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How to bring about sustainable energy and abundance in Southeast Asia?

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By Alex Hong

· 19 min read


The world's poorest regions have abundant opportunities for feedstock and agricultural waste. However, this abundance is still mostly unrealised due to a lack of funding and cutting-edge technology. To unlock a future powered by clean energy, this article investigates the critical relationship between the feedstock resources in the south, sustainable finance, and technical breakthroughs. It makes the case that ASEAN and Asia may make use of this potential by working together regionally to improve energy security, promote a circular economy, and advance aviation goals by using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Governments and corporations must collaborate to develop regional policies encouraging cross-border investments, knowledge transfer, and innovation to realise this ambition. 

Innovation centres and regional financial integrators might be crucial in promoting this long-term change. ASEAN and Asia can ensure a successful and sustainable future by promoting a collaborative spirit and allocating resources towards innovative energy solutions and sustainable feedstock management.

The harsh truth that our world must face is that the unrelenting pursuit of progress has severely damaged the environment. Our reliance on fossil fuels contributes to climate change, making a quick and drastic switch to sustainable energy necessary. This essay examines a revolutionary yet underutilised solution: the global south's enormous potential to produce clean energy from feedstock, a freely available resource. This article will analyse the crucial alignment needed—ample feedstock, sustainable finance, and cutting-edge technology—while focusing on ASEAN and Asia. 

We will explore the game-changing advantages that this alignment brings about, such as increased energy security, a thriving circular economy, and a foundation for environmentally friendly flying. The importance of regional cooperation will be highlighted, along with the need to support laws that encourage international investment, knowledge transfer, and a robust innovation ecosystem. We'll discuss the need for corporations and governments to adopt a collaborative rather than competitive mentality and emphasise the benefits of public-private partnerships. The next section of the discussion will analyse how regional financial integration might spur investment and project funding. Lastly, a strong call to action will encourage interested parties to work together in an innovative and cooperative manner to fully realise feedstock's promise for ASEAN and Asia's sustainable energy future. 

By conscientiously utilising this copious resource, future generations can be assured of a prosperous and sustainable future for the region.

 I. Introduction: The urgency for clean energy and the untapped potential of the Global South

The planet is currently at a turning point. A significant environmental cost is associated with the unrelenting pursuit of economic expansion. With its roots in the emissions of fossil fuels, climate change is no longer just a theoretical threat but an actual phenomenon causing extreme weather, increasing sea levels, and declining biodiversity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a warning, stating that a swift and drastic switch to renewable energy sources is necessary to keep global warming to 1.5°C, the temperature at which catastrophic effects can be avoided.

This change brings with it a great deal of potential and a great deal of challenge. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the global energy sector will need to invest an additional $1.3 trillion yearly. Even though this number could appear overwhelming, it also represents the enormous potential for innovation and economic expansion in the clean energy industry.

In this global setting, the global south has a strategic advantage, especially for areas like Asia and ASEAN. Feedstock and agricultural waste are two enormous, mostly unexplored resources in these areas.

  • Feedstock abundance: According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), over one-third of the worldwide food is lost or wasted annually. This amounts to an astounding 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste annually, much of it coming from poor nations. By 2030, it is expected that food waste produced in ASEAN alone will amount to 130 million tonnes annually.

  • Agricultural waste potential: Aside from food waste, agriculture produces large amounts of residues such as crop leaves, stalks, and straw. Traditionally burned or allowed to break down, these residues offer a substantial source of bioenergy. Research indicates that agricultural residues in Southeast Asia alone can produce more than 100 Exajoules (EJ) of energy per year or about one-third of the energy consumed in the region at the moment.

An appealing alternative is to use this plentiful feedstock and agricultural waste to produce sustainable electricity. To fully realise this potential, a critical convergence of resource accessibility, cutting-edge technology, and sustainable funding is needed.

II. The critical alignment: Unlocking the potential of feedstock for sustainable energy

The abundance of agricultural waste and feedstock in the global south offers an enticing opportunity to meet sustainable energy targets. However, without the crucial alignment of three essential components, this promise stays largely unrealized:

  • Abundant feedstock: As was previously said, the global south's enormous reserves of food waste and agricultural leftovers provide a ready feedstock supply for renewable energy. But, possessing the raw ingredient alone is insufficient.

