, for the first time China installed more renewable energy capacity than fossil fuels. 
What are the implications of this for the U.S. and Asia/Asia Pacific?

MQ: For investors, this is great! This will mean more economic opportunities for all
 and for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). In general this is great, provided the terms are forged for truly win-win deals. Any improved exchange of technology and greater economic co-operation across the Pacific will provide a boost for invention and innovation, NOT only in new

technology development but in systems integration in engineering, finance, trade, socio-political challenges.

GS: Where are the current most interesting cleantech investment opportunities in Asia?

MQ: Investments are critical for new project developments—deployment of energy systems are usually large infrastructural projects (in emerging mega-cities) and a multiplicity of smaller projects in distributed generation (for the more rural areas). This latter case is actually ripe and ready for renewable energy systems. I refrain from using the term “cleantech” because I don’t really know what people mean by that term; some use it only as a buzzword! A few good examples of project opportunities include:

  • Micro-grid systems (islanded or grid-connected) which harmonize DC and 
AC power sources, e.g., solar PV, mini-hydro, waste-to-energy, with diesel (or bio-diesel) gensets (for system resilience and reliability). These could be in the form of rural electrification projects.
  • A host of energy efficiency projects in mega-cities involving improved HVAC systems, automatic controls in building management systems, co-gen or tri-gen systems for industrial or commercial/residential complexes.
  • Improved waste management, including collection, auto-sorting of MSW, and waste-to-energy schemes .
  • Electrification of transport systems (and I don’t simply mean electric cars, which do not ease traffic congestion); I focus on improved mass transit, including buses, train systems, traffic controls, etc., as well as the future of coal, where the emissions can be made as “clean” as natural gas fired systems with improved emissions controls.

GS: How will these kinds of projects play out in Asia/the Asia Pacific, especially for Indonesia and Australia, which supply low-grade thermal coal to China? (Noting the likely ban on the import of low-grade coal as well as the decline of coal-fired installations in China.)

MQ: Coal will remain in use for decades; however, its emissions and combustion can be improved as the technologies exist (and can also be improved). The issue is economics (as compared to other options). I do not agree with the un-thinking folks who simply say “coal is evil.” I contend that it is how coal is converted to useful energy (and feedstocks) that must be improved. The current “dirty” coal plants must be decommissioned or improved—the issue is ultimately one of economics.

GS: Where is promising research from younger academics being carried out in this field? Asia? China? U.S.?

MQ: The key for academics is to move away from financial engineering instruments and do real science and engineering, not only in the development of new materials and technologies but in system engineering, as solution sets in the real world are systems-based. Academic research needs to focus on how different component technologies are systems integrated.

GS: A falling off in demand for oil and fossil fuels due to rising interest and use of 
renewable energy is said to be good news for the environment as well as a significant issue for the oil countries (and Russia). What’s next for the Gulf countries, aside from investment in clean energy via sovereign wealth funds?

MQ: We cannot simply go “cold turkey” on fossil fuels as our energy demands remain high and may go higher; we have to reduce our fossil fuel use (for reasons of CO2 emissions) and we have to learn to use more renewable sources; but these may be abundant in regions where the demand is low. For solar, for instance, some areas may lack direct beam radiation needed for CSP, hence they must use planar PV systems. In some regions, e.g., in the equator zone, wind velocities are lower than in the temperate climes. And renewable energy sources are not demand sources, therefore research in grid-scale energy storage is a must. Fossil-fuel countries have no worries, but they should use their wealth to increase energy diversity. They should use their fossil wealth to go into renewable and nuclear (as the latter is already being explored in these countries). On that note, I do not consider nuclear as “dirty” as claimed by many of its opponents. At the heart of this discussion, it’s critical to note that the energy debate is highly nuanced and cannot be captured in sound bites out of context. In the end, energy security comes with energy diversity.

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