Energytech in the year of COVID-19
What to say about 2020?
It has been a long and exhausting year. If you’ve not been living under a rock, you’d probably heard of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the turmoil it has brought to the whole world, from lockdowns to movement controls and circuit breakers, to the economic fallout and the price paid in human lives.
A silent victim of COVID-19 has been the action to combat climate change. With all the attention and energy on the pandemic, climate change actions have taken a more subdued backseat.
As the global community focus on vaccine development and economic recovery, there was less focus and money to drive climate actions. Economies around the world start to tank in the face of the pandemic and stimulus packages by the respective countries dug deep into their reserves. The global economic stimulus package runs at nearly $19.5 trillion as of today, as governments around the world scramble to soften the impact of the pandemic on their economies. Closer at home, Singapore drew down almost $100 billion from its past reserves to battle the economic fallout from COVID-19.
The European Union has come under pressure to shelve crucial climate initiatives, with Poland calling for a carbon trading program to be put on hold and the Czech Republic urging that the EU’s landmark climate bill, the ‘Green Deal’, be abandoned. China has already announced such delays, extending deadlines for companies to meet environmental standards. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it would not penalize companies that fail to comply with federal monitoring or reporting requirements if they could attribute their non-compliance to the pandemic.
The Paris climate agreement of 2015 was set to reconvene in November this year at COP26. The countries were to announce plans to escalate climate actions, since the plans they submitted in 2015 could still allow global temperatures to rise by a potentially catastrophic 3°C. However COP26 has been delayed for another year because of the pandemic. A variety of international negotiations to protect the environment have also been delayed including the World Conservation Congress, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the 2020 U.N. Ocean Conference. All these bodes ill for international cooperation for climate action.
With the rush for personal protection equipment (PPE), a plague of disposable face masks and plastic gloves and empty hand sanitizer bottles are now threatening the environment. About 129 billion masks and 65 billion gloves are being used and disposed every month and they are appearing in the oceans and beaches and everywhere else.
Climate change is relentless. 2020 is set to rival 2016 as the hottest year in recorded history. This is even without any major El Niño event, which helped made 2016 the current hottest year in recorded history. The Arctic sea ice coverage has contracted to the second lowest on record, with the Arctic sea ice having already lost two-thirds of its volume over the past 4 decades. Australia saw unprecedented bushfires destroying nearly 11 million hectares and more than 1 billion birds, mammals and reptiles, many unique to Australia have been affected or killed.
However in the midst of all the gloom, there is still hope.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the use of fossil fuels and industry are the main driving force of climate change. As the economies around the world imposed lockdowns and movement controls, CO2 emissions fell by 7%, the biggest drop ever recorded, ad the largest relative fall since World War 2.
The Indian capital New Delhi — which frequently tops the world’s most polluted city lists — saw a 60% reduction in PM2.5 levels from March 23 to April 13 from the same period in 2019
Worldwide, transport as a whole was responsible for 23% of total CO2 emissions. With the pandemic imposing lockdowns and closing borders, this has drastically reduced both aviation and road transport. When people realise that they can be just as productive working from home, remote working will likely become more mainstream.
Commercial buildings, including offices and malls take up about 40% of our total energy consumption. With more remote working, this reduces energy consumption overall. In fact, the International Energy Agency estimates that the global electricity demand will drop by 5%, with 10% in some countries. Coal and oil demand are estimated to drop by 8–9% but renewables are expected to increase.
The pandemic will eventually go, as with all other pandemics that came in the past. But climate change is here to stay with us unless we do something about it. The drastic changes we made because of the pandemic showed that we can make the difference if we want it badly enough.
For us in SP Digital, despite the restrictions and the the general lacklustre business environment, we pushed forward to make that difference.
We started the ball rolling on pushing green on our consumer engagement platform earlier this year, carrying out a number of activities to drive user awareness of sustainability issues, under the umbrella name of GreenUP.
The idea behind the whole campaign is about nudging — by keeping the consumers interested and informed we want to influence them to adjust their behavior and lifestyles to change for a greener tomorrow.
By providing information about the users’ consumption patterns and their impact on the environment, we want to create self-awareness and realisation and eventually change that is more permanent.
While we started the GreenUP campaign towards the end of 2019, we really ramped up on marketing and partnerships, rolling out features and testing new ideas in 2020.
We think that understanding your household carbon footprint is first step. We can’t take action if we don’t know. So we build the carbon footprint calculator feature in the SP Utilities app, to let you understand how your consumption has contributed the carbon emissions globally.
