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SETW's speech at HSBC Living Business Eco Day (English only)

    Following is the gist of the speech (English only) by the Secretary for the Environment, Transport and Works, Dr Sarah Liao, at HSBC Living Business Eco Day this afternoon (November 30):

Dear Margaret, ladies and gentlemen,

     Innovation technology in environmental protection

     A world-renowned professor predicted two decades ago that environmental disasters would appear as a result of excessive energy consumption by the post-war baby boomers. Recently, while the same professor has proven his prediction on the level of energy consumption, he has came to the conclusion that technology has saved the day for environmental disasters, at least for now.

     We cannot be more familiar with the problems associated with the use of fossil fuels. Surveys and polls have repeatedly showed that air pollution is a top concern for Hong Kong people. Our international friends, and competitors have made this point in the headlines of their news. The alarm of global warming has kept the international community on the alert. All these are linked to consumption of energy from fossil fuels.

     The search for alternative energy is not without its constraints. What we need is a renewable, clean and portable energy supply generating little or no pollution. In the limited time I have today I hope to stimulate some interest amongst a group of successful and entrepreneurial audience members. So, let's first turn to the renewables:

1. Solar heat energy  íV  The use of solar energy purely for heating has been well developed for years, but in Hong Kong it is not widely employed by businesses. The use of solar energy can be made possible by the simple installation of a heat exchanger with water flowing through and being kept warm. If you need an abundant supply of hot water, this is a very cost-effective system with a short pay-back period. Unfortunately, such a simple rudimentary technology has almost been ignored except in a few places. As far as I know, the Chinese University is perhaps the only tertiary institution making extensive use of this! Government is also an extensive user. We have solar heating systems in some prisons, a slaughtering house, swimming pool complex, etc.

2. Solar photovoltaic panels íV this technology converts solar energy into electricity and either stores it in batteries, transmits it into the electricity conveyance grid, or uses it directly. The panels are made of crystalline or amorphous silica materials. By using batteries as the electrical energy storage medium, the cost would get higher and the capital investment in these panels could hardly be recouped during the life cycle of the solar panels. If the energy generated from the panels can be fed into the main electricity grid, it may present another kind of problem concerning safety, power quality and reliability, which will normally cause the grid operator to demand a significant amount of money to cater for the risks involved.

However, all these problems may be overcome shortly. Though the panels are still expensive, we see that the price dropped very rapidly in the last decade or so, perhaps thanks partially to the fact that China has become a large producer of these panels. With technology innovation, the efficiency of solar panels is also improving and the risk related to grid connection is decreasing. Recently we have worked through a whole set of technical specifications with our Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD) to set out the requirements concerning connection of the solar panels onto the grid. And hopefully we have overcome this very technical problem and can allow other forms of renewable energy to enter the grid. In fact, this is one of the requirements we have put in our negotiations with power companies in their new scheme of control.
The prospect of utilising solar energy through these panels in an even more cost-effective manner will be better. In fact, nowadays, such panels have already become the lifeline of villages in the western part of China where the solar power generator provides electricity for pumping water to irrigate fields, providing lighting for households, and supporting the basic needs of scattered local communities of a few thousand population each.

3. Wind energy íV Wind turbines are simple, mechanical setups fitted with electronic detectors to enable the rotor to follow the direction of the wind and stop turbines for protection when the wind speed exceeds a certain limit. They have worked well for Denmark, which proudly claims the highest utilisation rate of wind energy in the world, up to some 20% of its electricity being supplied from wind.

The first or second generations of wind turbines were huge structures and were hard to maintain if the wind conditions are erratic. Moreover, such wind mills were usually built in remote areas and the transmission loss is often very significant, making the already low efficiency of the wind power generation process even less efficient. Such setups also attracted objections if they were too close to residential areas as the noise generated by them was significant. As a result of all these constraints, it was often extremely difficult to identify a suitable location with steady, constant wind speed of around 10m/s to promote the wider use of wind power in the past.

