Dear Visitor

Welcome and thank you for your interest in this blog “GET to Zero” on the global energy transition. My name is Hsien Xiong. I live in Singapore and I have been passionate about sustainable energy for over 20 years.

I started this blog in April 2021 as a platform to reach out to and connect with more like-minded people to discuss and debate ideas and issues that help us get to a sustainable energy future.


My earliest recollection of how my interest in sustainable energy began was what I learnt in school at around the age of 10 (in the early 1990s). We were taught that fossil fuels are finite resources and that oil would run out in about 40-50 years. I already knew by that age that I would enjoy driving very much and recall worrying that might mean driving a car would no longer be possible beyond the age of 50-60. What would happen after that? How could the world sustain its energy needs once fossil fuels run out?

Certainly, things didn’t turn out that way. Energy companies have continued to discover more recoverable oil & gas resources and devised new techniques such as hydraulic fracturing and enhanced-oil-recovery that have kept world supply going strong. But I cite this recollection to highlight that my fascination with sustainable energy started off from a different perspective from climate change – that is a perspective of sustainability of energy supply to meet our energy demand. Climate change on the other hand has become the more urgent motivation for the world to transition away from fossil fuels. Both perspectives go hand in hand. Whichever one’s starting point is, the common goal is to shift away from fossil fuels towards more sustainable sources of energy.

The seeds were planted: 1998. I was 15 and was a Secondary 3 (equivalent to 9th grade) student in The Chinese High School (currently Hwa Chong Institution). My chemistry teacher came up with an incentive for better performing students to do a research report in-lieu of taking the quarterly class tests. It was to be a project that anchored my interest in this space. I happened to research on helium-3 (an isotope of helium with only one neutron, instead of two) and its potential as a fuel for neutron-free nuclear fusion. The data points I gathered then blew me away and I still recall the key points till this day:

  • In aggregate, we produce around 5-10kg helium-3 per year from maintaining nuclear weapons
  • The global stock of helium-3 at that time was around 100kg
  • Based on energy consumption in 1997, global energy needs could be met just by harnessing 25 kg helium-3 per year
  • Deposits on the moon’s surface is estimated to hold around 1,000,000 kg of helium-3 because of the lack of an atmosphere

The last 2 points got me captivated with the idea of a virtually unlimited energy source. Of course, since then, I’ve understood more about nuclear fusion. It’s still not yet commercially viable but I hope scientists make a breakthrough there and it is a technology I continue to watch occasionally. Until then, we need more immediate, executable solutions.


When I enrolled into university, I was already very sure of my interests in energy and picked what I thought was the course that could give me a relevant foundation for a career in the transition to sustainable energy. I opted to study the B.Eng (Mechanical) course at the National University of Singapore (NUS), with a specialization in Energy and Thermal Engineering.

It was a great experience. In my four years, I also had the opportunity to participate in 4 exchange programs (a 2 week exchange with Zhejiang University, a summer research exchange at the Imperial College London, two quarters of classes at UCLA and a summer research exchange at Caltech). Those provided me the opportunity to experience first-hand a sample of the different cultures globally.

Nearing graduation however, I began to realize that there weren’t much career opportunities in Singapore relating to the energy transition in the late 2000s. In fact, it was during my batch that the oil & gas specialization was started to train engineers for the then growing oil & gas industry. It was a highly competitive specialization, but I remember concluding that the oil & gas industry was going to be a sunset industry in the lifetime of my career, so I passed on it. But energy transition wasn’t even something that was mainstream. Solar and wind turbine projects were just emerging as a niche industry.

I graduated in 2008 as the top student and Valedictorian of my class, and proudly received several awards, including the Lee Kuan Yew Gold Medal award. It was a very happy day for my family and I. However, during my commencement speech, I mentioned that I would not be pursuing a career as an engineer. Instead, I decided that if I wanted to participate in the energy transition, I would also need to build up a strong understanding of capital markets and financial analysis, and pair that with my technical knowledge. It was my late father’s wise suggestion, whom himself had also been a chemical engineer before he earned an MBA and rose up to become a well respected CEO in Singapore’s real estate sector, which was his passion.

Early career

I landed my first job at the NUS Investment Office as an Investment Analyst. My coverage was private equity and natural resources. In the latter portfolio, I was exposed a wide variety of investment themes from conventional oil & gas to emerging investment opportunities in water treatment, agriculture, mining, timber and clean energy. During my 4.5 years there from 2008-2013, two key energy-related events occurred… (i) the beginning of the shale oil & gas revolution in North America and (ii) Cleantech 1.0.

(i) Shale revolution. The shale revolution led to the return of the USA as the largest oil producer in the world, and the rapid transformation of the USA from a net importer of natural gas to a net exporter. This had profound ramifications in the change of global energy dynamics. In the early 2010s, natural gas was also considered a transition fuel, primarily in the context of power generation. Coal-to-gas transition promised to reduce the carbon intensity of power generation by as much as 60%, a big step in carbon reduction as we take progressive steps towards a more sustainable energy future.