It’s a simple feature, which relies on personal assumptions and you can calculate it over and over again to understand how your habits contribute to carbon emissions. But it’s an important one because it helps to understand how we are contributing to carbon emissions that impact climate change. You can also compare your footprint with Singapore’s average carbon footprint!
A small trivia on this feature, the idea for this came from an internal hackathon we ran in October 2019 and the carbon footprint calculator was the winning hack!
Our first internal hackathon in 2019, and the winning hack became the carbon footprint calculator feature in SP Utilities app
Understanding your electricity consumption is only the beginning. You need to also take action! Of course, it’s all a personal choice, which is why we designed the Electricity Pledge Challenge to encourage you to stand up for green and reduce your carbon footprint by consuming less electricity!
Just take up the challenge and the app will notify and encourage you along the way. You can use the 1/2 hourly readings to check on your consumption as well.
We can’t do everything ourselves and being green is best achieved together. For GreenUP we also worked with various partners with the same goals as we have. We worked with 30+ like-minded partners all over the island so far, with more to come.
We built various challenges to help our users and our partners’ customers to start practising green habits like forgoing disposable cutlery when ordering food or bringing their own cups when buying coffee. Every little bit counts!
All these small habits build up over time. As the Malay saying goes — “sikit-sikit lama-lama jadi bukit”, literally meaning “a bit at a time, after a while will become a hill”. Your efforts along with everyone else's, do matter.
In 2019 a few of our engineers had an idea to use a simple card game to teach students and children energy efficiency. We launched a small batch of them and it was a success though we didn’t move beyond the initial launch.
This year we thought to put some gaming elements into the SP Utilities app, for fun! We reused our Energy Heroes characters and launched a simple casual game called the Energy Hero Jump! on the app. Besides just having fun, we hope to encourage the younger kids to learn more about renewable energy.
Singapore’s energy supply is in crisis and desperately needs your help! Our hero, Mr Energy, is dispatched to Singapore to capture scattered renewable energy capsules to produce enough electricity to run the country.
Try it out! It’s wildly addictive 😉
Another big push came in the form of consumer-level renewable energy certificates (RECs). Since 2018 when we joined the Energy Web Foundation and later built the world’s first blockchain-based marketplace for trading RECs, we have been rolling out features for the enterprise market.
This year we took it to the next level, and made it possible for consumers to purchase RECs to support the renewable energy. While this has been in the works for a while, and some competitors did the jump on us, we still consider our product unique in the market.
For one, we’re not affiliated with any particular electricity retailer. This means you’re not buying RECs along with the electricity. You can independently buy RECs that make your consumption green, regardless of electricity retailer.
Also, you can choose and select which project you want to support. We launched with a couple of projects in Singapore and Vietnam, but has doubled the number since launch.
Of course, with our SP Utilities app you can also buy instantly and at any amount you like with just a few clicks on your phone! For convenience we tell you how much you consume so you can match your purchase with the consumption to make your consumption 100% green.
Finally, SP Group is the exclusive local issuer of RECs that are certified by the I-REC standard, which makes us the trusted go-to party for local (Singapore) RECs. Of course, as consumers we can also buy RECs from other countries including Vietnam and Thailand, and many more are coming soon!
During the Singapore International Energy Week (SIEW) 2020, we made an announcement to jointly develop a new sustainability platform with Sembcorp Industries. This platform will trade RECs, carbon credits and also provide carbon consulting services. More exciting stuff coming, watch this space!
In 2019 we took our first steps towards helping buildings, their facility managers as well as their occupants to better understand their utilities consumption. We started off with TenantCare, our product for the tenanted commercial buildings (offices and malls) and successfully won projects for marquee names such as Changi Airport and Nanyang Technological University, providing a smart metering solution for their tenants.
Then we continued with the Greenwall, our product for the common areas of the same buildings, which helps provide information to occupants of the overall green activities of the building, including utilities and waste management which we successfully deployed in a couple of customer sites as well.
Greenwall at Sandcrawler Building
In 2020 we started looking at how we can do this for residential buildings next. While residental electricity consumption is only about 15% of total electricity consumption, energy efficiency habits start young and start from home, so it’s an important part of the puzzle. In Singapore, 80% of the population live in HDB flats so naturally that’s where we began.
We started talking with the town councils, which are the municipal operators for the HDB towns, together with Temasek and the (then) Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (now Ministry of Sustainability and Environment). At the same time, we realised that Tampines was also embarking on its own green journey, transforming into Tampines Eco-Town and so we suggested to be part of that journey.
The idea was to combine some of the capabilities of Greenwall with TenantCare, and create a residential version of Greenwall, called the Eco Board. There would be features to visualize the green efforts by the community, and also an integration with the SP Utilities app to bring in resident engagement. There would also be features of TenantCare that help the municipal operators to better understand energy and water consumption in almost real-time, through smart meters deployed at the common areas of the blocks.
