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Renewable energy expert Wes Herche: Why Hong Kong needs more solar power

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The American scientist who worked at theDesk wants to ‘open up a solar energy conversation’ in our city

Apart from during the odd typhoon, the occasional bout of black rain and those days when all you can see is smog, Hong Kong attracts a fair amount of sunshine. So you’d think there’d be solar panels across all the skyscraper rooftops and out in the car parks and open areas. But they’re just not there. Solar power accounts for less than one percent of our city’s total energy mix, in fact, but one scientist from the USA has just visited our SAR in a bid to ‘open up the solar energy conversation’ between the Hong Kong government and the people.

Wes Herche, who just spent a few days ‘hot desking’ at theDesk in Sai Ying Pun while writing his thesis for his doctorate degree at Arizona State University, where he’s also a research scientist, is a champion of solar energy. The 40-year-old, a former US government geographical information systems worker who’s also a senior sustainability scientist for the Global Institute of Sustainability, came to Hong Kong to find out why we have so little solar energy in our SAR and what can be done about it. He dug up research from the Hong Kong PolyU showing a potential, if panels were installed on all available rooftops and in open areas, for up to 12.6 percent of our total energy to come from the power of the sun. But he’s calling for the government to open up the conversation to the public so Hongkongers can decide whether they want more solar power.

Herche’s thesis, which is to be finished in the coming months before publication, focuses on solar energy across the world, concentrating on three main factors, namely the ‘market’ in terms of cost, the ‘policies’ from governments and authorities with regards to solar energy generation and the ‘geography’ in terms of, for example, how much sun strikes the Earth in different locations. He’s cut his dissertation up into three parts based on geographic scale: the first looks at solar energy on a global level, the second examines the national scale with the USA as the primary example and the third focuses on the urban scale. For this part, he looks at Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong,” says Herche, “is one of the most challenging urban environments in the world for renewable energy. It’s the most vertical city in the world and there are no areas in the city where there are big swathes of empty land which could accommodate, say, large solar energy plants. Plus, there seems to be an aversion to bringing commodities like electricity from the Mainland. I mean, that happens but there seems to be a reluctancy to bring in more. Hong Kong is very wealthy, though. The cost isn’t the concern here, per se, but, because of the other factors, the city is very challenging in terms of renewable energy. Other areas that are close to the density of Hong Kong have a renewable portfolio that’s usually more robust than HK’s.”

For Herche, who’s been married for more than 12 years and has two daughters, aged seven and five, Hong Kong is one of only a handful of cities he’s found across the world where there are so many people in such a small area compared to the amount of sunlight hitting the city, even though he says the SAR is actually a ‘decent area for solar potential’ given the amount of sun we regularly see. “As a scientist,” he says, “it was interesting to come to Hong Kong to ascertain why it is that the city’s renewable portfolio is not so robust from a social and political perspective. I had no ‘a priori’ hypotheses before I arrived in the city. The point of the research was, through interviews and interactions, to find out what the attitudes towards solar energy are here.”

About two years ago, a report published by the Hong Kong PolyU claimed that if the city used all of its available rooftops and open spaces for solar energy panels, solar energy could account for up to 12.6 percent of our total energy use, up from less than one percent. Herche says it wasn’t the first time the ‘12 percent figure’ had been talked about but this report was ‘really sophisticated in terms of its geostatistical analysis’. “The scientists,” he says, “calculated that if you covered the suitable building tops and all open areas like car parks, and did not include those areas which are protected, then 12.6 percent of the current generation can come from solar energy. But many people in Hong Kong have been sceptical and said that that figure is too high. But, to me, the figure doesn’t matter. If it’s 12 percent or six or five or even 20 percent, it’s still much more than now. So this means that whatever the figure, there first needs to be an open conversation with the public on what they want with their energy. Do people want much more solar energy? The number can be anything as long as it’s much more than now. The real issue is talking about how to get there.”

“A trap that many scientists fall into,” continues Herche, “is that of being too smart. Talking only about figures and technologies and methods. To me, that’s inappropriate in terms of the conversation on renewable energy with the people of Hong Kong. What the government here needs to do is to simply find out from the public whether they want more solar energy. Whether the public sees the value that solar energy brings to the society. Whether Hong Kong really needs solar energy at all, in fact. This discussion needs to happen.”