  • Sustainable finance: Infrastructure, technological advancements, and logistical investments are needed to convert this feedstock into clean energy. Securing money for novel and potentially revolutionary clean energy projects is a challenge due to the prevalence of traditional financing models that prioritise short-term returns. Contrarily, sustainable finance closes this gap by allocating funds to projects that benefit the environment and the bottom line.

  • Case study: Biogas plants in India: An excellent illustration of this dynamic in action is India. An astounding 500 million tonnes or more of agricultural waste are produced in the nation each year. Aware of the possibilities, the government established the National Biogas Programme, providing loans and incentives to establish biogas facilities that turn agricultural waste into sustainable energy for rural areas. Using sustainable finance mechanisms, this project has improved waste management, decreased greenhouse gas emissions, and expanded access to energy.

  • Innovative technology: Even with the correct financial support, modern technological solutions are needed to turn feedstock into clean energy. Conventional techniques for getting rid of waste, including open burning, are ineffective at producing energy and bad for the environment. Technological innovations are essential for optimising feedstock energy potential while reducing environmental effects. Examples include anaerobic digestion for biogas generation and sophisticated conversion processes for biofuels.

Limitations without alignment:

Relying only on the plentiful supply of feedstock without the support of new technologies and sustainable funding has several drawbacks.

  • Suboptimal resource utilization: Much of the feedstock's potential energy yield is lost without effective conversion methods. This results in a continued dependency on fossil fuels and lost chances for sustainable energy production.

  • Environmental risks: Inadequate handling of feedstock, namely food waste, can result in methane emissions and water pollution, among other environmental issues. This emphasises the importance of combining technology improvements with sustainable waste management techniques.

  • Limited scalability: Large-scale renewable energy infrastructure development from feedstock may not be supported by financing models that prioritize short-term profits over long-term goals. This restricts the impact on reaching regional energy security and environmental goals and impedes the possibility of widespread adoption.

The crucial alignment of plentiful feedstock, sustainable finance, and cutting-edge technology unlocks a potent route to a sustainable energy future. The global south can turn its waste streams into a clean energy powerhouse by making the proper technological investments and establishing favourable financial frameworks

III. Seizing the opportunity for ASEAN and Asia: A sustainable energy powerhouse

Asia and ASEAN offer a unique chance to lead the world in sustainable energy generation due to the region's abundance of feedstock and agricultural waste. Through the crucial alignment of finance, resources, and technology, ASEAN and Asia may fully realise this potential and reap a host of advantages, including:

Enhanced energy security:

  • Reduced dependence on fossil fuels: Currently, imports of fossil fuels account for a sizable amount of ASEAN and Asia's energy demands, leaving the region vulnerable to price swings and geopolitical unpredictability. In a scenario where business as usual continues, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that Southeast Asia's dependency on imported fossil fuels will increase to 70% by 2040. Southeast Asia and ASEAN may dramatically reduce their reliance on imported fossil fuels, improving energy security and price stability, by turning locally available feedstock into clean energy.

  • Diversification of the energy mix: Dependence on a single energy source, such as fossil fuels, makes one susceptible to interruptions. ASEAN and Asia can achieve greater energy diversity by incorporating bioenergy, biogas, and other renewable energy sources derived from feedstock into the regional energy mix. This will promote resilience and long-term energy security.

Fostering a circular economy:

  • Minimizing waste and maximizing resource utilization: The conventional "take-make-dispose" cycle of manufacturing and consumption produces significant waste, which presents problems for the environment and the economy. Utilising feedstock to produce clean energy encourages the circular economy, in which waste is turned into a useful resource. This lowers the environmental impact while opening up new business prospects in the waste management and bioenergy industries through innovation and job creation.

  • Waste management innovation: Improved waste management techniques are essential for creating novel technologies that transform feedstock into sustainable energy. This can result in enhanced infrastructure for collecting, sorting, and composting, which can further lessen dependency on landfills and encourage resource recovery.

