Clean Electricity Doesn’t Cost the Earth

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Hong Kong.

Can industrializing countries leapfrog the West’s fossil fuel addiction?

Flick on the lights, crank up the air conditioner and think about electricity. Without it, modern living would be impossible. Electricity magically speeds through tangles of wires to keep the fridge humming, the factories churning, and the MTR hurtling.

But the price we pay for electricity is much greater than what appears on the monthly bill. If you trace the electricity back to its source, you’ll find a power plant burning coal or natural gas.

Burning fossil fuels puts small particles of pollution and toxic heavy metals into the air, sends gases that cause acid rain far afield, and releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide, the principle gas linked to global climate change. The ecological damage shows up in increased health care costs and diminished quality of life.

In Hong Kong, the juice gets to your house courtesy of one of two electric monopolies: Hongkong Electric Company (HEC) supplies Hong Kong and Lamma Islands, and China Light and Power (CLP) supplies the rest. For a hundred years they have provided reliable service to meet a growing population and increasing per capita demand.

Recently HEC announced its intentions to build a new gas-fired power station next to the existing power station on Lamma Island, which currently burns 3.5 million tonnes of coal per year. The proposed new station, which would expand capacity by 60%, caught residents by surprise, and sparked a series of information nights, leafletting, a rally, and two new Lamma-based groups. A petition has been launched, supported by numerous environmental and community groups and politicians. It calls for more government transparency and investigation of alternatives. People were especially shocked to learn that an incinerator to burn 1 million tonnes of Hong Kong’s garbage was also referred to in HEC’s plans.

After the initial reaction of “not in my back yard”, residents began researching what the alternatives were. They discovered that Government was being highly secretive about their projections of how much more electricity was needed in the future. They also found that the two electric utilities have a tremendous oversupply of electricity – presently 62% – that could easily meet demand for many years.

Then why is HEC pushing to build a new $20 billion power station? Because they can make money at it: as a monopoly, the governments allows the power companies to make profit in very limited ways. The rules of the game are outlined in an agreement called the Scheme of Control. If HEC builds a power station, they are guaranteed a 15% profit on expenses incurred, creating a huge incentive to build things that may or may not be needed. And the ratepayers end up footing the bill.

Fact is, many utilities around the world have switched onto a more sustainable path. They offer a package of services, including helping customers to use less energy. They can make a profit by selling efficiency services rather than ever more megawatts.

Amory Lovins, probably the world’s best known and respected expert on energy efficiency, responded to a recent claim by HEC that they could only reduce demand for electricity by 0.1% through conservation measures, also known as demand side management (DSM): “A 0.1% estimate of cost-effective DSM potential is so derisory that no U.S. or Western European utility would dare to mention such a number – it would be laughed out of the room.”

The writing is on the wall: the atmosphere, a thin layer of gases that surrounds the earth, cannot withstand incessant abuse. The world community is becoming increasingly concerned about air pollution and the dangerous impacts of global climate change.

As countries industrialize and demand more electricity, there is enormous opportunity to invest in energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy like solar and wind power. The price of renewables is dropping, and in many cases is no more costly than conventional, eco-damaging fuel sources.

The challenge now for Hong Kong and other industrializing countries is to leapfrog the polluting, inefficient technologies of the West by constructing buildings that use 1/4 the energy of fuel guzzlers, and to invest in sources of energy that don’t cost the earth. If that can be accomplished – and surely it can – then we, and future generations, could all breath a sigh of relief.