In a city of lights, a quest to turn them off


Hong Kong’s famous city lights are targeted as the city strives for more sustainable energy consumption.

Hong Kong’s famous city lights are targeted as the city strives for more sustainable energy consumption.

Hong Kong (dpa) – It’s midnight and the lights of Hong Kong’s storied harbour are shining. The names of casinos, major property developers, and major companies are emblazoned across the top of skyscrapers

The city is known for the stunning night views, but like many cities is increasingly concerned about electricity consumption. It is now even considering mandatory switch-off times for non-essential displays and advertising.

There is a “genuine need for the community to act together to address the problems of light nuisance and energy wastage that may be caused by external lighting,” said a spokeswoman for the environmental protection department.

A task force established in 2011 has made slow progress. A public consultation in 2013 was inconclusive on whether city residents thought authorities should impose lighting limits.

But with the government initiating a broader blueprint for energy saving this year, the matter is back on the table.

The aim is to reduce energy intensity – linking energy use to economic output – by around 40 per cent of the 2005 figure by 2025.

That translates to a reduction in energy use of around 6 per cent from 2015 over the next decade.

It is hard to calculate exactly how much of that savings could be achieved by shutting off the light show.

Building lighting consumes around 30 per cent of the 160,000 terajoules of electricity used yearly in Hong Kong, according to the environmental protection department. The breakdown of how much of that goes to large outdoor displays was not available.

Enthusiasm appears to be growing for action to cut energy use.

Sustainability consultants say their services are becoming more valued by corporations.

“Four years ago it was a nice-to-have. Now it’s a necessity,” said Mark Cameron, senior sustainability consultant with engineering firm Arup, which works with the government and several major real estate developers.

Swire Properties, one of the city’s biggest developers of shopping malls, office buildings and residences, has invested 470 million Hong Kong dollars (about 65 million US dollars) since 2001 in efficiency measures, which have produced savings of 910 million Hong Kong dollars in electricity, according to company figures.

Electricity consumption has fallen 5 per cent, it said.

One of its efficiency flagships is One Island East, a 70-storey curved blue office tower the company calls its “living laboratory.”

It features energy-saving bulbs throughout, and the building’s exterior works to keep out the sweltering heat. But the key energy-saving feature consists of the data and computer controls.

“Every building has a data centre,” said Cary Chan, Swire’s head of technical services and sustainability spokesperson.

Some two to three million pieces of data are gathered every 24 hours at One Island East alone. Hidden away in the fixtures are thousands of sensors: energy metres, temperature and pressure gauges, valves and dampers, all sending out information.

The system then reacts to changes in the environment. Sensors detect which rooms need more or less air conditioning. And data anlysis picks up, for example, unexpected power surges in the night.

“We found that the guards were going around and triggering the light sensors,” Chan said. “So every time they would make the rounds, the lights would stay on for 30 minutes of every hour.”

Energy efficiency brings financial savings and environmental benefits, but is not particularly glamorous, and sometimes ignored by research universities, he said.

“There’s not new technology that comes out every year. We had to do our own research.”

Since 2007, the company has been collaborating with Tsinghua University in Beijing, using data gathered from buildings like One Island East.

Swire also provides energy audits for all of its tenants to help with their own energy-saving goals. Some 30 per cent of the 17 million square feet of properties have undergone the audit, said Chan.

It also now turns off most of its major external lights around 11 pm.

As for the iconic harbour lights, authorities plan a voluntary program with a year’s time, the environmental protection department said.

“The government will also take the lead in switching off external lighting installations in government buildings, and facilities that are not necessary for security and operational reasons after 11 pm to minimise light nuisance and energy wastage,” the spokeswoman said.

But getting people to change their habits may require more than voluntary programs and a positive example.

“There is still a real disconnect for people in making that link between our behaviour and fossil fuels burned,” said Arup’s Cameron who admits that he has difficulty remembering to adjust the thermostat at home.

That, he says, is why some government regulation is a good idea.