Propelling aviation aspirations - Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF):

  • Meeting growing aviation demand: The aviation industry in Asia and ASEAN is expanding quickly, putting more and more strain on conventional jet fuels. However, a sizable portion of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by traditional jet fuels. One viable approach is to build local expertise in manufacturing Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) from feedstock. SAF burns cleaner than other fuels and can considerably cut aviation's carbon footprint.

  • Regional collaboration for SAF leadership: Regional cooperation is necessary for large-scale SAF production because of the required economies of scale and technical intricacy. ASEAN and Asian nations can lead the way in sustainable aviation solutions by combining their resources and knowledge to establish a strong SAF industry more quickly.

By taking advantage of this opportunity, Asia and ASEAN can lead the world in the rapidly expanding sustainable energy market, achieving energy security and environmental benefits.

IV. The role of regional collaboration: Unlocking the full potential

Only with cooperation will the enormous potential of feedstock for clean energy in ASEAN and Asia be fully realised. Together, the region's nations can overcome their obstacles and quicken the shift to sustainable energy. Here's where regional cooperation can be really important:

  • Encouraging cross-border investments: Large initial expenditures are frequently needed for sustainable energy projects. Regional policies that harmonise investment regimes and reduce regulations can produce an environment that is more appealing to foreign investors. This may entail:

    • Investment guarantees: International investors can be encouraged to participate in sustainable energy projects around Asia and ASEAN by regional entities offering guarantees against political risk.

    • Special economic zones: To draw foreign direct investment (FDI) into the region, clean energy production-focused special economic zones should be established with faster clearance procedures and tax structures.

  • Facilitating technology transfer: To expedite the development and implementation of sustainable feedstock conversion technologies, information and technology exchange are essential. This process can be facilitated by regional cooperation through:

    • Joint research and development (R&D) Initiatives: Regional R&D programmes, specifically focusing on using local feedstock resources, can speed innovation in clean energy technology by combining resources and scientific skills.

    • Technology transfer mechanisms: The creation of regional technology transfer platforms can facilitate the acquisition of information and experience required for the utilisation of feedstock in sustainable energy production, particularly in countries with less developed clean energy infrastructure.

  • Fostering regional innovation hubs: The shift to renewable energy depends heavily on innovation. Regional cooperation might encourage the creation of innovation clusters devoted to clean energy and sustainable feedstock management. These centres would serve as:

  • Collaboration platforms: Bringing together policymakers, businesspeople, researchers, and experts in the industry to promote interdisciplinary innovation in the feedstock-based renewable energy sector.

  • Incubation and acceleration centres: These centres provide assistance and mentoring to new and early-stage businesses that create creative feedstock management and renewable energy conversion solutions.

Through cross-border investment promotion, technology transfer facilitation, and the creation of regional innovation centres, ASEAN and Asia have the potential to establish a dynamic ecosystem conducive to sustainable energy development. This cooperative strategy would strengthen the region's standing as a global leader in creative solutions while also hastening the switch to sustainable energy.

V. A shift in mindset: From competition to collaboration

A fundamental conceptual shift is necessary to realise the full potential of feedstock for sustainable energy in ASEAN and Asia. Governments and companies in the area have historically frequently seen one another as competitors. But, the potential and difficulties brought about by the shift to renewable energy demand a new paradigm based on regional cooperation.

Moving beyond competition:

  • Shared goal – Sustainable future: National boundaries cannot separate us from the existential threat of climate change and the necessity of energy security. ASEAN and Asian nations should shift from rivalry to cooperation by realising that a sustainable future is a common objective and that they can capitalise on each other's assets and strengths.

  • Complementary expertise: The area has a wide range of resources and expertise. Working together enables nations to benefit from one another's knowledge and experiences. For example, a country with significant biofuel research capacity can collaborate with another with superior waste management infrastructure but limited biofuel conversion technologies for mutual benefit. 

The power of public-private partnerships (PPPs):

  • Combining resources and expertise: PPPs combine the private sector's creativity and efficiency with the public sector's regulatory authority and long-term vision. This cooperation is crucial for the development and large-scale implementation of sustainable feedstock conversion technologies.

