Energy is the lifeblood that powers literally every technology-enabled device humankind has created and produced. According to a Statistical Review on World Energy report by BP, global energy demand has grown 2.9 per cent in 2018, doubling its 10-year average of 1.5 per cent and the fastest growing since 2010.

In the same report, BP’s Group Chief Economist Spencer Dale sounds out a worrying trend where carbon emissions and energy consumption trends are growing at the fastest rates seen in years, leading the world into an unsustainable path.

But all is not lost. As the world continues to pursue a low carbon energy strategy, it leads to great opportunities in energy tech and startups are able to pursue and solve global energy problems.

And while Singapore may not be a major consumer of energy in proportion to the rest of the world, it is not resting on its laurels in managing its energy needs. In fact, one such company is leading the charge to develop energytech solutions to address the energy needs.

I speak to Sau Sheong Chang, CEO of SP Digital, in an exclusive interview on the state of energytech and how startups can learn from SP Digital’s applications in the energytech field.

Energy tech goes beyond energy production to energy management and applications

Chang is a seasoned tech engineer, having close to 25 years of doing technology. His experience spans across various industries, including government, gaming, telcos, banking and finance, and most recently, the energy industry.

In the process, he has learned a tremendous amount and smells a revolution brewing in the energy industry. This led him to assemble a full team to build, deliver and sell energytech products at SP Digital.

According to Chang:

Sau Sheong Chang, CEO SP Digital

Sau Sheong Chang, CEO, SP Digital

“Energy tech, a portmanteau word much like fintech or proptech, refers to technology, usually software-focused, used to power changes and disruptions in the energy industry. Energytech is closely related to cleantech, which focuses on sustainability and reducing environmental impact of companies.

(But) unlike cleantech, which ranges from resource efficiency, pollution prevention to renewable energy, Energytech is much more focused on power and energy, and includes energy efficiency, energy procurement and markets, renewable energy, green buildings, energy storage, mobility (especially electric vehicles), hydrogen and many more.”

He cites Tesla as one of the best-known startups in the energytech world. While much attention is given to their electric cars, their product range and vision makes it very clear that Tesla’s core focus is on energytech.

Besides cars, Tesla’s products include solar rooftops and Powerwall home energy storage. Another product, the Powerpack commercial energy storage, was sold to governments like the South Australia government.

Chang sees Telsa from a different perspective, where Tesla cars are nothing more than mobile energy storage on wheels.  Even their corporate mission is to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”.

Energytech spin-offs from power utility firms

Power utility companies are also investing heavily in energytech by spinning off entities which solely focus on energy innovation. Large European utilities like RWE and E.on restructured themselves into new energy companies Innogy (US$4.6 billion) and Uniper (US$1.7 billion). Italian energy company Enel has created Enel X. Shell, the largest energy company in the world, has invested extensively into their Shell New Energies division and has recently doubled their investments into low-carbon energy to US$4 billion a year.

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In a similar fashion, SP Digital was spun off from SP Group, a Singapore government-owned gas and electricity distribution company. Initially, SP Digital started off as a unit that helped SP Group to do digital transformation for its business units. Now, it has taken its energytech products offering to its various segment of customers.

So what energytech examples are there? Chang shows a list of products that his team has created.

Consumer management app to create awareness on energy usage

There are an estimated 1.3m residential households in Singapore who consumed 7,295 GWh of power in 2017, or S$1.89 billion (US$1.4 billion) on electricity bills spent at prevailing prices.

This is a significant amount, and thus the Infinity app was built by the SP Digital team to address consumer spending on electricity. Initially built purely as a utility app, it is now a full-fledged consumer engagement platform.

Chang says, “We started off providing payment services for the utility bill but have added in a host of features for driving efficiency awareness, for example, half-hourly smart meter readings, comparison with neighbours and national average; and market awareness (OEM electricity packages comparison). We have also launched the app services for SP Group’s electric vehicle charging stations, including locating, charging and paying for the charging.”

Comparison of Singapore's electricity providers

Comparison of Singapore’s electricity providers on Infinity app

When the Tengah smart energy town is developed in the next few years, Infinity is poised to become the main tool to engage consumers and to control various energy capabilities including residential centralised cooling and many others.

Electricity Management platform for commercial real estate

Commercial real estate markets consume about 2.3 times the electricity of residential households. To address this segment, SP Digital created a Commercial Energy Platform (CEP) product. The CEP basically maps closely to the journey that a customer in the commercial real-estate segment will take from improving operational efficiency to optimising electricity procurement, driving energy efficiency with the ultimate goal of advancing sustainability and to improving occupant experience.

