How China has embraced renewable energy and Hong Kong hasn’t, and what’s behind city’s green power inertia

Summer 2016 saw record heat, and health problems from air pollution are rising, yet green energy projects have been shelved or denied funding; electricity firms lack incentives to go green, WWF says

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 10:46am

Professor Johnny Chan Chung-leung is one of Hong Kong’s most eminent climate and energy scientists, and he is a very frustrated man. This month Beijing announced it would invest 2.5 trillion yuan (HK$2.8 trillion) in renewable energy technology by 2020 to establish the nation as world leader in sustainable and clean energy, and create 13 million jobs. Meanwhile, Chan and other respected scientists in Hong Kong are struggling to obtain financial support for their green energy projects.

Whereas China embraces wind, tide, solar and wave energy as essential tools to tackle climate change and its acute air pollution, attitudes in Hong Kong appear as fossilised as the fuel that provides 78 per cent of its energy needs.

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Chan, chair professor of atmospheric science at the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Energy and Environment, outlined details of an innovative tidal turbine project at a conference on renewable energy last week, organised by the city’s Business Environment Council. Chan’s team has developed a system that can generate electricity even in low tidal streams, typical of the seas around Hong Kong. Though it is early days, trials staged at the Gold Coast Marina in the city’s Tuen Mun district produced encouraging results.

He now needs funding to scale it up, with a view to offering the city a viable green energy alternative, but his application to the Environment and Conservation Fund for HK$2 million was rejected. “The ECF told me today that I ‘did not demonstrate the merits and contributions of the proposed study to environmental protection’,” he says. “How ridiculous.”

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It is not an isolated incident. Others complain privately that Hong Kong funding bodies are “overly risk averse” and are rarely enthusiastic about funding green energy research and development.

“I believe more can be done to promote local funding for R&D for all renewable energy components,” says Dr Walid Daoud, a solar energy expert from City University and another speaker at the council’s conference. Many believe these difficulties are just one symptom of a wider malaise when it comes to supporting green energy in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong performs badly in overall carbon emissions and renewable energy,” says Cheung Chi-wah, senior head of climate and footprint programmes at environmental campaign group WWF-Hong Kong. He notes that the city’s emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming have been rising steadily and are 23 per cent above their level in 2002. That was the same year the Hong Kong government published its first study of renewable energy, compiled by the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department. The report estimated that 17 per cent of Hong Kong’s energy needs could be supplied by solar power alone.

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It also made a key primary recommendation that the government should set targets for renewable energy’s contribution to demand of 1 per cent, 2 per cent and 3 per cent for 2012, 2017 and 2022, respectively. Nearly 15 years later, with electricity consumption rising about 5 per cent a year, the city recording record-breaking temperatures last summer, and health problems due to worsening air pollution growing, very little has been achieved. Instead of the proposed 2 per cent target for 2017, the latest data shows that the proportion of energy used in the city that is produced by renewable means is still less than 1 per cent and the targets have not even been implemented. Indeed, by 2012 only 2.2 megawatts of solar photovoltaic panels, capable of meeting 0.01 per cent of Hong Kong's energy needs, had been installed - far from the 17 per cent potential.

Indeed, by 2012 only 2.2 megawatts of solar photovoltaic panels, capable of meeting 0.01 per cent of Hong Kong’s energy needs, had been installed.

Hong Kong is also one of the few advanced cities in the world with no feed-in tariff scheme, or “net metering system”, in place. This means that, rather than small-scale green energy producers being paid for contributing any excess energy to the grid, they can only donate it.

Energy consultant Mike Thomas, of the Lantau Group, another speaker at the council’s event, thinks it is unhelpful to compare China and Hong Kong in terms of being “behind or ahead” because of the vast differences in the two economies’ scale, resources and political systems. He also believes Hong Kong is taking the right steps by implementing the government’s new fuel mix for energy supply by 2020, which consists of about 50 per cent natural gas, around 25 per cent nuclear power and more use of renewable energy sources. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, but 30 per cent to 50 per cent cleaner than coal in terms of emissions.

