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Spotlight Dimming On Eco-Power

Installing solar panels to generate electricity is a worthy but costly alternative for Hong Kong homeowners

Elizabeth Horscroft – SCMP – Updated on Aug 06, 2008

When environmentalist John Rempel asked a supplier of photovoltaic (PV) panels to install them at his Discovery Bay home, the reply surprised him. “I was advised by the seller not to install solar panels,” he recalled. The reason given was that they were not cost-effective, with payback taking 20 years or more.

Instead, he was advised to install a solar powered thermal water heater, a system that could pay for itself in less than three years.

Ironically, his supplier Alan Li, director of Red Sun Energy Saving Equipment, continues to give this advice despite being in the business of selling solar panels.

He explained that until the government offered subsidies for installation of small-scale renewable energy systems, as was common in Europe and North America (with up to 30 per cent subsidies in some countries), it just did not make sense. He said no one was pushing the government to do so.

Homeowners in Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Greece can also sell their excess solar generated energy to the power grid to help pay for their systems.

“It won’t happen here because CLP [Power] won’t buy this little power from the homeowner’s power system,” Mr Li said. The capacity of most small renewable energy systems is less than 200kW of electricity, according to CLP.

Although cost is the major stumbling block to increasing PV usage – a clean, quiet, low maintenance and limitless power source – industry experts say lack of knowledge about solar power’s potential is another reason for its lack of popularity in sunny Hong Kong.

One more obvious obstacle is that few people live in houses with ample rooftop space. Phillip Walker, director of ESS, an international distributor of renewable energy systems, said: “Hospitals and schools have more PV potential but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from trying.”

Determined solar panel enthusiasts can still make a go of it. CLP said 22 private households had connected their PV systems to the electricity grid, while Hongkong Electric also had a few. Interestingly, three more have successfully connected wind and biogas powered systems.

Sai Kung resident and lawyer Tim Hallworth is investigating the viability of installing a PV system on the rooftop of a property he is renovating. He estimates that he will need a 3,000W system, the equivalent of a 5-metre by 6-metre panel.

After reductions for shade, not facing south, losses through the wiring, cabling and converter, the efficiency can drop to as low as 1,500W, enough to power a split-level air-conditioner for 1-1/2 hours. That efficiency will diminish over time.

“The technology is just not there yet,” Mr Walker said from his car phone en route to Shenzhen to visit a solar panel factory. “You only do it if you are environmentally conscious and have money.” Or connections.

“I can buy the system direct at a discount,” he said. This would cost him HK$195,000, not including installation and maintenance. The retail price for a 300kW system with 18 panels is about HK$250,000 for a complete package and a version of 400kW with 40 panels is about HK$500,000.

But, in the 20 years it would take for payback, the environmentally unfriendly battery cells will need replacement and the technology will probably be redundant – as newer, more efficient PV systems become available.

Still, eco-warriors press on. And those who do, soon discover that there are even more costs and considerations associated with installation. Homeowners must ensure that the system complies with the technical and safety requirements of the government’s Electrical and Mechanical Services Department. They must also work with various government departments and consultants to legally install a solar panel system.

Tannil Lam, regional manager of RPT, a renewable energy consultancy with design and installation capacity, said: “It is certainly an extra cost which the client must pay for.”

There are also costs associated with the application process to connect the renewable energy system to the electricity grid, something most people will need to do because the PV power will probably fall short of total consumption needs, and will only serve as a backup. CLP and Hongkong Electric have set procedures and fees for gaining approval for the connection.

A CLP spokesman said: “It varies according to the actual hours expended … but it would only contribute to a very small portion of the project cost.”

Mr Rempel takes issue with having to get permission to produce his own renewable energy.

He pointed out that this year the government would review the scheme of control that restricted that right. This is the government’s chance to promote independent grid-connect systems and initiate subsidies. It is about money, but given the pollution levels it does not make sense. A wealthy city, such as Hong Kong, should embrace renewable energy resources.

A solar panel salesman once told Mr Hallworth that buying PV panels was like buying a yacht, “You don’t save anything. Just enjoy it because it has no resale value”.

Perhaps we should invest in them for a better future.

Path to efficiency

Steps to connect your small renewable energy system to the CLP Power grid for backup and additional electricity needs.

  • Initial discussion and application A discussion of a system’s potential commercial, technical and operational impact. Information intended to help select the most suitable technology and system based on your needs.
  • Assessment Technical and commercial assessments by CLP to ensure safety measures are in place.
  • Technical requirements Changes may be proposed to the system based on CLP’s technical specifications. An agreement defining CLP and the homeowner’s responsibilities will be signed.
  • Construction Build and install the system. CLP provides assistance to ensure the technical and safety requirements are met.
  • Testing CLP engineers witness commissioning test on the system.
  • Insurance Homeowners must have a policy to protect them and CLP from potential liability in case the system causes damage or injury to others. While private residents must pay for this themselves, CLP recognises it is a hurdle for schools and non-profit organisations and will arrange public liability coverage for them.
  • Responsibilities Ongoing responsibilities for system connection to grid and safe operation and maintenance of the system will be spelled out in the agreement.

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