Unfortunately the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. After an initial flurry of discussions in which we wanted to launch in April, we hit a solid COVID-19 wall. The Circuit Breaker struck and all plans were off the table. Not only could we not launch but we had problems getting equipment into the country and manpower to install them. However we persisted and figured out ways to move forward, bit by bit.
And finally in December 2020, as the year closed we finally launched with the help of Minister Masagos (who was a strong supporter) and the Tampines MPs.
We only just started the pilot in Tampines, if you’re a resident in Tampines please do look out for the Eco Boards and join in the effort!
Driving energy efficiency and planning for the future is a long game. We started the conversation with HDB on the Tengah Smart Energy Town in 2018 and worked together to build up a plan for Tengah’s smart energy roadmap together.
Tengah is a major step for us to develop a smart energy township right from the beginning. With Tampines where there is already an existing infrastructure a different strategy is used. With Tengah, we have the advantage of starting from a ‘greenfield’.
In October this year, we launched the My Tengah Experience Center at HDB Hub at Toa Payoh to showcase the upcoming plans for the residents. The Experience Center showcases centralised cooling as a key feature in powering energy efficiency in the town. When it’s finally up and running, it will help Tengah achieve a lower carbon footprint compared to other similar HDB estates in Singapore, saving about 30GWh per year, which is equivalent to powering another 7,000 4-room HDB flats annually.
When the town is ready, the SP Utilities app will be the main interface for the residents to interact with the various digital systems that are running behind the scene, including the next generation Eco Boards.
Ultimately the aim is to develop a digital platform for Tengah as the blueprint for other smart towns. One Tengah is this platform which integrates all the capabilities such as centralised cooling, solar to energy storage systems, EV-charging, micro auto gasification as well as a whole host of other “live” data coming from other platforms such as weather data and traffic data within Tengah.
The One Tengah platform will also enable energy management control and AI enabled insights to enable centralised monitoring of the town’s energy resources and systems. It is also for the town council and facility operators in Tengah to measure, monitor and manage what systems are being deployed.
They will also have complete visibility of systems that are “in action” in Tengah at an aggregated town or block cluster level. Through a single pane, they can monitor the performance and make sure all of them are working seamlessly without any major issues and if anything goes down to be alerted of anomalies or problems as soon as possible. They can act quickly, proactively provide timely updates and notifications to enhance residents’ experiences and lives
The dream for Tengah is still a few years from reality but things are shaping up well so far!
We have not been busy working to power sustainability externally with partners and customers only. We have also quietly worked on a number of transformation projects, building more capabilities, technology and efficiency for the group. Here are just some of the work that we’ve done for the group in the year.
In December 2019, our customer service center moved from the 2nd floor of the HDB Hub to the 3rd, and we took the opportunity to revamp the look and also made changes to better serve our customers.
Our service center at the Toa Payoh Service Center
We rebuilt the self-service kiosks and provided a lot more features and capabilities and a more modern look. We’re also going to launch more features based on this new platform.
New self-service kiosks a the service center
Singapore met its 2020 solar deployment targets in April 2020. During the Singapore International Energy Week (SIEW) 2019, Minister for Trade and Industry, Mr Chan Chun Sing set a new target of 2 GWP of solar by 2030, which is about 4% of Singapore’s total energy demand today.
At the heart of this is the ability for our transmission and distribution grids to manage the influx of these additional energy resources. This means deploying a Distributed Energy Resource Management System (DERMS) at the grid.
We worked with the SP Power Grid team to pilot a system to showcase the how DERMS can help us to better manage network planning and operations for the future grid.
In August we started a new joint lab together with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to develop solutions for the grid. The collaboration will explore energy-related projects in asset management and network operations.
We are working with NTU to design and develop a unique scalable system — one of the first in the world — that can detect and pre-empt equipment fault by sensing electrical and sound anomalies within substations.
Singapore uses natural gas to generate electricity and town gas for domestic consumption. The Singapore Gas Network (SGN) consists of the transmission network and distribution network. To ensure reliable and uninterrupted delivery of gas to the end consumers, the SGN is monitored and controlled 24/7.
One of the key components being monitored is the network pressure. This is done by deploying pressure sensors across the entire network. The PowerGas operations engineering team monitors and analyses the pressure sensor readings to ensure that the network pressure at different node is maintained within an optimal range.
Any deviations would constitute as anomalies that may have significant impacts on the safe operation of the gas network. To enhance the productivity of the PowerGas operations team and to automate the checking of the pressure readings, we developed a machine learning solution based on Deep Learning autoencoders that can learn from vast amount of historical data and detect deviations from the expected pressure levels.