  • Sharing risks and rewards: PPPs can potentially distribute the risks involved in creating and executing cutting-edge sustainable energy solutions. This risk mitigation encourages the private sector's involvement in sustainable energy initiatives, hastening the rate of advancement. 

  • Case study: The Philippines Biogas PPP: The Philippines offers a compelling illustration of the effectiveness of PPPs. To create a network of biogas facilities that turn agricultural waste into renewable energy for rural communities. Along with addressing energy security, this project enhanced waste management procedures and produced jobs.

ASEAN and Asia can expedite their journey towards a sustainable energy future that capitalises on the enormous potential of feedstock resources by cultivating a collaborative culture and embracing PPPs.

VI. The power of regional financial integration: Unlocking capital for a sustainable future

A strong financial ecosystem is required to close the gap between sustainable energy production and ample feedstock. Regional financial integration plays a crucial part in this process through its ability to facilitate investment and project funding for sustainable energy enterprises. Here's how to do it:

The role of regional financial integrators:

  • Regional development banks and funds: Organisations such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the ASEAN Infrastructure Investment Fund (AIIF) can make use of their financial resources and regional experience to promote sustainable energy projects in ASEAN and Asia. They can do this by:

  • Directing investments: These organisations can give infrastructure for renewable energy and feedstock-based technological development a top priority.

  • Technical assistance: Offering the region's nations technical support for project development and risk assessment and luring private sector investment into sustainable feedstock-based energy sources.

  • Regional stock exchanges: Clean energy companies can raise funding from environmentally minded investors by creating specialised "green" boards within regional stock exchanges. This would provide much-needed cash to scale up sustainable feedstock conversion technology

Developing innovative financing mechanisms:

  • Green bonds and sustainability-linked loans: Regional financial institutions can create innovative financing instruments customised for sustainable energy projects. These might be sustainability-linked loans with lower interest rates subject to meeting predefined environmental criteria or green bonds with alluring interest rates for investors looking to make ecologically conscious investments.

  • Carbon pricing mechanisms: Local carbon pricing tools, such as emissions trading plans or carbon taxes, can provide firms with a financial incentive to participate in feedstock-based clean energy projects. The money raised by carbon pricing can then be used to further support the development of sustainable energy in the area.

De-risking investments:

  • Regional guarantees and credit enhancements: Guarantees and credit upgrades for clean energy projects—especially those that make use of cutting-edge technologies—can be provided by regional frameworks. As a result, investor risk will be reduced, promoting increased involvement in sustainable feedstock conversion projects.

  • Risk-sharing facilities: Establishing regional risk-sharing facilities can further stimulate investment by dividing the financial risk of creative clean energy projects among several stakeholders and increasing their appeal to investors with lesser risk tolerance.

Through the promotion of financial integration between ASEAN and Asia, the creation of inventive financing methods, and the mitigation of investment risk, these regions can unleash the enormous capital potential required to convert feedstock resources into a sustainable energy powerhouse.

VII. Innovation: The engine of progress

Through constant innovation, feedstock resources will power the transition to a sustainable energy future. Developing and implementing cutting-edge technologies that realise the full potential of this plentiful resource requires fostering a thriving regional innovation ecosystem in ASEAN and Asia. The reason is as follows:

  • Optimizing feedstock conversion: The technologies currently used to transform feedstock into clean energy, such as biogas production or biofuel generation, are always changing. Regional innovation ecosystems can foster collaboration between researchers, engineers, and entrepreneurs to expedite this progress in the following ways:

  • Develop next-generation technologies: Developments in fields like as genetic engineering may result in the creation of microorganisms or crops that are more effective at converting feedstock into sustainable energy sources.

  • Improve conversion yields: Innovative conversion processes can optimise the energy output from a given quantity of feedstock, allowing fossil fuels to be replaced at a lower cost.

  • Addressing sustainability challenges: To utilise feedstocks sustainably, possible environmental issues must be resolved. Regional innovation ecosystems can greatly help the following problems:

  • Minimizing environmental footprint: Innovation can reduce the environmental impact of feedstock production and conversion processes. This could entail improving waste pre-treatment techniques, reducing greenhouse gas emissions during conversion, and creating biofertilizers from residues that are safe for the environment.

