Published in the SCMP on the 24th of February 2007:
AIR QUALITY Christian Masset
Folly of the Soko gas plant
Much has been said about the liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal proposed for South Soko Island by ExxonMobil and CLP Power. So it is necessary to clarify whether the options being considered will achieve the original purpose – namely, improving our air quality.
CLP Power has said that it was not possible to commit to a clear objective in reducing the burning of coal at the CLP Castle Peak station, even assuming the LNG terminal was in operation. In plain English, this means that ExxonMobil- CLP will offer no guarantee that it will pollute less if the terminal is built.
To reduce coal pollution in our air significantly, we have three options: a very cost-effective one; a bold and highly effective option; and one filled with high risks and uncertainties.
The first involves no additional costs for the Hong Kong electricity user. It has three steps: first, complete as soon as possible the installation of flue gas desulfurisation systems on all coal-fired turbines in Hong Kong operated by our electricity suppliers. This will reduce sulfur dioxide pollution, a major cause of poor visibility, by over 95 per cent.
Both CLP Power and Hongkong Electric say these are highly expensive investments, but they can afford them thanks to their massive earnings under the scheme of control.
The second step is to limit CLP Power’s electricity sales to Guangdong. They have increased from 600 units in 1997 to 4,500 units in 2005. Those exports account for about 18 per cent of total sales yet produce over 40 per cent of coal related pollution from power generation, since that electricity is produced in the highly coal-reliant Castle Peak plant.
The third step is to finalise and implement as soon as possible the emissions tabletrading framework on thermal plants reached last month by the Hong Kong government and authorities from the Pearl River Delta.
The second option – the bold and highly effective one – would be to accompany the above measures with a comprehensive energy-saving policy. Then, to have energy savings translate into less air pollution and stable prices, we need to revise or adapt radically the scheme of control. Bear in mind that, in its present form, the scheme defeats all effective and standard demand-side energy saving policies.
Prolonging the scheme of control in its present form encourages two major flaws. One, individual users who reduce their power consumption are likely to be charged at a higher rate, since utilities are unlikely to seek more revenue from corporate clients. Two, it leads to everhigher and unnecessary investments paid for by Hong Kong citizens, the overconsumption of electricity and projects that are impossible to justify – such as the Soko LNG terminal.
The third option is the proposed LNG terminal. We won’t even consider, here, the environmental degradation that the plant would cause, on land and in the sea. But the project offers no guarantee of better air quality, or stability in electricity costs to the users, corporate or individuals.
LNG shipments in Asia are currently about 50 per cent more expensive than the gas piped into Hong Kong from the Yacheng field on Hainan Island. And surging global demand for LNG will inevitably cause a price increase on the world market. So, we can expect the cost of electricity to go up.
For these reasons, the Soko LNG project doesn’t meet any of the promises offered: it doesn’t guarantee clean air or stable energy costs, and it encourages an unhealthy dependence on a single, vertically integrated foreign corporation able to influence the supply of raw material, and the production, transmission and distribution of electricity.
A sustainable energy policy for Hong Kong has to break the duopoly of Exxon-Mobil-CLP and Hongkong Electric. Deregulation in energy, similar to that in the telecommunications sector, has to happen as soon as possible. That would encourage the offering of cleaner energy, cost-effective energy distribution and price competition – from a range of reliable and innovative sources.
In this way, Hong Kong can achieve the goal of a return to the blue skies that all its residents yearn for – and which the administration has repeatedly promised.
Christian Masset is the immediate past chairman of Clear The Air