The last half-decade has seen significant developments in our collective journey into decarbonization as we steer our planet away from its trajectory of permanent damage due to global warming. Ever since the world entered into the historic Paris Agreement in 2015 (which set the goal to limit the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels), numerous efforts have been exerted to reduce carbon emissions with a focus on the energy sector. While this focus is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, decarbonizing energy alone is insufficient for us to reach our shared goal.
To be more specific, the mobility sector, ranked second in carbon emission levels after energy, accounts for 15% of emissions worldwide and 18% in Hong Kong. Whilst endeavors in decarbonization are being implemented in the energy sector, it is expected that carbon emissions from transportation will contrarily grow at a faster pace. This goes to show that we need a more holistic approach to realize the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.
Power to X and Sector Coupling: latest technology trends in decarbonization
In the past decade, we have seen two emerging technology trends in the drive to decarbonize, the first of which is Power to X. This technology allows for the conversion of excess energy generated from renewables by transforming them into forms that are storable and transportable, such as hydrogen, for use in other sectors. This technology can help offset fluctuations in energy supply, one major challenge of renewables. The second trend, namely Sector Coupling, is the integration of multiple sectors to the electrical grid. By incorporating a higher share of renewables into our energy supply paired with a measured approach of electrification, a more efficient and sustainable energy system can be attained. There are already examples of this technology being presently implemented; in Europe where heating is a necessity during colder seasons, the transition to electric heating generated from renewables or high efficiency Combined Cooling, Heat and Power (CCHP) plays a huge part in carbon reduction by gradually replacing the role of fossil fuels in the heating sector.
The latest sector that is coming into focus in sector coupling, however, is transportation with the drive towards electric vehicles. This technology is already existent to a large extent in public transportation such as subways and trams; in fact, Siemens and Halske had begun to operate the world’s first electric streetcar back in 1881. The value proposition for electric propulsion is not only its ability to use lower carbon electricity, but also its higher energy efficiency. The laws of physics prescribes that the best internal combustion engines (ICE) can only convert 25% or so of its energy to propel the vehicle, while electric drives can convert up to 90%. Such a considerable improvement in energy efficiency makes electrifying transportation a key proposition for decarbonizing the sector.
Siemens’ commitment towards carbon neutrality
Where, then, does Siemens come into play? Being the first global industrial company to pledge its commitment towards carbon neutrality by 2030, we are leading the way to protect the planet against the effects of climate change. Our strategy is simple; by pinpointing both the demand and supply ends of our value chain as well as utilizing automation and digitalization, we aim to further increase energy efficiency and scale down carbon emissions. With this approach, we are about halfway to our goal with added investments in our energy efficiency program, green mobility infrastructure and distributed energy systems planned to ensure we make our commitment. It is important to note that we not only decarbonize ourselves, we also help our customers reduce their carbon emissions. In 2019, our environmental portfolio helped reduce 637 million tons of CO2 globally, no small measure if one considers that Hong Kong’s annual CO2 emission has been about 42 million tons over the last decade.
Electrified public transport is key to reduce carbon footprint of transport
We believe that a multi-layered approach is essential when it comes to decarbonizing transport. To begin with, the first layer should be about reducing CO2 per km traveled. In this regard, great strides have been made in the past decade in raising the efficiency of the internal combustion engine (ICE) motivated by tightening emissions standards set by governments. However, as current technology only allows for incremental improvement with large gains limited eventually by the “diminishing returns” principle, a shift away from the ICE will be needed. This is where electric power truly surpasses the ICE with its high level of energy conversion in effect bringing CO2 emissions to below 100g/km hitherto unattainable. For instance, certain electric cars today can attain an emission of around 60g/km in Hong Kong based on the current carbon intensity of our electricity supply. While impressive, this perhaps is not the end solution given that this is highly dependent on the carbon content of the electricity sources as well as an important consideration that having cars on streets does create congestion in cities. This has given rise to the increasing preference for electrified public mobility systems given that they are simply a more efficient form of transportation both in terms of CO2 emissions as well as reducing congestion due to vehicles in cities.
The role of innovation in scaling gains
In decarbonizing transportation through a multi-layered approach, innovation is the key accelerator helping to scale up carbon efficiency. As in other sectors, innovation can help operators “do more with less” thus achieving decarbonization without sacrificing convenience and efficiency. Here are a few examples:
Opportunity Charging: this new technology enables electric buses to be charged (via a “reverse pantograph” method) during short opportunities at bus stops or terminals throughout the day, therefore facilitating a more sustainable way to energize electric buses. Examples of such projects partnered with Siemens include the High Power Charger for Electric Vehicles coupled with an electric bus powered by ELFA Traction Drive. A successful proof of concept has been completed in Hong Kong utilizing its ubiquitous minibus, a first of its kind globally.
Smart Socket: With rising interest in eV, governments have increased investments to build up charging infrastructure to further promote adoption by individuals and companies. The HK$ 2.0 billion pilot subsidies scheme for eV infrastructure launched in 2019 by the Hong Kong government is a good example of the size of such investments needed. However, instead of installing new charging infrastructure, what about utilizing existing infrastructure to reduce investments? An example is Siemens’ co-operation with the Westminster City Council in London for its “Electric Avenue” project in London where lampposts utilize Smart Socket technology to allow for convenient electric vehicle charging on the streets.
Mobility as a Service: If transportation is about moving someone in the quickest and most convenient mode from A to B, why not view it as a service rather than burdening the individual with the complexities of how it is done. This is where a MaaS platform holds great promise, with the potential to empower the individual with a seamless and reliable passenger experience. This is accomplished by building a digital twin of his or her journey that integrates trip planning, booking, and ticketing. The data acquired not only will help the operator make the trip more user-friendly and perhaps curate interesting journey based on past preferences, the ‘big data’ view will certainly help the operator optimize the service continuously.
As a collective, we still have a long way to go in combating climate change. At Siemens, we shall continue to take the lead in decarbonization and provide our customers with innovative and sustainable solutions to accelerate our progress toward carbon neutrality, truly living our aim to “transform the everyday”.