(ii) Cleantech 1.0. Cleantech 1.0 refers to the rush of venture capital investment into cleantech startups between the years of around 2009-2011. The investment euphoria rode on the coattails of software and internet-based startups, but unfortunately had longer technology development and commercialization timeframes and risks that resulted in many investors being burnt. It was also a time when many European-based funds were investing into solar PV that were contracting government-backed power purchase agreements (PPAs) with attractively high feed-in-tariffs. These were meant to be grandfathered terms (i.e. no change throughout the term of the PPA regardless). Among the most aggressive countries was Spain. Unfortunately, it did not take too long for the European debt crisis of 2010-2011 to result in the revision of these PPAs amidst mounting fiscal deficit, and at the expense of investor capital. I count myself fortunate to have observed these opportunities first-hand, but as an analyst, refrained from recommending these investment opportunities despite my personal bias to the sector. The sector was simply not ready for large-scale deployment and investment then.

India & Solar Chapter

After having been in a buy-side role at NUS Investment Office, I wanted to expose myself to a sell-side role. How would it be like to raise capital? In 2013, I joined a boutique capital advisory firm called ATEN Capital. I was exposed primarily to debt and mezzanine capital raises primarily of Indian corporates, and also equity opportunities in Southeast Asia. This role led to an opportunity to work with ACME Solar, one of India’s largest solar PV developers, on the project financing side from 2015-2016.

Since becoming Prime Minister of India in 2014, Modi has been aggressively pushing solar PV deployments in India. However, solar PV’s intermittent nature did not help what was already an electrical grid that had stability challenges. There were two takeaways from my experience there:

(i) Cost of capital. Solar PPAs were very aggressively bid for. In a given tender, there could be as many as 20 bidders. In the end, it was obvious that a solar PV project was simply a straightforward financial model – with little room for engineering or business innovation, it came down to a single factor – who had the cheapest cost of capital wins. It was so aggressive, I observed first-hand how SunEdison was bidding even below the cost of debt to secure contracts, and eventually led to its filing of bankruptcy protection in 2016.

(ii) Energy storage. The destabilizing of the grid meant that the scope of subsequent PPAs tendered began to include a minimum amount of battery storage to moderate the net output from the solar facility. The need for energy storage is obvious to many today, but the experience emphasized the real world challenges of deploying renewable power at scale – how do we ensure grid stability with increasing penetration of intermittent renewables?

Chemical energy storage and Materials

In 2016, I was reconnected with Prof Shih Choon Fong, who was the President of NUS from 2000-2008, and later the Founding President of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Up till that time, being trained in mechanical engineering, my vision of energy storage was ‘mechanical’ in nature (e.g. kinetic in flywheels, thermal in molten salts, or potential energy storage). These mechanical options had their limitations in terms of duration of energy storage, inherent decay, and applicability – narrowly applicable only to power/heat applications.

Prof Shih introduced me to Global Innovation Works (GIW), a company which he is an Advisor to, which is developing an ultra-low-emissions gas-to-methanol project in Washington state, USA. After two days of researching on methanol, I was fascinated by its potential. Methanol:

  • Potential substitute for oil & gas in downstream applications: methanol is a flexible compound that could be used as a fuel and more importantly, also as a feedstock for chemicals and materials (which is the focus of GIW’s methanol project).
  • Is the simplest compound with carbon, hydrogen and oxygen to synthesize: Could be produced from natural gas as a transition step and eventually from renewable-powered electrolysis and direct air capture (CO2 capture from ambient). This set the stage for the potential candidate to facilitate the energy transition.
  • Is a liquid at ambient temperature and pressure: it could utilize existing global energy infrastructure – ships, storage tanks, trucks and pipelines with minor retrofit to connect natural gas into high-value end-markets (as opposed to LNG that can only connect into gas end-use markets).

I was fascinated with methanol. Unlike the mechanical storage ideas I had envisioned, chemical storage had the advantage of logistics (connecting supply regions to demand regions across oceans) and connecting into market segments other than heat and power – a holistic solution that could decarbonize the global energy system, not just power.

Prof Shih helped set up an introduction to the company and I was on board August 2016. This was also when my beloved father passed away. Rest in peace papa.

Energy Transition – Warm-up

From 2016 and through 2017, I worked almost exclusively with Prof Shih to develop the ideas and data points that resulted in the publication of a journal paper entitled Powering the Future with Liquid Sunshine. “Liquid Sunshine” was Prof Shih’s idea of encapsulating the concept of producing liquid fuels (flexible and easy to store and transport) from sunshine (i.e. fully renewable).