The deviations are mapped to different levels of anomaly scores so that the PowerGas operations engineering team can drill into the diagnostic of the more significant deviations. The implemented solution is currently under field evaluation. As part of the extended operations requirement, the team is also currently working on the detection and identification of chattering signals that may indicate a failing sensor or fluctuating gas pressures.
At SP Group, good customer service is part of our DNA and we strive to provide a good engagement experience to our customers. The SP Utilities app is one of the key platforms for customer engagement. One important feature of the app is the Drop Us a Message function located under the Help Center option where customers can submit their enquiries and provide descriptions and details of the issues they are facing.
The volume of enquiries and the tedious manual processing needed to be done to sort and route to the correct teams results in delays in responding to our customers. Also, if the enquiry is sent to the wrong team the delays are even longer.
To solve this problem and enhance the level of customer satisfaction, we introduced an AI service named “Boxoto” that automatically parse the descriptions (sentences) provided by a customer to categorise the customer’s enquiry.
How Botoxo works
This AI service is powered by a cascade of models where a Deep Learning language model is employed to detect each sentence’s intent followed by a classification model that aggregates the information extracted from all the sentences to assign the most appropriate category to the enquiry received. This ensures that the enquiry is processed quickly and the respective team can respond to the customer in the shortest time.
Our EV charging network continue to grow in 2020, despite the pandemic, even though at a slower pace. In the industry, electric vehicles adoption have gained support by the government with new incentives schemes like the EV Early Adoption Incentive (EEAI). In the 2020 budget, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Mr Heng Swee Keat announced that Singapore aimed to phase out the use of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles by 2040.
In December, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) launched a tender for 600 charging points over 200 public carparks, to be deployed by 2022. The plan by the government is eventually to expand from the current 1,600 charging points to 28,000 charging points. Competition is also heating up. In September, Sunseap, a Singaporean solar company, set up a mobility unit called Charge+ with the aim to install 10,000 charging points by 2030.
Charging points by SP Group
In the meantime, we have been working behind the scenes to enable seamless charging point operations in our own network. The current EV charging business has two roles — the Emobility Service Provider (EMSP) and the Charge Point Operator (CPO) and we provide end-to-end digital services for both these roles.
We enable the EMSP services — locating charging points, controlling the charging and paying for it through our SP Utilities app. We also enable the CPO services — managing, controlling and operating a fleet of charging points, amongst other things.
From a capability perspective, we’re the only home-grown company that does this, transforming SP Group from a purely transmission and distribution utility just a few years ago, to one that has an extensive island-wide EV charging network, and corresponding digital capabilities to run it effectively, and a host of other capabilities!
SP Utilities now have most of the credit card payment options in Singapore including Visa, Mastercard and American Express. To push the envelope more we partnered with UOB to enable payment with UOB’s loyalty points, UNI$. This is the first time we allowed the redemption of loyalty points to pay for the utility bill and with this we hope to provide a wider set of options to users.
With this new feature you can now pay your utility bills with UNI$ or a mix of UNI$ and other credit cards!
We also rolled out the feature for recurring utilities payments using credit cards. With this feature you can now automatically pay for your monthly utility bill using your credit card, and you can set it all up through the SP Utilities app!
With these new features, we are quite fully capable in enabling bill payment convenience for our customers. Watch this space as we strive to provide even more convenience in the future!
Utility customers who are unable to cope financially with utilities payments may be selected to be placed on the Pay-as-you-Use (PayU scheme). The PayU scheme is a pre-paid utility scheme where the customers pay ahead before they consume electricity.
PayU customers used to have special prepaid meters which use a key to manage electricity credits on the meter. Customers will need to unplug this physical key and bring it to a collection agent for topping up of credits. Once topped up, customers will then need to bring this key back home and plug it back into the meter before credits can be transferred to the meter. As you can imagine this is can be quite cumbersome. Also there are often issues with hardware failure with the physical key which causes a lot of anxiety to the customer because without the credits, they will not have electricity supply.
A prepaid smart meter and a snapshot of the screen in the SP Utilities app (only for those under the PayU scheme)
To overcome this, we deployed a new prepaid metering system, based on the national smart metering network. Instead of manually taking out the key to be topped up, you can simply scan your utilities account bar code at any 7–11 stores and top up your account.You can also conveniently view and monitor their power consumptions and credit balance in SP utilities app!
COVID-19 was a global pandemic that triggered a storm that is still ongoing today. The storm in turn launched a general call-to-arms from Temasek Foundation to Temasek portfolio companies to help Singapore, and SP Digital rose up to the occasion to contribute to the joint Temasek efforts.
