Let's generate a debate about how we can use less energy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 August, 2011, 12:00am


The Council for Sustainable Development, which I chair, has announced a set of ideas for public discussion and comment on improving energy efficiency in buildings and reducing carbon emissions.

We gathered the ideas from discussions with big electricity consumers like the retail and catering trades, commercial building managers and with academics and green groups. We also looked at international practice. Now we would like the engagement document, which you can see on our website, to encourage community-wide discussion.

This is very much a bottom-up process. After four months, the council will sit down and discuss the suggestions and the feedback; then we will forward recommendations to the government in the first quarter of next year.

Even if we don't care much about saving the earth, we nearly all like the idea of saving money. Saving 1 kilowatt-hour per day - the amount used by a 100-watt bulb in 10 hours - can cut carbon dioxide emissions by 260kg and save HK$365 over a year. Each of us on average consumes nearly 6,000 kWh a year. Around 90 per cent of the electricity we consume is used in buildings, and the majority of that is used in commercial premises.

Look around offices and big stores, and think of the number of lights that are probably not needed, or the air conditioning that is unnecessarily cold.

Whether you measure the savings in money or carbon, we could do a lot better.

Some of our proposals are on the regulatory side. These cover areas such as tightening the building-efficiency code and providing incentives to improve lighting, lift and air-conditioning efficiency in existing buildings. It would make sense for the government to lead the way with its own buildings and estates; when the private sector sees how much long-term money can be saved - thus enhancing rentals and resale value of property - it is likely to follow.

Similarly, we are suggesting the government broaden rules on efficiency labelling of electrical goods and tighten the efficiency-grading levels for appliances, and phase out energy-inefficient equipment, including incandescent light bulbs.

We also suggest that the community look at other ways to give people and business incentives to reduce energy waste. Some countries now require companies above a particular size to have energy audits to highlight areas where it would be possible to cut power consumption.

A broader way to do this would be to put more information on electricity bills, so all users can review consumption behaviour. (Imagine how households might react if the government's current monthly electricity subsidy were made conditional on cutting year-on-year consumption by 5 per cent.)

Other proposals include the installation of 'intelligent building' management systems to control air conditioning and lighting and devices such as solar water heaters. A project at Sing Yin Secondary School in east Kowloon is expected to cut energy consumption by over 27 per cent.

Then we have variable electricity tariffs. This idea is catching on overseas. Put simply, we could have a system whereby electricity users are charged more when they exceed certain usage levels.

This is the opposite of our current system, which gives a discount to heavy users (so, in effect, the low users are subsidising the bigger ones). This would not go down well among certain types of business, but it could benefit the community as a whole.

Charging less for electricity during off-peak hours is also common overseas; by giving people incentives to use energy at night, you can spread consumption more evenly, so the power companies do not have to generate so much electricity overall.

I encourage everyone to look at the engagement document. It is an important subject, and we look forward to receiving a wide range of feedback.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils