Welcome Address by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, at the SIWW Technology and Innovation Summit (STIS), at One Farrer Hotel on Tuesday 16 June 2015 at 9.00am

Water-Energy Security

1            For several years I have been having pipe dreams - not the opiate-induced variety, but dreams about water pipes. It took me some time before I dared to share this with my colleagues. When I finally did, they all nodded their heads politely but I knew that they didn’t really believe me. 

2            My dream was that PUB would become not just water independent well before 2061, but also energy independent. You heard it right – simultaneous water and energy independence. If you actually stop to think about it and consider where we are today, this is a crazy idea. Let me explain why I am still keen on pursuing this.

3            I have never dared to say this publicly until last night at the discussion with the International Advisory Panel, and especially with the Chief Executive of PUB, Ng Joo Hee and the Chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), Beh Swan Gin who sort of agreed with me. Nevertheless, being careful civil servants, they told me: “You can say this, so long as you don’t commit us to fulfilling this crazy idea”. And this morning I received an email from Beh Swan Gin to say “how about halving the energy imports in the medium term for a more realistic stretch target”.

4            Let me put things in context and explain why this stretch target is so important. Water has always been an existential issue for Singapore. It has been a key vulnerability for us, not just since independence 50 years ago, but indeed, even during British colonial times.

5            Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his pioneer engineers, including Tan Gee Paw (Chairman of PUB), have spent 50 years trying to tackle this problem. They steadily increased the number of reservoirs we have from three at independence to seventeen today. Two thirds of our small island now forms the catchment zone, including the dense city centre. The most urbanised part of Singapore is also a catchment zone. They cleaned up the Singapore River within ten years, starting from 1977. This was a Herculean task that involved relocating thousands of squatters, relocating industries which included even ship repairing, fixing ancient sewers and taking tough enforcement against polluters. We made significant progress.

6            Another transformative step occurred just about 12 years ago with the advent of reverse osmosis membranes. What this meant was that for the first time ever, desalination and recycling used water – which we branded as NEWater – became both medically safe and economically viable. This step 12 years ago completely transformed the economics and politics of water for us. 

7            In the last 12 years, we have continued to invest in desalination and recycling water infrastructure. We have built up our portfolio of desalination and NEWater plants. Today, more than 50% of our needs can be met, if necessary, through reverse osmosis. This scale of water investment - this scale of meeting national needs within 12 years, I dare say, has been unprecedented anywhere in the world. This is precisely how Singapore converted an existential strategic vulnerability into a global opportunity.

8            Today we have around 14,000 water-related jobs, and these jobs have a value-add of close to S$2 billion per year. The investments that the National Research Foundation made in the Environment and Water Technology space have paid off handsomely.

9            These are major achievements that we can rightly be proud of. Nevertheless, I believe we need even more ambitious goals. The crux of the challenge is the fact that we have substituted one critical vulnerability with another. What this means is that today, we can produce water so long as we have energy. In theory, for desalination, if you have an infinite amount of energy, you can have an infinite amount of water.

10            But what this really means is that the critical vulnerability for Singapore has now become energy supply. I checked on the Energy Market Authority’s website before I started this speech. Let me just give you the exact figures for the production of electricity. Natural gas which we import provides about 95% of our energy needs while petroleum products are at 0.9% - this is good because natural gas is the cleanest and most efficient way of generating electricity. Garbage, or waste-to-energy plants, provides about 3.9% of our electricity. But the point is, over 95% of our energy needs for electricity are imported.

11            So, is this goal that I have been mulling about realistic? This is Singapore, and in Singapore, nobody is impressed by dreamers. Our visions have to be accompanied by serious plans, serious projects and realistic goals. So, can we really halve our imported energy use for the production of water within ten years? Can we really achieve both water and energy independence well before 2061? That is the crucial question which I want to leave with you.

12           But let me suggest at least seven avenues through which we can make significant progress to achieve this target. I share this so that you understand that I am serious about it and that we will have a fair crack at solving this challenge.

13           First, we can improve the energy efficiency of reverse osmosis. Today in Singapore, it takes 3.5kWh to produce 1 cubic metre of water. We believe current research efforts, which some of you and the PUB are involved in, even today, will enable us to reduce this figure by at least half.

14           Second, we can reduce the energy consumed by pumps. For those of you who are in this audience who are running public utilities, you will know that a significant proportion of your energy bill comes from simply pumping water all over the place. Even in a small island like Singapore, we pump water north, south, east and west; from the centre to the periphery and back. A lot of energy is expended simply conveying water and in running pumps.

15           PUB is reviewing our national pipeline infrastructure in order to reduce this need to convey large volumes of water all across the island. We are reviewing whether a more modular approach would shorten distances involved in the conveyance of water. If we can modernise the pipeline infrastructure and make it smarter, by installing more efficient pumps and using smart technology to rectify leaks preemptively, we believe that we can significantly reduce the total amount of energy expended in pumping water.

