Facing the winds of change
The 71-metre tall wind turbine soon to spin on a Lamma hillside symbolises both the hope and challenge presented by the prospect of commercially viable renewable power.
Generating 800kW of electricity, the Hongkong Electric turbine should be able to power the equivalent of 250 four-person households when it is turned on in January. At that rate, however, it would take more than 6,000 similar turbines to provide all the power needed by Hong Kong's electricity users.
Coupled with the prototype's $15 million cost and the fact that the turbines need 400 metres of space between each one to work properly, the obstacles to developing large-scale wind farms in the city are vast. And considering that the giant white blades are banned from country parks, the problems are all the larger.
Environmentalists, however, still hope the turbine will help galvanise local opinion to demand more sustainable energy sources from the two power companies.
China Light and Power (CLP) is seeking government permission to erect monitoring stations to measure wind movement at two sites, in Kai Sau Chau in Sai Kung, and Hei Ling Chau in south Lantau. One of those places is likely to be chosen as the site for Hong Kong's second wind turbine, expected to have a generation capacity of between 600kW and 800kW.
Friends of the Earth Hong Kong is urging the government to introduce legislation to require power companies to source a certain percentage of their power from renewable energy sources.
Edwin Lau Che-feng, assistant director of Friends of the Earth, said: 'Without such legislation or policy, the power companies will be content with just putting up one small wind turbine. If the government had this policy and a realistic timetable, the power companies would have to gradually invest in developing large-scale wind turbines and reduce the burning of fossil fuels, which is a major source of air pollutants, with coal burning releasing particulates and accelerating global warming.'
Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Gloria Chang Wan-ki said: 'From an environmental point of view, we welcome every kind of initiative that encourages renewable energy development. The wind turbine is only 800kW, it is far too little in respect of the size of the power companies, China Light and Power and Hongkong Electric. We know that it is only a demonstration project.'
The government is urging both companies to set up wind turbines as education and demonstration projects. 'Both companies can do far more ambitious wind turbine development in Hong Kong.'
She said Hong Kong lags far behind the mainland and European countries in 'aggressive and ambitious' energy sustainability. 'The normal size internationally is 1MW. The 800kW one on Lamma is quite small in capacity.'
A study commissioned by the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department in 2002 recommended that the government adopt a formal policy on renewable or alternative energy and to identify potential sites for wind turbines throughout Hong Kong.
CLP vows that 5 per cent of its electricity will be generated by wind power by 2010.
Both Hongkong Electric and CLP say they will observe the outcome of their wind turbine projects before deciding if it is economically viable and practically feasible to erect more.
While the Lamma turbine is Hongkong Electric's first foray into the breezy world of wind energy, CLP has invested in two wind farms in Shandong province and several small hydro projects on the mainland, said CLP's Winifred Wong. 'We are doing wind studies in southern China too, and are definitely looking to Australia as well.'
With Hong Kong's lack of space, the question of where to put wind farms is a very real one. Environmentalists said southern China could be the saviour for Hong Kong in sustainable energy.
Ms Chang said: 'In Guangdong, the Hong Kong companies should work together to explore and capture the huge potential of wind energy across the coastal area. Guangdong has 170 turbines and is No4 nationally in terms of wind capacity.
'The Guangdong government is ambitious in taking the lead in the whole country for wind energy. Greenpeace is doing a study in projecting the investment potential for Hong Kong businesses and other industries. If they invest in other potential [projects] in Guangdong, it is a way out.'
She added that it made economic sense for power companies to invest heavily in renewable energy sources, due to the rising prices of oil and coal. 'Responsible corporations and governments need to think alternatively to sustain economic livelihood.'
Alexis Lau, manager of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's new Environmental Central Facility, looks forward to Hong Kong people finding out more about wind power from Lamma's giant newcomer. Hongkong Electric wants people to visit the site.
'A lot of people may not have seen a wind turbine running before. People now have a chance to look and get some real sense of what can be done,' Professor Lau said.
Though the electricity produced by the German-built wind turbine accounts for merely 0.0001 per cent of the annual energy generated by the power company, it saves 350 tonnes of coal a year.