However, the development of the latest generation of wind turbines have significantly removed some of these constraints, for they are a lot more efficient, quieter, and yet cheaper.

     I am a strong supporter of renewable energy and believe more research and development should be conducted to overcome some of the critical problems relating to their application. I have recently learned that there are new wind turbines of considerably smaller sizes, which could be fitted on top of buildings for supplying electricity. If the efficiency and cost effectiveness of such products can continue to improve, I am sure that Hong Kong's skyscrapers will at last have some premium points!

     Innovation is not limited to technology advancement. Innovation in deployment of existing technologies is at least as important as innovation in advancing them. A notable example is our 61-hectare wetland park in the northern part of the New Territories, which has employed a geothermal heat pump system for air-conditioning. The system has a total cooling capacity of 2500 kW. Instead of using air to carry away heat generated from the air-conditioning system, heat is dissipated through the ground, which has a lower temperature. As a result, 25% of energy is saved.

     As it takes time to improve the efficiency of renewable energy to the next level which can genuinely outperform that of the fossil fuel, it is only sensible for people to develop clean energy in parallel. Hydrogen economy is an emerging hope íV hydrogen may be used as a direct fuel as it burns in air and produces energy and water vapour, which makes it the cleanest fuel thus far discovered. The fuel cell technology is what will allow the portable use of hydrogen in daily life.

     At present, hydrogen cars and buses have already been developed and used in North America. A new generation of hybrid cars using hydrogen are also being developed in California. In the Mainland, hydrogen buses may also feature in the Beijing Olympics.  

     How to obtain clean sources of hydrogen is an important question to overcome. Otherwise, while the use of hydrogen as fuel may be pollution free, the generation of it may cause as much if not more pollution. A visionary idea being explored is to generate a lot of hydrogen through electrolysis of seawater powered by large remote wind farms. The hydrogen is then compressed and shipped to other places for use, similar to what we now do with liquefied natural gas.

     So have we found a solution to supply human beings' insatiable demand for more energy? Not yet. If we look at the current average power demand by human activities in the developed world, a modest guess is about 5 kW/m2. The world average efficiency of solar power is about 40 watt/m2 while wind power is only about 2 watt/m2. These figures point out the inconvenient truth that renewable energy has a long way to go before it can replace fossil fuel, much would we like it to.

     In the final analysis, there is no silver bullet to improve our environment instantly and to secure energy sustainability. Technology only offers some of the solution. We have to ask ourselves what we can do and should be doing to reduce energy consumption and hence pollution. Many businesses have begun to embrace environmentally responsible principles in their procurement requirements, manufacturing or operation processes and material selections.

     Technology can help us in a certain way, but not entirely. Today we have this Living Business Eco Day to draw everybody's attention to the fact that business has a very important role in helping us to find an energy-sustainable environment. There are many ways to express your commitment to such costs. We would talk about the Clear Air Charter by the General Chamber of Commerce, and the one-one-one project from the Federation of Hong Kong Industries. And worldwide, we have the Equator Principles that all people who are investing, procuring or operating in any part of the world can really adhere to. That is a set of principle issued by the World Bank, stating environmental and sustainability principles and procedures. And I do hope that these will become the principles of all our business in Hong Kong as well.

     I don't want to repeat here again what the Government has been doing to improve our environment. But the important thing is we are doing everything we can. And we need time to get the support of the community. There are dissenting voices all the time. We need to deal with them. We are not saying that we have to listen to them entirely, but we cannot ignore the dissenting voices. I can assure you that with the measures that we've implemented in both Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta, we are charting the right path. We are measuring the results and we are seeing the reduction in the measurement that we have made. Of course most people would rely on their perception more. It is very hard to convince people with figures. But we do need time, there is no magic wand that would solve air pollution problems in a day. Only with the full cooperation of the community and our businesses will we be able to succeed. I look forward to collaboration with all of you in our future efforts to improve the environment.

Ends/Thursday, November 30, 2006
Issued at HKT 18:26