16           Third, we can recover energy from used water. We all know used water contains organic material. We all know enough biology and chemistry to understand that anaerobic bacteria interacting with organic material will produce natural gas which in turn, can be used to generate electricity and be consumed by the same plant that is recycling water.

17           This is already being done. But the real challenge is that if we can recover enough energy per cubic metre of used water, we can get close to a perpetual motion machine that generates more than enough energy to keep itself going. This has been a dream of physicists since time immemorial. Think about the calorific value of the organic material in used water. The more that we can harvest, the less energy we would need to pump into recycling plants.

18           This is also why PUB’s pilot project with Anaergia at the Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant is so important. Andrew Benedek (Chairman and CEO of Anaergia Inc.) has a patented process which will enhance the anaerobic digestion of both the organic content of used water comingled with food waste. Why food waste? Most of the content of food is water. We can compost food waste, which can be used by the agricultural sector, but Singapore lacks such a significant sector. The other way, which unfortunately we still continue to do in Singapore, is to incinerate food. If you remember your ‘A’-Level Physics, most of the energy is consumed by the latent heat of vaporisation when we incinerate food. This does not make sense. Instead, the correct objective should be to recover energy from food, and to use that energy to recycle used water. This project by Anaergia at the Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant is significant, because it will increase the energy recovered from both waste water and food waste, and potentially increases the yield of water from our recycling plants.

19           The fourth way we can achieve our stretch target is to generate a significant quantum of solar energy. PUB will be installing floating solar panels in reservoirs because Singapore is so land-constrained and every square inch counts. PUB and EDB are also participating in the SolarNova project, which the Government is committing to, to rapidly build up our portfolio of renewable energy. Considering today’s technology, the primary avenue for that would be solar photovoltaic panels. Those of you working in the solar space would know that there are also new materials, which provides more efficient ways of recovering energy from the sun. If we can generate a significant amount of renewable energy from the production of water, we would be able to reduce the need for imported energy.

20           Fifth, we can even think about harvesting the potential energy of falling water. Singapore is too small, flat and shallow an island to generate hydropower. But every drop of rain that falls on the rooftop which then percolates down a block, or every drop of rain that falls into a tunnel, has got some potential energy. One key breakthrough today is that there are low intensity energy micro turbines, which can convert that potential energy into electric energy.

21           On a related note, PUB will be embarking on a feasibility study for creating an underground drainage and reservoir system (UDRS). This is something Professor Lui Pao Chuen has been championing for a long time. We will be studying the feasibility of underground drainage and underground reservoirs.

22           Why is this significant? In Singapore, we receive an average of about 2.4 metres of rainfall a year. If you woke up last night, you would have heard a very heavy thunderstorm. In theory, if we receive 2.4 metres of rainfall a year, we should not be short of water; there is more than enough water that falls on Singapore island. The real limiting factor is not rainfall but land. We do not have enough land to capture, and more importantly, store all water that falls during a storm or rain. In fact, during a storm like last night, we would have discharged most of that water into the sea. Conversely, we will experience water shortages during prolonged periods of drought because the reservoirs start to run low.

23           Climate change increases the probability of both intense rainfall and prolonged periods of drought. If we - and water authorities around the world – simply stay with business-as-usual, climate change will reduce the yield of surface reservoirs and in water catchments all over the world in the decades to come.

24           Consequently, an underground drainage and storage network will mitigate the impact of climate change and enhance Singapore’s drought resilience, whilst overcoming our land limitations. We will be able to take the excess rainfall from the storms, convey it to underground storage, harvest its energy as it percolates through those tunnels, and reuse that energy later when we need to pump the water out again. We believe these underground caverns will also add to Singapore’s overall reservoir storage.

25           There is a sixth avenue, which is our per capita water consumption. In Singapore we have reduced our per capita water consumption to 151 litres per person per day. As a doctor, I can tell you that human beings only need to consume three litres of water per day. What that means is that we are using 148 litres of water per day for everything else. I appreciate that Singapore is warm and we all love our showers. But even then, it should be possible to make a meaningful reduction in our water consumption.

26           The seventh way – not so relevant in Singapore but in many other parts of the world – is to prevent water leakages. In Singapore, PUB does its best to ensure that unaccounted-for-water is at about 5% or less. I think this is a very impressive number globally. There are parts of the world where water leakages are at about 30% or more. If you stop to think about it, if you just fix all the leaks in your pipes, you will need less water treatment plants, and you will need much less energy.

27           So ladies and gentlemen, I hope I have shown you in this speech that there are at least seven realistic ways to make real progress to achieve this stretch target of achieving both water and energy independence by 2061. Perhaps in a more cautious way, let’s aim for halving our energy imports for the production of water within the next 10 years. A difficult stretch target, but I hope I have convinced you that it is realistic.

28           Because this is Singapore, we get real, we make real plans, set real goals, and we will do it. I hope those of you on the International Advisory Panel are enthused, not just by the quality of the intellectual discourse, but by the fact that in Singapore, we turn talk into action, and dreams into reality.

29           Thank you all very much.