The paper laid out a technology roadmap, the Liquid Sunshine Roadmap, on how methanol can play a major role in sustainable zero-carbon energy systems and how we get there. The green methanol process mimics nature’s processes which has evolved to capture CO2 through photosynthesis to create carbohydrates, the building blocks of organisms, materials, amino acids, proteins, and which on consumption, the organism consuming the food emits (or exhales) CO2 back into the atmosphere, completing an elegant natural carbon cycle that does not result in the net addition of CO2 into the atmosphere. It is worth noting that many of man’s best inventions were adapting what was already observable in nature (which over millions of years to be as efficient as possible, e.g. mimicking the aerodynamic shape of a bird and its wings gave birth to the basic design for modern jetliners).

In the green methanol framework, carbon by itself is not as bad as mainstream generally portrays it to be. Carbon is a very useful element that helps to efficiently capture, store and distribute energy from the sun through the natural ecosystem. The ‘negative aspects of carbon’ arises only when carbon locked underground for over millions of years is extracted, and released through utilization of fossil fuels. This is one of the fundamental distinguishing points that confuses many people and results in the unnecessary villainization of carbon.

Valuable Learnings – NIMBY and Falsehoods

From 2018 onwards, I got more involved on the commercial side of GIW, including partnership development. From this I learnt the following:

(i) NIMBY. There will always be opposing interests. Greater global good and altruism aside, it is only natural for people to look first at their own self interests. “Not in my backyard” (NIMBY) mentality is real. Local and regional elected officials will find it difficult to wage the interests of their constituency for the greater good. Decisions that appeal to near-term popular local sentiment will inevitably prevail over longer-term global interests.

This potentially hampers progress in the following manner:

  • misinformation will be rampantly spread to support NIMBY interests
  • partial opinions will be confused with the facts
  • partial opinions will eventually matter more than facts as they associate with people more easily
  • ideological positions will be emotionalized as impractical alternatives for progressive steps
  • progressive steps risk being villainized

So the very real risk is that progressive steps will be argued against by interest groups to be half-measures. They will paint aspirational but impractical ideologies and argue that it is our moral obligation not to accept anything less than a solution that fits within that narrow ideology, typically one that is completely renewable power based. But they will also not discuss the practical technology and economic challenges of their ideological solution – they will not talk about how we will, with just renewable power, firm our grid, fuel our ships and airplanes, ensure continuity of global energy supply chains, how we will produce synthetic and organic materials, produce steel and cement, support agriculture production, just to name some – these are for someone else to solve. Paraphrasing what Bill Gates recently pointed out, “renewable sources like wind and solar can help us decarbonize electricity but that’s less than 30% of global GHG emissions”. We will need solutions for the remaining 70+% to get to net-zero.

(ii) Falsehoods. Project proponents are often villainized and people will be unnecessarily forced into two opposing camps – a false dichotomy of “good vs evil” – a concept that seems to appeal to rally masses of people behind misinformation and biased ideologies. This trend isn’t unique to climate change and energy transition. Humans naturally love conspiracy theories, to distrust mainstream narratives and insinuate the intentions of anyone who claims to want to do good. For example, the ongoing coronavirus offers several instances – e.g. politicizing of mask-wearing as an attack on freedom of choice, or that Bill Gate’s hidden agenda in funding coronavirus vaccine and treatment research is to implant tracking devices into the human population.

It is no secret that falsehoods (or crudely lies) repeated enough can create the perception of truth. And such misinformed truths will continue to play a role in shaping how human societies evolve, not necessarily for the better. In my opinion, this risks potentially derailing real progressive steps we need to get to our net zero targets. Meanwhile, those who created and spread the misinformation to incite villainization and conspiracy theories almost always continue to be consumers of the fossil fuel value chain with no awareness or remorse for the hypocrisy of their actions. Ironically, the preachers are in fact the un-doers of the work of the doers.

Why I created this blog

Countering falsehoods, conspiracy theories around the myriad of issues around energy transition, to elevate global consciousness to recognize the need for us to tackle the energy & climate crisis as a united human society, and to discuss actionable and progressive opportunities are the fundamental reasons behind why I decided to create this blog. I know one blog alone won’t resolve these challenges, but I hope to make a positive contribution to progress.

I strongly believe that the global energy transition can only happen when enough of the world rallies around practical and actionable progressive steps, not ideologies that have no technological or economic basis for near-term implementation. Misinformation must be countered with information so that “Perfect” will not be emotionalized/politicized to come in the way of “Good”. Let’s be realists and get things done. I am encouraged by the momentum of countries, corporations, investors and people coming together in 2020 and committing to net zero by 2050 or earlier. If anything good came out of the pandemic year of 2020, this would be it. I’ve never been more excited that the energy transition we need might finally have legs to get off to a good start.

So welcome to the discourse of the global energy transition. I look forward to making a contribution to the world in this regard and fulfill my childhood dream playing my part to realize a sustainable energy future. I am also now a father of two young children, a 2 year old girl and a 5 months old boy (as at April 2021) and they give me great motivation to make the world a better place for them to live in decades from now.

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