Hongkongers would want HK$350 compensation for one-hour summer powercut: study

In the second part of a series on the city's energy mix, we look at how much Hongkongers value the stability of their power supply

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 4:17am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 9:07am

How much is an hour-long power cut on a hot summer afternoon worth? In Hong Kong, about HK$350, according to a survey in which consumers were asked how much their bills should be reduced by to compensate them for such an outage.

In a city with a population of about seven million, that adds up to a hefty HK$2.4 billion.

"For me it is a big number, but for some this is just the amount you pay for afternoon tea," Professor Peter Woo Chi-keung, head of Baptist University's economics department and one of the researchers for the survey, said of the HK$350 average - the second-highest in the world. "That said, I was quite shocked that the number is so much bigger than elsewhere."

In 11 similar polls conducted overseas in the past decade, the British were found to place the highest value on an hour-long outage, at HK$608. The lowest was Sweden, where a cut during weekday peak hours was priced at just over HK$3.

The Hong Kong telephone survey of 1,876 people was conducted in June last year by an international team with key members from Baptist University and the University of Florida.

A 30-year veteran of power pricing and reliability planning in the US, Canada and Israel, Woo was surprised at how highly Hongkongers valued reliability.

He said it was probably because the city had long been used to a stable and uninterrupted power supply. "How often have you seen a power outage?" he asked. "Probably never."

According to the research paper, the Hong Kong interviewees earned between HK$7,500 and HK$80,000 a month and paid monthly electricity bills of between HK$20 and HK$600.

They were asked how much of a power bill reduction they would accept for outages ranging from five to 60 minutes on a hot summer afternoon.

The researchers said the "willingness to accept" concept could reflect to what extent people were willing to sacrifice power stability in a supply system deemed to be operating almost perfectly. Dr Chan Fuk-cheung, former president of the Institution of Engineers, said the high-rise nature of Hong Kong meant its lift-reliant residents paid more attention to power-supply reliability. More than half of the population lives on or above the 15th floor, according to Chan.

"We are spoiled by the uninterrupted supply though we should never forget the past experiences that helped improve our power system," he said.

In 1999, Typhoon York caused sporadic power cuts affecting thousands of residents in Yuen Long, Sai Kung and Sheung Shui.

But those were on a much smaller scale than three blackouts in the 1970s and '80s that affected vast areas of Kowloon and the New Territories.

On August 16, 1971, an explosion at the Hau Ming Street power substation in Kwun Tong triggered what the China Light and Power firm - now CLP Power - called a "complete" blackout in Kowloon.

Chan said the blast could have been caused by a metal sheet blown from a neighbouring structure that struck the substation as a typhoon approached.

In 1979, an explosion at the Tsing Yi power station caused a 50-minute blackout in parts of Kowloon and the New Territories.

In 1984, the coal-fired Castle Peak power station was disconnected from the supply grid by "system disturbances", causing chaos across the city. Chan believed that the "disturbances" could have been caused by the mainland grid but also blamed the poor design of a device that automatically regulates voltages.

When life depends on the power to breathe easy

Webpage designer Samuel Lo knows better than any engineer how a lack of electricity could affect him.

For a fifth of his life, the 31-year-old has relied for survival on a power cable connected to a breathing machine.

Afflicted by muscular atrophy - a wasting-away of his muscles that impairs his lung function - he has for the past six years received the air he breathes from the machine for 20 hours a day, relying on an uninterrupted power supply.

"I'm always worried about an electricity outage, though it hasn't happened so far," he said. "I'd find even a few moments … unbearable. I could suffocate."

Lo said his machine had a backup battery system but that setting it up during a power disruption might take time.

Fortunately, the Tin Shui Wai housing estate where he lives has not been hit by any power disruption in recent years.

"A friend said he was once told he had to go to hospital because the electrical system needed a check-up," Lo said. "But he refused, and the power company came to his home and laid a dedicated power cable for him."

Lo said he had heard about the idea of importing 30 per cent of Hong Kong's power from the mainland, but was sceptical.

"Will the supply be unstable? I've heard that some factories don't have enough power to run in summer," he said.

He said he preferred the idea of local power generation. "After all, don't we have a choice?"


PART THREE: How will climate change affect our power plans?