Low-carbon lifestyle within reach, but will HK grasp the opportunity?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 December, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong is well placed to establish low-carbon communities, but a lack of pilot projects and low public awareness of their potential means the opportunity could be missed.

That's the assessment of a professional who has pioneered such communities elsewhere in the world. It comes as the city prepares for big new developments at West Kowloon and Kai Tak, as well as three new towns in the New Territories.

The government pledged in 2008 to design three new development areas in the New Territories - Kwu Tung North, Fan Ling North, and Ta Kwu Ling - to have minimal carbon emissions. Little progress has so far been reported publicly but an engineering study is being conducted to explore the feasibility and the extent of the designs.

Chris Twinn, a veteran engineer who started one of the first zero-carbon residential projects in London 10 years ago, said that, in order to pave the way for such developments, the government should first demonstrate the feasibility of the concept to developers with a small-scale residential project.

'Developers will not make a financial commitment until they have seen the details of what it means and submit tenders. Otherwise, it involves an enormous cost premium, which will be mostly an innovation cost,' said Twinn, a director of the global engineering firm Ove Arup which is conducting a site engineering study and will propose land uses for the three new towns.

He said Hong Kong residents also needed to know more about the energy they were using as they consumed it. Since electricity meters were installed outside their apartments and were difficult to reach, occupants were generally not aware of how much they were using until they got their bills.

'Until they know where and how energy is being used, homeowners will not know how to reduce their energy consumption. Many don't realise, for instance, that boiling water uses a lot more energy than, say, watching TV.'

Government design rules for the new towns, which are expected to accommodate more than 130,000 people, will require developments to be green and sustainable.

For example, neighbourhoods should be within walking distance of each other to encourage high pedestrian activity, reduce car dependency, and promote cycling. Twinn, who is also advising the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park on how to achieve zero-carbon emissions in its phase three development, said it would be a green prototype for commercial developments.

But Hong Kong needed another pilot project for residential developments to reduce the initial development costs and leave developers with no easy excuses. Public land in the location where the three new towns were to be sited would provide a suitable place for a demonstration.

'You want it on a small development and then large developments copy it,' he said.

Relying on wind, solar power and a power unit that burns wood chips to generate energy, Twinn's 2001 project in Beddington was one of the few residential developments in London to achieve zero-carbon emissions - not adding any additional carbon into the atmosphere.

The community, powered by renewable energy such as solar, provides charging points for electric vehicles and a car sharing programme was set up to discourage the use of private cars.

Bill savings have become an attraction of the apartments and owners generally enjoy a 15 per cent higher resale value than similar-sized properties in the same area.

'Residents can bring in electricity from the grid at night, but their site should generate electricity from its renewable sources during the day equivalent to what it took at night and feed it back to the grid,' said Twinn.

The project, on a small scale, cost 30 per cent more than usual to cover costs such as triple-glazed windows. To ensure its viability, the government allowed it a lower land premium and it was undertaken by a charitable housing association.

Twinn said the development costs of similar zero-carbon projects nowadays were much lower - 10 per cent higher than normal projects - as they could follow the pilot project.

The British government's policy target of decarbonising the grid by generating 80 per cent of energy with renewable sources by 2050 also forces developers to build communities that emit less carbon.

Twinn said Hong Kong had waste that could be used to produce renewable energy. 'But you also need to reduce your energy demand dramatically, say halve it. The city can't be business as usual any more.'

Next year the British government will initiate a plan requiring every household to install a smart meter within 10 years. This will show both occupants and power companies the amount of energy consumed by major electrical appliances and the amount of renewable energy generated from their homes.

Twinn said suppliers of fridges and washing machine were now considering designs that would connect the appliances to the smart meter via a wireless sensor.

'You've got a meter and you put on the kettle, suddenly, the meter is moving fast, that is getting people to realise their lifestyle and choices and influence them,' he said.

A similar idea has been proposed in another carbon neutral project in Dongtan, Shanghai. Residents will have their smart meter installed in the kitchen and their electricity bills will be tripled if their consumption exceeds the maximum amount allowed.

Without defining exactly how low a low-carbon community should be, the Hong Kong government said it would release recommended development plans for the three new towns early next year for a final public consultation.

The Planning Department is also considering raising the development density in Fan Ling North and Kwu Tung North, from buildings of about 10 storeys to not more than 18 storeys, to meet increasing housing demand.

Twinn said green infrastructure in larger-scale developments would enjoy much lower running costs, adding that Hong Kong should aim at achieving zero-carbon emissions in new communities.

'There is a learning curve but I don't think it's necessarily that much more difficult for Hong Kong,' he said. 'The issue is a route map. You don't have to achieve zero carbon in the first year. Low carbon isn't defined. Low energy just means slightly lower than it would have been otherwise. It's very difficult to hold people to a target. It requires political will, an open grid and a good demonstration,' he added.

British power companies are required to open their grids and pay for the electricity generated from different residential and commercial sites.

Arup deputy chairman Andrew Chan Ka-ching, president of the Hong Kong Green Building Council, said the new town projects under consideration would require cross-departmental co-operation and they could be developed as an example for the city and the region.

He said the construction and operation of an environment-friendly transport system and district cooling system would be uneconomical if they were not widely used.

'The government should invite major players like the MTR and the Urban Renewal Authority to take a leading role in building green communities, or requiring new developments to use the systems through land lease conditions.'

He also urged the government to set clear goals for the new towns and conduct studies to find out which energy targets are feasible.

The chief executive of the Green Building Council of Australia, Romilly Madew, said Hong Kong should move beyond individual green buildings to green communities.

'You have green principles for Kai Tak and West Kowloon, but how do you know the government and developers are going to do it? It's important to ensure the policies are in place so that you can monitor and measure their performance.'

The Australian government has recently regenerated an old shipping terminal in Sydney, similar to Kai Tak, into a green star community. Under the green star rating, the district is required in principle to embrace environment-friendly designs, enhance residents' quality of life, create economic opportunities, and to be governed by visionary leadership and sustainable financing models. A rating tool is being developed to assess which communities are eligible for a green star and track their performances over time.

'Don't make it a missed opportunity. Use those two areas as an opportunity to showcase green precincts in Hong Kong,' Madew said. 'Creating a behavioural change is all about empowering the public with information. They won't want a big bay window and a grand marble lobby if you tell them they will cost you this much energy.'