“It is true that there is very little renewable energy, strictly speaking, but given the rabid debate about the use of green space for housing, I’m not sure that converting the hillsides to solar panels would appeal either,” he says. The issue of “low energy density” (the relatively high land area needed to produce 1 kilowatt of renewable electricity) is often cited by opponents of renewable energy in Hong Kong, which, including its 263 islands, has a land area of just 1,104 sq km.

Daoud calculates the city would need to cover 20 per cent of its surface area with 10 per cent efficient solar panels to meet its energy needs, yet he remains a firm advocate of solar power.

“The 20 per cent is for the actual lateral 2D land use. However, we could also consider the vertical 3D of the urban landscape, using building walls as well as rooftops, sun-exposed roads and highways, sound barriers and water reservoirs,” he says.

While delegates at the council’s conference earnestly discuss the possibilities of using renewable energy locally, most leading cities have already embraced renewables and the smart grid – the use of digital technology to improve reliability, resiliency, flexibility, and efficiency – and have coherent policies in place to foster them.

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Singapore is ramping up the use of solar panels through initiatives such as SolarNova, a government-led programme, and investing in green energy research via The Energy Research Institute. The city state is already seeing positive results. Figures for 2014 show that green energy sources contributed 3.7 per cent of total energy consumption (up from 2.4 per cent in 2005) and analysts expect that figure to top 5 per cent by 2020.

Hong Kong does have small-scale solar schemes designed for local consumption, and some government buildings generate solar power, but its approach to solar energy is piecemeal.

CLP Power, one of the city’s two electricity suppliers, commissioned its award-winning renewable energy power plant on Town Island in Sai Kung in January 2010, comprising wind turbines and solar panels, to supply the needs of the island’s drug rehabilitation centre, and says it has connected about 250 small-scale local schemes. The other supplier, Hongkong Electric, says about 70 local use renewable systems have been connected to its grid over the past 10 years. It also operates a 1MW solar plant and the only wind turbine connected to Hong Kong’s power grid.

It might be imagined that geographical restrictions and a scarcity of available land would make harnessing offshore wind, wave and tidal power – as Chan proposes – more attractive, but there is little sign of progress on any of these. Detailed proposals from the electricity companies to build offshore wind farms were awarded environmental permits, but both schemes were shelved in 2013 and mysteriously disappeared from the local energy agenda.

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“We are in the process of collecting wind, wave and other environmental data, along with a review of the engineering design, to complete the feasibility study,” a CLP spokesman says of its plan.

Hongkong Electric’s proposed wind farm in waters off Lamma Island was to supply 1.5 per cent of its total output. Asked about the proposal, a company spokesman says “field wind measurement has been going on since 2012”.

Cheung says no one in the industry understands why the company needs to collect five years of wind data. He suspects the real reason for offshore wind power being dropped is that the schemes of control both power companies have negotiated with the government, which regulate their profits on operations and investment, do not offer enough financial sweeteners for either company to proceed.

The current schemes of control are due to expire by end of 2018, and the government is negotiating terms with the companies to renew them. Cheung thinks it’s “a perfect time for the government to show its determination by introducing significant targets and incentives for energy consumption reduction and [renewable energy] development”.

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One of the thorny issues that will need to be ironed out is tariffs. Hong Kong has some of the cheapest and most reliable power in the world (electricity costs about half what it does in New York). Although it is widely believed that greater use of green energy is essential, there is less agreement on who will pay for the higher prices or pick up the bill for integration of an intermittent power source to the grid.

While energy costs account for only 1.6 per cent of the average Hong Kong household’s budget, there is little commercial incentive for change and little political appetite for heaping extra costs on hard-pressed families.

There is more hope than expectation that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will use his final policy address to announce Hong Kong will follow Beijing’s lead and reveal a bold new policy for renewable energy with defined targets, a credible strategy to achieve them, and support for home-grown innovations such as Chan’s.