Why Hong Kong should be China's green-energy leader, and what we can do
Hong Kong should be leading China's charge towards green-energy future, but to do so the city must be put on a more sustainable path
After another year of extreme weather, it is clear governments around the world need to redouble efforts to promote greener energy, if we are to slow down the steady accumulation of environmental damage.
The Hong Kong government claims to be leading the way on sustainable energy, but its actions belie its words. In recent years it has directly subsidised household energy bills, taking away the incentive to reduce energy consumption.
The government loves huge infrastructure projects but shows little interest in managing the demand side of the equation.
According to solar energy experts, reducing consumption is the only way alternative energy can be made a viable solution for Hong Kong. Solar energy is one of the best forms of sustainable energy. It can be collected at the point of use, meaning there are no transmission costs. And of course it is renewable; as long as the sun shines, there will always be solar power.
With our abundant sunshine, Hong Kong should be leading the way on solar energy. Our city is small, densely populated and energy intensive. Most of us live in high-rise apartments so we do not have enough space on our roofs to generate the amount of solar power we need. If we lived in single-storey houses we would generate a lot more.
At present we can supply only 10 per cent of our electricity needs with solar power. But that is still a good start, and it could become 20 per cent if we cut our power consumption in half, which could be done in a number of ways.
On the plus side, over the past five years the price of solar energy panels has dropped 75 per cent, from HK$3.50/watt to HK$0.80/watt, due to a massive over supply of photovoltaic (PV) panels manufactured in China, the world's top producer of PV solar panels. Prices are now stable. This means producing a kilowatt of electricity costs just one quarter what it did five years ago. So solar is more viable than before.
In Africa, solar power has begun to replace kerosene for the many millions who do not have electricity but who now need to charge newly acquired mobile phones. But with low or even subsidised energy bills, Hong Kong households and businesses have little incentive to save energy. We can see this on Victoria Harbour, where office buildings are lit up like Christmas trees all year around.
What can be done? According to photovoltaics expert Martin Bellamy, we need to address the issue of consumption through education.
Hongkongers tend to buy electrical goods based on price, rather than energy ratings, and the difference in consumption between the highest and lowest appliances can be as much 10 times. If people paid more attention to energy efficiency, this alone would reduce our consumption significantly. There are many other steps we could take to reduce energy use.
We could build our homes with passive thermal management, which means using materials that conduct heat slowly, keeping us warmer in the winter and cooler in summer.
We could reduce our use of air conditioning by getting into habits such as drawing a blind to keep out the sun.
Another strategy is load management. About 30 per cent of a typical energy distribution network is reserve capacity for peak surges, such as when people put the kettle on first thing in the morning. By distributing storage - even if only a few hours' worth of capacity - we could utilise the 25 per cent of the generation and transmission infrastructure that sits idle for significant amounts of time. Spreading awareness of energy consumption is the first step.
You can get a solar-powered backpack that contains PV cells to trickle-charge your phone battery. It will work pretty well when out hiking on a sunny day in Sai Kung or Lantau and should get your friends talking about solar power.
Pollution in northern China is now so bad crops can't grow and children's cognition is being permanently damaged by environmental toxins.
And worse is still to come, as consumption continues to rise and car ownership on the mainland soars. The recent sharp drop in the cost of solar power, combined with rising fossil fuel prices, make this a good time to take solar more seriously. Hong Kong should be at the forefront of green energy in China, not just for solar power but in general. Shenzhen has put more than 700 electric taxis on the road but just 45 took to the roads in Hong Kong last May.
With increasing energy consumption on the mainland, it is time for Hong Kong to take the lead if we are to avoid continued deterioration in our natural environment. This means encouraging energy savings in order to make solar and other sustainable energy more viable.
Only by using this dual approach can we solve our energy problem, and lead the way on clean energy in China.
Stephen Thompson is a Hong Kong-based journalist and IT consultant