Energy change: You don’t want it bad enough

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Hong Kongers are spoiled by their energy providers in the things that matter. Politicians have bigger fish to fry instead of wrangling over the Scheme of Control. If HKers wanted change, they would make it themselves – like Germans.

Photo caption: Our power companies are put in the unenviable position of getting HK consumers energy fit.

When it comes to change in energy supply, Hong Kongers don’t want it badly enough to make it happen.

The government recently concluded yet another round of consultations on energy supply. Green groups, in particular WWF and Friends of the Earth, should be commended for rallying their troops to provide over 5,380 submissions in their standard formats. Their donors should be happy they are making the long term effort to change how people think – because it is a long term project and there is still a long way to go.

By that, I mean the people of Hong Kong are nowhere near close enough to being concerned about how their energy is delivered to effect change. Their everyday behaviour and reaction to announcements about energy tell the government to carry on, business as usual.

The Big Four: Delivered

The government sets the objectives that are pretty much accepted by the public: Safety, reliability, affordability and environmental performance. Also identified is ‘a goal to introduce competition to the electricity market when the requisite market conditions are present.” That order also probably reflects priorities. Overall, Hong Kongers are pretty happy.

On safety, there is so little concern, it is barely worth mentioning. In 20 years, there has been nary a peep about concerns about power plant or substation operation ever being a problem. Even Daya Bay is a complete non-issue and Hong Kongers, outside of this publication’s readers, are oblivious to the nuclear caldera building up around them.

Green groups and public awareness: Still a long way to go.

On reliability, Hong Kong is the best in the world. A quick survey of staff found none of them could remember power ever going out at home. It was an effort to get them to understand the question if they hadn’t lived abroad. The very idea of power going out was like discussing there being an oxygen outage.

Affordability is where we start to get some traction. Paying less is always politically attractive. The government’s announcement that it was finally terminating its eight year subsidy scheme to households suggests just how insensitive people are to price. At the low end of the income scale, it’s pretty much free. Watching how individual consumers and businesses behave, with non-stop sub-zero temperatures through rampant aircon and omnipresent light pollution, clearly price is not a consideration. So while the knee-jerk request for more free stuff for the poor (FTU’s Wong Kwok-hing – ‘we haven’t used up all our free energy money yet!’) as pandering-for-votes pops up, no one is seriously upset about their energy bill in a way they would exert any political pressure.

Barely green

Environment is more interesting and this is where the green groups are getting their support. Concerns about air pollution rise and fall with the overall situation and its apparent effects. When it is worse, from whatever source, people put more pressure on power companies, motor vehicle operators and shipping. Regarding China, there’s mostly a sense of futility. So it is always a winter of pollution discontent, as that is when air quality is the worst.

Introducing more competition … is a canard.

Introducing more competition on a fuzzy ‘whenever’ time frame is a canard. People aren’t agitated about the big four priorities to drive change. As mentioned, consumers behave like energy is free, so aren’t concerned about rates – or saving the planet. They aren’t driven mad by terrible service to demand new providers. And if they really cared about the environment, they would take matters into their own hands – like in Germany.

Germans care

National Geographic highlights, in this month’s issue, how Germans, concerned about things like safety and the environment, didn’t mince about sending form letters to consultations or griping to government (Germany could be a model…, October 15, 2015). They made local changes without asking anyone’s permission – often the only way things get done.

Outside Freiberg, two wind turbines power a town, funded by 521 citizen investors recruited by a local man, Josef Pesch. In Freiburg, farmers and students protested, blocking the opening of a nuclear power plant, driving their community to become a world leader in solar energy generation in the northern nation. In Hamburg, the city and local utility heat water by burning sewage and collecting waste heat from industry. They have a solar facility that heats a thousand homes. All local initiatives.

The mood caught on, and Germans demanded change from their government – and got it. They pay for it too. It isn’t cheap and the financial downturn has tested their resolve. But with a reactive democratic government, change has come. It started local and spread.

Hong Kongers don’t care

In Hong Kong, things must be going well or people would be upset. There is no monopoly on energy production in Hong Kong. Anyone who wants can throw solar panels or hot water heaters on their roof, as you often see in China. Waste-to-energy, given a motivated district council, is eminently do-able.

But no one is demanding it and no DC councilor campaigned on anything related to local energy generation. Getting consumers and commercial operators to reduce their consumption (known in the business as Demand Side Management) is a constant battle. One would think reducing costs and increasing profits would be a no-brainer, but Hong Kongers don’t seem to care. So power companies are bizarrely pushed to make their customers reduce demand for their product. They’ve taken the task up with gusto, like a personal trainer with a reluctant obese client bent on self-destruction.

There is no monopoly on energy production in Hong Kong.

The fact is, Hong Kongers have been spoiled for decades and are happy with what they have. That doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. Of course, we all look forward to the end of coal in Hong Kong. Continued pressure from green groups means some people still have their eye on the ball and still care about our local environment and public health.

But in terms of political will for change, changing the Scheme of Control, rate of return, changing conditions to introduce more competition and the like are political non-starters. Steady progress to improving the environment is welcome, but not in a way that would actually be effective – dramatically raising rates so people change behaviour.

Don’t tell, show me you care

If people here wanted change, they would organise independent of government or pressure their district councils. Consumers and businesses would cut consumption. Building associations would go solar for water heating and energy. District councils would implement local waste-to-energy programmes and connect residents. But they don’t.

So the message to politicians is clear: Carry on until you see the people take matters into their own hands. You’ve got bigger political issues to sort out and a major battle over the finer points of the Scheme of Control is a non-starter as long as safety, reliability and pricing are stable, and steady progress to getting off coal and improving air quality, is moving ahead.