While there were specific projects that we led, we also participated and provided infrastructure to other teams who focused on the user-interfacing applications. These included hosting server-side systems, providing APIs and even providing manpower to develop various backend infrastructure software for other teams.
We developed a prototype and launched a pilot at a worker dormitory, together with Temasek Foundation, to help monitor the body temperatures of the workers within the dormitory. This is to help alert the dormitory operators should any workers start to develop fever, which is an indicator for COVID-19.
The temperature monitoring is done through a wristband BLE temperature sensor that transmits the temperature data either an app on their phone or a set of base-stations that collect the data and aggregates it before sending it to the cloud for processing.
wrist-worn body temperature sensors and base stations in the dormitory
The base-stations were distributed strategically at various locations around the dormitory. Besides body temperature monitoring, we can also use the data to figure out if there has been clustering or if too many people were at a particular location. This helped in both social distancing as well as contact tracing should the need arises.
We ran a pilot at a dormitory for a month to show its viability. While the solution worked, ultimately there were other available solutions as well.
Eventually we decided not to pursue this into production. Nonetheless I’m proud of the team raised their hands and worked long hours and weekends throughout the circuit breaker lockdown, to help Singapore get through the tough times. We started from nothing, and within a month we managed to get the hardware in place, developed the software on both the backend, front-end web as well as the mobile app. It was a monumental achievement and testament of the team’s grit and drive.
Besides the dormitories, we also looked at how we can support the reopening of workplaces. Again together with Temasek Foundation, we helped PSA, Changi Airport, Sports Hub and others to run pilots for social distancing and contact tracing at their workplaces, which are beyond just offices.
The idea behind it was that contact tracing was not enough — we wanted to help alert people at work who might be engrossed in their work activities, to be aware of their proximity with others and to keep at least 1 meter away.
Besides researching and investigating various solutions offered by other providers, we also started a project ourselves, called Shield. We used a tag with a security access card form factor as the signal emitting token and a mobile app to capture the signals. The data sent out doesn’t have any location information, but from their signal strengths we are able to determine the estimated proximity of the person carrying the Shield card.
So if you’re carrying a card, if your colleagues have their Shield app turned on, they will be alerted if you’re getting too near.
Of course, this doesn’t help with people who doesn’t carry a Shield card but for the workplace, the assumption is that most if not everyone that you interact with will be a work colleague will therefore have a Shield card. If not, he or she will be a visitor and will also be issued one.
We ran a pilot for Shield at our office but eventually decided not to roll it out in production, in favour of aligning ourselves with the national initiative of SafeEntry and TraceTogether.
As Temasek Foundation and People’s Association worked tirelessly in front to distribute face masks and hand sanitisers, we provided the backend operational support. This included customer service call centers who answered to questions from the public, brainstorming on ideas, developing prototypes and providing APIs.
Work is not complete yet, we’re still working with Temasek Foundation to contribute to Singapore! Watch out for more stuff we’re rolling out!
In March, we said final farewell to our offices at Keppel Tower 2 as the landlord decided to redevelop the old office towers at Tanjong Pagar. We spent some time looking for a suitable new office and finally decided on a cozy office space beside Istana Park.
Packing up and shifting out of Keppel Tower 2!
Unfortunately just before we were about to shift in, the Circuit Breaker started, and that started a chain of events that eventually led to the delay of renovations till October.
Even though it’s all done up now, unfortunately as of writing even in Phase 3, we’re still supposed to work from home by default, only going back to the office in team A or B, if necessary.
Waiting eagerly for further changes during Phase 3 when we can all get back together again! For now, our brand spanking new office still waits for us to fill up and be the hub of activity again.
It’s been a tough and tiring year.
Software engineers often claim and often can work independently and remotely, but the ability to get together with other human beings, simply to interact, discuss and exchange ideas, forming a social and human connect, is an invisible need. While work efficiency can be mitigated and overcome by technology, communications can be enhanced by tools, the human aspects of of prolonged lockdown and being socially distant struck deep and hard.
In recognition of this we tried to organize various virtual get-togethers. We had a organization-wide virtual team-bonding session, where we got together for the day, played games, had lunch, attended seminars, workshops and yoga sessions all virtually together.
Virtual team bonding activities
It’s surprising but we actually had quite a lot of fun at the session, despite not being in physical contact with anyone else.
Having fun within the limits
And of course, we didn’t have to have big get-togethers to have fun!
And so we wrap up 2020. Before we end the year, I thought it’d be good to give the team a little gift. Nothing spectacular but something everyday and useful.
Have a safe 2021!