Opportunities and innovation in Asian energy systems: An interview with Dr. Phyllis Yoshida, Senior Fellow for Energy and Technology, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA

Phyllis Yoshida
Dr. Phyllis Yoshida
Senior Fellow for Energy and Technology
By Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA | 13 August 2019

Dr. Phyllis Yoshida of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA shares her thoughts on the future of energy in Asia

1. In your opinion, what are the three biggest energy challenges we face?

There are many energy challenges that face us today. They require dynamic solutions, are increasingly complex, and will keep us busy for many years.

The biggest challenge globally is energy access. Access to clean and reliable energy is necessary for health, nutrition, and sustainable development; ergo, the full development of human potential. Nearly one billion people, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, still do not have access to electricity. By 2030, the International Energy Agency estimates that nine out of 10 people without energy access will be in sub-Saharan Africa. However, there is good news. Exceptional progress has been made in most Asian countries, such as India and Indonesia, largely through expanded grid access. In Africa, Kenya and Ghana stand out for successful efforts. Connecting the last 10 per cent, mostly in isolated sparsely populated areas, will be difficult and expensive. It will require off-grid and mini-grid solutions, efficient low-cost appliances, new digital business models, and greater capital investment. With the declining cost of renewable energy and other innovations, it should be possible if not by 2030 then by 2040.

A second challenge, the theme of SIEW 2019, is how to accelerate transformation of the energy system. The world is not on target to meet its climate goals, necessitating a much greater effort to accelerate this transformation. The transformation is taking various paths in different regions, but the majority revolve around less reliance on, and/or cleaner use of, fossil fuels. It is particularly important for Asia – where energy demand is growing most rapidly. It is hardest in countries with large fossil fuel reserves. There are many issues that must progress further for us to meet transformation goals including: 1) the integration of renewables into the grid; 2) affordable and effective carbon capture, use, and storage for coal and natural gas; 3) efficient low-cost cooling; 4) flexible regulatory systems; 5) robust energy storage for short and longer duration–batteries, pumped storage, and hydrogen; and 6) the electrification of the transportation system. This challenge also relates back to the first challenge in that the costs of not transforming the energy system will fall disproportionately on the least advantaged portion of the world’s population.

A third challenge is maintaining adequate levels of investment, first, in science, technology, and innovation and, second, in getting our innovations past the technological “valley of death” to commercialisation to solve the first two challenges. There are many solutions that the region should share. They include investing in the basic science of advanced materials, the processes of advanced manufacturing, and new generations of energy technology demonstration projects. It could be implementing clean-energy-based economic development strategies at national and regional levels. It could also be offering incentives to manufacturers as well as start-up companies, deepening public-private partnerships, and creating innovation clusters adapted to different regions’ strengths.

2. What are some untapped opportunities for Asia to transition to a lower carbon energy system?

One of the largest untapped opportunities is advanced nuclear energy, especially small modular reactors (SMRs). While not yet commercially available, they could play a significant role in decarbonising the energy system after 2030 in a range of centralised and decentralised applications for those countries for which they are appropriate. Such reactors could provide carbon-free power with safety features that passively cool reactor cores and lower cost through mass production. U.S. federal regulators have completed the second and third phases of their review of NuScale Power’s SMR and expect its first reactor to come on-line in 2026 at Idaho National Laboratory. Several other U.S. SMR developers are close to submitting designs. China has started construction of its first demonstration SMR at the Changjiang nuclear facility in Hainan. Canada has a well-funded government initiative to develop and support the demonstration of a variety of SMR types. Ten SMR developers have applied for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s pre-licensing vendor design review process. As the first SMRs enter the demonstration phase, it is important to become familiar with the new technologies and explore if they can play a role in a country’s energy future. If so, it is not too early to start preparing a conducive regulatory environment and to train experts.

3. What areas of innovation could Asia focus on to enhance energy security for the region?

While there are many areas of innovation on which Asia could focus, one that could prove particularly useful is the area of technologies and practices for smart cities. There are already many cities in Asia, including Singapore, that are vying to be the most innovative, efficient, and clean.

Cities will drive growth. And growth will require energy and supporting physical and digital networks. How to protect the supply of that energy and the increasingly complex networks from extreme weather and cyberattacks is an increasingly major energy security question. The ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN), approved in 2018, provides a platform to share information and insights, and to cooperate on the technologies and practices necessary for low carbon, sustainable urban practices. Solid support for the expansion and enhancement of ASCN would be valuable not just for ASEAN’s future energy security but also for all the rapidly urbanising and already urbanised parts of the world.

A second area of innovation in which Asia could contribute significantly to is energy storage. The countries of Asia continue to work on innovative solutions for many forms of energy storage necessary for future robust energy systems. A resurgent area of innovative energy storage that needs more investment is hydrogen. Japan is already a leader in hydrogen technologies and could host an energy innovation hub, perhaps as part of the Fukushima Hydrogen Project. The hub could bring together scientists and engineers to undertake intense research and development on advanced materials and other technologies to lower costs and shrink the footprint needed for hydrogen storage. Australia, the United States, and the Clean Energy Ministerial have significant efforts underway that could be part of a broader cooperative effort.

4. What is the role of international collaboration in ensuring a sustainable energy future?

Energy is an area in which considerable opportunity for coordination and cooperation still makes sense. Nations should cooperate in areas of mutual benefit and with like-minded partners on common challenges. Benefits come from leveraging resources and bringing together the world’s best intellectual skills to solve difficult problems, developing interoperability and common technical standards, and uniting common and complementary strengths. There are of course greater challenges in international cooperation that range from coordinating multiple partners with different motivations and differing budget cycles to settling differences in legal practices and balancing knowledge creation and commercialisation.

The fast-paced changes in the region’s – and the world’s – energy markets mean that no country can handle the changes alone. The natural gas market is steadily globalising as LNG shipments, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, grow and new producers, including the United States, enter the market. With these developments, many energy security questions need to be addressed to ensure supply flexibility and the use of natural gas as a transition fuel.

The future role of nuclear energy in the region’s energy mix hangs in the balance but could be changed by the advent of new advanced reactors in the next decade. These reactors could provide carbon-free power with safety features that passively cool reactor cores and lower costs through mass production with fewer components, smaller sizes, proliferation resistant technology, and small land footprints. What regulations are needed to advance this?

Technologies for renewable energy, energy storage, transportation electrification, hydrogen, and carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) are increasingly cost competitive. What more needs to be done and how can its implementation be accelerated?

Lastly, best practices for the adaptation of energy systems and communities to climate change are a common concern and create opportunities for sharing data and coordinating demonstrations.

5. The theme for SIEW 2019 is Accelerating Energy Transformation. What do you look forward to being discussed at SIEW this year?

I look forward to discussing how we are going to meet our energy sustainability goals to help mitigate increasingly severe and changing weather patterns due to climate change. What pragmatically can be done? Where should we invest? With the cost of renewables declining and efficiencies rising, what still needs to be addressed to expand use? Do we need to start investing much more in negative carbon technologies, i.e., ways to remove CO2 already in the environment, as we wait for advanced nuclear, renewable, and carbon capture, use and sequestration technologies to take hold? Are there still industries or sectors where increased energy efficiency can have a major impact? What cool new experiments and demonstrations are underway? Do we have the tools yet and are our current institutions capable of meeting the challenges of digitalisation and transportation electrification? Most importantly, how can we better cooperate to achieve our energy sustainability goals?

About Dr. Phyllis Yoshida, Senior Fellow for Energy and Technology, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA

Dr. Phyllis Genther Yoshida is the Senior Fellow for Energy and Technology at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. Prior to joining Sasakawa, she served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Asia, Europe, and the Americas at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), coordinating bilateral and multilateral relationships and serving as the Lead Shepherd of APEC’s Energy Working Group and on the Board of the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum. She also served as DOE’s Director of the FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership, a government-industry cooperative research partnership. In 2017 she established Pimmit Run Consulting LLC, which provides energy and technology analysis and services to the private and public sectors.

Dr. Yoshida has written extensively on Japanese and international science, technology, and energy issues. She also has held policy and research positions over her career at the U.S. House of Representatives, the Japan Economic Institute, George Mason University and the U.S. Department of Commerce. As Director of the Department of Commerce’s Asia-Pacific Technology Program, she received the Commerce Department’s Gold Medal for expanding U.S. access to foreign science and technology and Silver Medal for work creating the International Intelligent Manufacturing Systems Partnership.

She received her B.A. from Carleton College, and M.A. and Ph.D. from the George Washington University. She was the first recipient of Japan’s GARIOA/Fulbright Fellowship, under which she studied in 1983-1984 at the University of Tokyo and conducted research on Japan’s automobile industry.


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