  • Sustainable feedstock management: Innovation can result in fresh strategies for the infrastructure needed for sustainable and effective transportation and feedstock collection, maximising resource use while reducing environmental effects.

  • Case study: Indonesia's algae innovation hub: One of the best examples of the effectiveness of regional innovation ecosystems is Indonesia. The nation set up a special research centre devoted to creating cutting-edge methods for producing biodiesel from algae, a viable feedstock. To expedite developments in this field, researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors have come together in this effort.

In addition to realising the full potential of feedstock resources for clean energy, ASEAN and Asia may position themselves as worldwide leaders in sustainable technology development by fostering an innovative culture within their region. This leadership will greatly benefit the region's future environmental and economic progress.

VIII. Call to action: A collaborative path to a sustainable future

The abundance of feedstock available in the Global South offers ASEAN and Asia a special chance to lead the shift toward clean energy. To fully realise this potential, a team effort based on creativity, cooperation, and a dedication to sustainability is needed.

It is impossible to exaggerate how urgent action is. Our reliance on fossil fuels cannot continue, and climate change poses a serious threat. By coordinating plentiful feedstock resources with sustainable finance and cutting-edge technologies, we can pave the way for the region's transition to a cleaner, more secure energy future.

This transformation necessitates a collective effort from all stakeholders:

  • Governments: Governments may play a catalytic role by prioritising sustainable energy production, reducing regulations, and creating an environment that stimulates regional collaboration.

  • Businesses: Businesses can contribute by adopting the circular economy, investing in cutting-edge technologies, and creating sustainable feedstock management techniques.

  • Financial institutions: The financial industry must play a crucial role in creating novel financing methods, allocating funds to sustainable energy initiatives, and reducing investment risk.

  • Research bodies: Research institutions have crucial roles in accelerating innovation in clean energy technology, resolving sustainability issues connected to feedstock utilisation, and promoting information sharing.

The advantages might be enormous. For ASEAN and Asia, a cooperative, innovation-driven strategy can unlock not only the generation of clean energy but also economic growth, job creation, and regional energy security.

Let's take advantage of this chance to have a better future. To move ASEAN and Asia towards a sustainable and prosperous future, let's band together, take advantage of the synergy and creativity that can be generated from collaboration, and unleash the enormous potential of our resources. By working together, we can leave a legacy of environmental stewardship and a model for a more pristine planet. 

IX. Conclusion: Harnessing the power of feedstock for a sustainable future

The wealth of feedstock available in the global south provides a ray of optimism for our joint battle against climate change. But achieving this resource's full potential requires a crucial alignment:

  • Abundant feedstock: Clean energy is easily accessible due to the abundance of food waste and agricultural waste in ASEAN and Asia.

  • Sustainable finance: Infrastructure, technology, and sustainable waste management techniques must all be invested in in order to convert feedstock into clean energy.

  • Innovative technology: Sophisticated conversion methods are essential for optimising feedstock's energy potential while reducing environmental effects.

By encouraging cooperation between governments, corporations, and financial institutions and placing a high value on innovation, ASEAN and Asia can make use of this chance to accomplish a number of goals:

  • Enhanced energy security: For more stability, energy diversity can be achieved, and there will be less reliance on imported fossil fuels.

  • Fostering a circular economy: Reduce waste, make the most use of resources, and open up new business prospects.

  • Propelling aviation aspirations: Establish regional expertise in Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) to promote environmentally friendly aviation.

A regional strategy is required for the road ahead. Governments have the power to promote international investment and simplify procedures. Financial institutions can create creative financing schemes and reduce the risk associated with renewable energy projects. Research organisations can solve sustainability issues with feedstock utilisation while concentrating on creating next-generation technologies. Companies can adopt the circular economy's tenets and invest in creative solutions.

ASEAN and Asia can take advantage of feedstock resources and become world leaders in sustainable energy production by cooperating and embracing innovation. A cleaner, safer, and more lucrative future for the area and beyond may result from this change. Now is the moment to take action. Together, let's turn this obstacle into a chance for a sustainable future.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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