Money over renewable energy: giant UBS bank ad covers solar cells of pioneering Hong Kong building

Experts say they probably generate little to no electricity when covered with the billboard at city's first integrated photovoltaic building

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 July, 2015, 3:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 July, 2015, 8:20pm

Money speaks louder than renewable energy in Hong Kong - so much so that the city's first skyscraper to have been built with integrated photovoltaic systems has turned its trademark rooftop solar modules into a giant billboard for the Swiss bank UBS.

The move has drawn concern from green groups who believe it could set a dismal example for renewable energy use in Hong Kong, even as the government seeks to encourage wider adoption of renewable energy in private buildings.

The 29-storey building, Glorious Sun Group's One Peking, stood as a pioneering example of integrated photovoltaic systems when it was completed in 2003. Built into the crest of its southern exposure, the 144 solar power modules can generate a maximum capacity of eight kilowatts and are mainly used to power automated sunshades.

It remains one of the few commercial photovoltaic projects of its size in the city.

But since May the 200 square metre system, clearly visible from across the harbour, has been covered in a white material bearing the letters UBS and the bank's "three keys" logo.

Glorious Sun did not respond to inquiries about whether the modules still worked and whether the ad would affect their ability to absorb energy.

Building manager Jones Lang LaSalle said it was not in a position to comment, saying it was only responsible for property management. But one building worker said the photovoltaic system was "not used that often".

But some photovoltaic experts were doubtful they could work well, or at all, while covered.

"Whether modules work or not depends on their ability to absorb solar radiation," said Dr Vivien Lu Lin, a solar building applications expert at the Polytechnic University's building services engineering department.

"I can't see the modules at all so I don't think they actually work. Even if they do, the output is likely to be reduced significantly," Lu said.

Lu said she understood that many private enterprises in the city had experienced problems with their photovoltaic systems, and she wouldn't be surprised if the modules were there just for show in many cases.

"We'll never know because they don't publish statistics" about how much power they generate.

Dr Sam Hui Chun-man, a sustainable architecture and design expert at the University of Hong Kong's mechanical engineering department, said it was difficult to persuade Hong Kong landlords to use solar power.

"Many commercial buildings overseas feature such installations just to win an award … only to find out later that there are a lot of problems running it," he said. Some repairs are expensive. "The cost could be more than the power the whole system generates. This is the dilemma."

Hui said he knew of schools that had applied for government funding for photovoltaic systems but had switched them off after just a few years due to the high costs and inconvenience of maintaining them.

Greenpeace senior campaigner Frances Yeung Hoi-shan said the covered photovoltaic units set a bad example. "It could add to the rhetoric that solar is just not practical and is difficult to run."

Dr Sam Lam King-hang, founding member of the Hong Kong Photovoltaic Consortium and a former chairman, said that would disappoint many in the solar industry.

A UBS spokeswoman said the bank was to move into the 23rd and 25th floors of the building in the first quarter of next year, occupying 23,000 sq ft of office space. She said it signed a contract with local advertising agent Asiaray in May for the rooftop signage as well as a 12-storey wall advertisement down the side of the skyscraper.

AsiaRay did not respond to a request for comment.

The ad on the roof and wall will be the bank's "largest outdoor advertisement in the world" when completed and will be capable of featuring video graphics and LED lights. The bank refused to disclose the contract's cost.

It is estimated that renewable energy will be able to meet just 1 per cent of Hong Kong's total electricity demand by the early 2020s. The government says there is limited scope for it due to high costs and space constraints.

By comparison, both Singapore and Taiwan have targets of 8 per cent renewable energy by 2025, while the mainland aims to reach 30 per cent by 2020.