CEP is currently implemented in locations owned by Changi Airport Group and the Housing Development Board (HDB).

Using AI, IoT and cloud for intelligent energy management

Another key product of SP Digital is its AI engine for intelligent energy management services, termed as Energy Brain.

Energy Brain profiles energy patterns, forecasting future energy usage, optimising energy resources and monitoring energy assets. Its main goal is to uncover energy and cost savings, while also reducing energy usage.

The Energy Brain is mostly a cloud-based solution while collecting data from hundreds of IoT devices deployed out in the field across Singapore.

Such energy resources include solar photovoltaics (PV) and energy storage systems, are deployed on an IoT platform called the SP Universal Gateway (SPUG).

Dashboard of Energy Brain

Dashboard of Energy Brain

Energy Brain is currently deployed in shipyards such as Sembcorp Marine. Cost savings were made through uncontracted capacity peak shaving, load shifting and also solar PV conditional monitoring. In the future, Energy Brain will be implemented in the Tengah smart energy town, the new Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) campus in Punggol as well as the new Punggol Digital District.

Promoting renewable energy with blockchain technology

On the renewable energy front, the SP Digital team launched one of the world’s first blockchain-based Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) platform last year during the ASEAN Energy Business Forum 2018.

Chang says, “Using a public blockchain jointly developed with the Energy Web Foundation (EWF), we created a marketplace that promoted transactions of RECs. Through this platform, companies and individuals can trade RECs — buyers are automatically matched with sellers around the globe according to their preferences.”

“One of our first buyers was one of the largest banks in Southeast Asia, DBS Bank, and one of the largest property developers in Singapore, City Development Limited (CDL). Last month, we also extended the platform further by being the first local issuer in Asia for the International REC standards (I-REC). With this, we have become a one-stop-shop for all REC needs for companies and individuals. We’re also extending this to our residential and electric vehicle customers in the near future,” he says.

Regulations and standards impeding the development of energytech

While the potential and demand for energytech innovation in Singapore and around the world is great, Chang finds there is still quite a bit of haziness especially in terms of regulations and standards. To him, the energy industry is heavily regulated and much of the regulations are based on current capabilities and current environment. This leads to confusion as the regulations have yet to catch up with innovation so energytech firms do not have a clear idea if they can implement their products.

Innovations are starting to cross into a variety of segments. He cites an example, “(Should) regulations concerning energy storage be covered under the category of generation, or transmission or distribution equipment instead?”

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On the flipside, the safety aspect is uncertain. To what extent should energytech products cover the element of safety? Chang mentions Lithium-ion batteries as an example which must be disposed in a certain way, since the chemicals in the batteries are hazardous. In a similar fashion, the safety elements of energtech products should be clear to protect users.

Standards to connect to equipment are also contentious — various players vie to impose their own defacto protocols. Standards bodies such as the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are still coming up with their respective regulations even as new technologies continue to evolve and come into being.

Regulators also struggle with regulatory boundaries becoming blurred and grey. For example, the Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) industry in much of the world is voluntary. Would regulations (if any and why) come from the energy regulators or the environment regulators? When trading RECs would the financial regulators have a say into what is genuine and legitimate?

Ending thoughts

I ask Chang whether Singapore will ever be a fully sustainable energy consumption nation, and he gives a realistic and pragmatic reply.

“Fully sustainable energy consumption in Singapore is quite difficult because as a country we’re pretty strapped for resources. We can’t even be self-sufficient for basic natural resources like food and water today. For energy, we are mostly dependent on natural gas piped from neighouring countries as well as LNG through tankers,” he says.

“As for renewable energy, we are around 0.8 per cent solar PV (capacity of around 203MWp) and we have nothing else that is commercially or practically viable. There is a goal of 350MWp of solar PV capacity by 2020 and a whopping 2GWp by 2025 but that’s a pretty tough goal unless there is new breakthrough in solar PV technology,” he adds.

“Sustainability is not all about generating more electricity, there is a strong movement of being more sustainable through energy efficiency. By reducing the amount of electricity we consume with more conscientious usage, or improving the efficiency of our equipment, which in turn drives down costs for us. However there needs to be more awareness and education of the public and in many ways, many of our SP Digital products are about providing information and generating awareness,” Chang concludes.

Correction: A previous version of the article stated that SP Digital is a government entity. This is incorrect; SP Digital is a private entity even though they are owned by Temasek, the Singapore government’s sovereign fund.

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Image Credit : Sompong Sriphet