Bridging Clean, Decentralised and Digital solutions: Can Singapore build the future of energy?

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Global energy-related investments stand at 2 trillion USD per year. For decades, the industry has been investing money in a predictable manner - building centralised production and generation facilities for oil, gas and electricity and connecting them with consumption centres through transmission and transport infrastructure. The energy landscape is changing though. Young, agile startups are offering solutions for clean, decentralised and digital future of energy. With the liberalisation of its electricity market, Singapore has a unique opportunity to offer an innovation harbour where new solutions and especially new business models can be deployed.

Traditionally, energy investments have been used to build distribution facilities in a form of transmission lines, petrol and gas stations. The solutions for this impressive system have been traditionally delivered by oil and gas companies, utilities and equipment manufacturers who have the financial muscle to invest over 1 Billion USD each year to ensure that they keep the pace of technological advancements. With the changes in tech structure of our energy system, these investments are being progressively diverted to clean, decentralised and digital solutions. Clean energy receives around 300 Billion USD in investments globally. Digitalisation of energy is already a market of more than 50 Billion USD in revenues globally and is projected to grow to 65 Billion by 2025. There is scope for new innovations and it is opening a whole new door for startups in the otherwise traditional industry.

For the first time in the history of the industry, startups innovating in the energy sector are on par with large corporations, in terms of quality and the speed of bringing new solutions to market. It took fracking companies several decades to transform the future of oil and natural gas industry in the US. For the first time in 60 years, US was transformed into a natural gas exporter in 2017. For solar companies in combination with innovative business models, it took less than a decade to erode the traditional utility business in Germany. As an example of changes resulting from this transformation, the capitalisation of EoN, one of the country’s leading utilities, was slashed from more than 50 Billion EUR in 2008 to less than 18 Billion EUR in 2017.


The Global Energy Innovation Landscape

Innovation in energy is different compared to other sectors. Silicon Valley does not ascertain its global dominance. Several hubs of energy innovations are emerging across the globe aligned with the deregulated nature of their local energy market. US, Australia, Japan, China India and almost all European countries are interesting centres of energy innovation. The world’s best energy accelerator is in Hawaii. Elemental Excelerator is an example of how a small energy ecosystem, with a population of 1.5 million and its installed power generation capacity of less than 2,700 MW (comparing to more than 13,600 MW in Singapore), can have a first-class capability to build and accelerate energy startups globally. This is driven from the fact that Hawaii, like all other islands is concerned with energy supply and climate change. With support from the local government, the ecosystem has fostered talent to build a fantastic energy acceleration programme in a place which is off the beaten track of innovation.


The Singapore Energy Ecosystem Today

Singapore now has an opportunity to follow Hawaii's example and become a hub for clean, decentralised energy innovation. Located in the heart of Southeast Asia, claiming English as its first language and crossing the cultures of – and economic links back to – such heavyweights as China and India that have a combined population of around 4 billion, Singapore is perfectly positioned to serve the region. The Singapore government has already created R&D facilities for clean and decentralised energy innovation. Additionally, over the last decade, Singapore has created a bigger skill base for renewable energy, energy efficiency and increasingly microgrids. The only missing link is connecting this ecosystem to digital and bringing in technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, IoT, 3D printing and robotics into the energy startup ecosystem. There is already an emergence of startup innovators that combine clean and decentralised energy with digital capabilities.

While in other sectors, Accelerator programmes have mushroomed, opening doors to startups, opportunities for accelerating energy startups with solutions ready to go to the market are few. The Shell IdeaRefinery, a startup programme nurturing local energy innovations in Singapore recently hosted its demo day that brought forward 10 of these innovators in areas of renewables, energy efficiency, mobility and asset optimisation. The common denominator was that the startups have already a solution to deploy in the energy value chain and the related processes. For example, Ava Asia is using artificial intelligence and drone capabilities to optimise the operation of solar and traditional energy, oil and gas assets. Chektec is building digital tools for workflow optimisation for health and safety in energy. QIQ is using supercharger and blockchain technology to create whole ecosystems for electric mobility.

Shell is not the only corporation buying into the innovation journey. Many others are creating innovation and digitalisation hubs. Schneider Electric Innovation U, Infineon Co-Innovation Centres, Singapore Power’s in-house incubation are some such examples. These programmes support startups by giving them an opportunity to experiment, co-create and eventually create a road to corporate VC.


Working Towards The Next Phase

Although corporations are actively engaging startups, their programmes have their limitations. There is a limit to the volume of startups that can go through them. This limits the opportunity to a select few. A new area where corporates can come in and foster innovation is to open the opportunity to deploy and test startup solutions in practical situations of their operation, under controlled conditions. Another opportunity is to work across the value chain. Startups could benefit from collaboration with different parts of the value chain at the same time - manufacturer of equipment, operator for oil & gas or utility, and for digital solutions - provider of an IT backbone.

Energy startups rise and fall with the quality and diversity of their corporate partnerships. That’s why an acceleration programme offering an opportunity to test and fail fast for energy-oriented startups specifically is needed in Singapore to claim its place on the global innovation map.

With the liberalisation of its electricity market, Singapore has a unique opportunity to offer an innovation harbour where new solutions and especially business models can be deployed. Corporations with interest to have a tangible impact on energy innovation can come together and build the next generation of corporate acceleration programme. The overarching objective and motivation will be to speed up the transition to the energy of the future which will be built with clean, decentralised and digital solutions and customer focus.

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Katarina Hasbani