For his thesis, Herche interviewed an array of people in Hong Kong, plus he attended local events and had numerous meetings that followed up on a previous visit he made to the SAR in July. He was less concerned with stats and figures and more concerned about the attitude of people towards solar energy and this discussion he so passionately feels needs to happen. “One thing I found in Hong Kong,” he says, “is that there isn’t much awareness on the subject of solar energy. I spoke to many sustainability professionals in various companies but most people didn’t seem to know much about the subject. And certainly very few people were aware of the 12 percent figure. I also had a hard time finding many people who could articulate their views on where Hong Kong’s energy should be by, say, 2050. ‘More renewables’ was the best answer I got. There just didn’t seem to be a vision on where the city could go. There seemed to be no inspirational voice and, it seems to me, there’s a leadership vacuum right now when it comes to renewable energy. Some said that the government is looking at it but it doesn’t seem to be taking leadership in terms of any vision for the future.”

Herche, who was born and raised in Indiana, USA, but has also lived in states like Michigan, Florida and Texas as well as other countries, mentions Daphne Mah, director of the Asian Energy Studies Centre and an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Department of Geography. He saw her speak at a half-day conference in the city called ‘Renewable Energy: How Can It Thrive In Hong Kong’, which was arranged by the HK Business Environment Council, the city branch of the WWF and the Asian Energy Studies Centre. “She made an excellent point,” he says. “She said that if you don’t start working into the conversation the social value of more solar energy in Hong Kong, then a large part of the conversation is missing. Once the government goes straight into the costs and the payback period and doesn’t find out the real value of renewable energy like this to society then it’s not a whole conversation. The government needs to educate and engage the public in this debate. I’m not a poet. I love statistics and numbers. But, with this issue, it’s not just about the finance. Hong Kong needs to find out why it may socially benefit from more solar energy.”

Herche notes that ‘a lot of people’ have said that solar energy would be ‘difficult’ in Hong Kong as there are many other priorities ahead of renewable sources of power and the actual process of putting panels on the tops of buildings would, possibly, take a lot of work and dedication. “People are smart,” says the scientist. “If Hong Kong wants this as a society, it will get it. People in the city have already proved they are brilliant when it comes to resources.” Herche adds that installing solar energy can reduce pollution in the city as there’s less reliance on energy like natural gas, nuclear and coal, all of which, he says, pollute the atmosphere or oceans in some way.

“What really needs to be done for starters,” says Herche, “is to engage the public and tell them the local and global benefits of solar energy and then ask them if they want it. Then the government can figure out their appetite for it. At the moment, nuclear power from the Mainland makes up about 20 percent of Hong Kong’s electricity supply, with the rest coming from coal and gas. The government has been reaching out to the public with a view to changing up the percentages, such as replacing a lot of coal with gas. But solar energy hasn’t featured. With gas, a lot of methane is released into the atmosphere, which is highly potent when it comes to the environment. But with solar power, that sort of environmental damage just isn’t there.”

“It is going to cost in terms of capital,” continues Herche. “Of course, the government must consider that. But look at how clean Hong Kong’s streets are. It doesn’t have to clean the streets. That costs money. However, the people want their streets clean as that helps their environment. It’s no different with solar energy. The people here may say ‘we want more solar energy because that helps the environment. That’s the sort of city we want to live in’.”

Herche praises the utility companies in Hong Kong for opening up some dialogues over the past few years on the subject of solar energy but he says ‘you can’t expect these companies to be the leaders in this debate’. “The leaders should actually be the residents,” he says. “They need to be told they are the leaders in this debate so they are empowered and can influence the political system. Just remember that the reliance on electricity in Hong Kong is huge.”

Herche has now reached out to an abundance of businesses and sustainability experts in Hong Kong who could help ‘get this conversation on the table’. During his stay, he called theDesk ‘critical’ for the work he had to do and says he wouldn’t have been able to write his thesis had it not have been for the ‘space I had for long hours and the friendliness and support of the staff at theDesk’, also noting that Sai Ying Pun was a good base to work from ‘as you get both a local feel but you can speak English there too’. “Whether or not anyone reads my thesis or finds it interesting is not important to me,” he concludes. “But if I’ve helped inspire Hongkongers to, in some way, have a conversation with each other on solar energy, then my work has been a success. If people don’t like my thesis or my opinions then I’d rather they just told me I was talking shit but, hey, ‘let’s have this conversation anyway’. That would be a win for me!”

Wes Herche, in brief:
NAME: Wes Herche
BUSINESS: Arizona State University
POSITION: Research scientist
AGE: 40
FROM: Indiana, USA
BUSINESS LOCATION: Arizona State University, USA
FIND OUT MORE: Email Wes Herche at wherche@asu.edu

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