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Blue-Sky Generators

CHRISTINE LOH – Jan 17, 2008

Is there a quick fix for the polluting emissions from the tens of thousands of factories in the Pearl River Delta that are contributing to the heavy, grey-yellow smog that too often blankets the whole region? Yes, there is. One source of emissions – the one that is hardest to deal with – is the factories that have to run private generators for electricity because they cannot get enough power from the grid. This is the case for most of the factories in the region; to avoid frequent “brownouts”, they buy their own generators to provide alternative power.

Factories are notified in advance of when they will not receive power from the grid, so they know when they will need to turn on their generators. There is an overall power supply shortage in the region. This can only be fixed when the supply structure of power generation and distribution is greatly expanded.

These private generators can be very large, and can cost millions of dollars. To work properly, they need to be regularly maintained and serviced.

Factory managers also have to source fuel for the generators. Research by Civic Exchange and the University of Science and Technology in 2006 found that the quality of that fuel varies greatly. In some cases, the diesel fuel purchased was of a very low quality and burning it resulted in a much higher level of pollution than if the fuel had been relatively clean. There were also cases where the fuel bought was contaminated with other types of fuel, and even water. It seems that people who sell fuel for generators often mix fuels, to lower costs.

Some factory managers complained that, by using low-quality fuel, they had to spend more time and money maintaining the generating equipment, which was not designed to run on such contaminated, low-grade fuel.

Thus, the use of poor-quality fuel is far from a good solution. Yet, managers have no other choice, since they need to provide supplementary power for their factories.

It is not easy to estimate the total air-pollution impact from all these factories in the Delta, but no one denies that it is large. The quick fix is, of course, to supply only cleaner fuel to run the tens of thousands of chugging generators. A cleaner fuel going in means less-polluting emissions coming out. This is not a long-term substitute for expanding and upgrading Guangdong’s power supply structure, but there is a reason to consider the quick fix in the coming two years.

In November next year, Hong Kong will host the East Asian Games and, in November 2010, Guangzhou will host the much bigger 16th Asian Games. Air pollution records over the past several years tell us that the month of November has seen very high levels of pollution throughout the entire Delta region.

We are currently witnessing the urgent efforts by authorities in Beijing to do everything possible to reduce air pollution for the summer Olympics in August. There is, in fact, no time for Hong Kong and Guangzhou to waste.

A clear lesson from Beijing is that the entire neighbourhood needs to pitch in. Just as Beijing needs the co-operation of many sectors from several provinces to reduce pollution, we, too, will need all the counties in the Delta region to contribute.

A quick short-term fix would be for cleaner fuels to be supplied to the region for an extended period before, and during, the two Games. Is it conceivable for ultra-low sulphur diesel to be supplied, so that the generators, and also vehicles, will all use a much cleaner fuel? If the answer is “yes”, what kind of emissions reduction could be expected, and how much would it all cost? Are there other ideas?

The Guangdong and Hong Kong authorities should get on with exploring ideas expeditiously, otherwise there could be embarrassing consequences. It will take time to organise the supply of cleaner fuel for the region. Much more needs to be done in the long term, but a quick fix for generators is the first step.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange

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