Energy Inefficiency

Hong Kong’s green buildings may not be nearly as green as they believe they are

Anyone in Hong Kong for this past winter will know it was unusually long and unusually cold. Because of that, the fact that the air conditioners were working full tilt in shopping centres was, at the least, baffling. And it’s also an example of systemic glitches and oversights that keep Hong Kong consuming the high amounts of energy and creating a doozy of a carbon footprint.

Or so says Energenz Consulting, an energy auditor that opened up in North Point about a year ago. Founded by New Zealand imports Ben Heraud and Gilbert Lennox- King after working in Australia with its strident and comprehensive carbon emissions and efficiency regulations. The duo saw an opportunity to apply their unique skill set in Hong Kong, which is about 10 years behind the curve.

So what do they do? “Essentially we go onto a site, and much like an accountant audits the financial systems, [we] audit the energy systems,” explains Heraud, Energenz’s principal energy consultant. “What we do is very clearly explain what projects [clients] can implement to reduce their energy consumption, how much it will cost them and give them a full cost benefit analysis.” An audit takes a minimum of three months, and involves Energenz installing its own data loggers to generate a finely detailed usage profile. Oddly, it’s something the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department does not actually do. A spokesman for the Environment Bureau, however, explains, “The Administration has been adopting a multi-pronged approach in promoting buildings energy efficiency. The $450-million Buildings Energy Efficiency Funding Schemes was launched in April 2009, to subsidise building owners on a matching basis to carry out energy-cum-carbon audits as well as energy efficiency projects to upgrade the energy efficiency performance of building services installations for communal use of the buildings.” Even still, Energenz’s work was innovative enough to get CLP’s attention, with whom Energenz consulted on its energy manifesto for its own buildings.

But Hong Kong is dropping the efficiency ball when it comes to real performance. The government has set all manner of socalled green standards that new buildings must be constructed to, and independent organisations have been working — with great media savvy — to promote certification programmes like LEED and HK-BEAM. That’s wonderful, but the large property groups don’t have a way to track building performance after construction. Heraud and Lennox-King are intensely familiar with the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS), and they’re stepping into the void here. “Here you have the EMSD benchmarking system, which is… well, it’s basic,” Heraud points out. “When you set up a benchmarking system you need a baseline. But I think the base they set it up under may not have had enough science behind it.”

EMSD technical secretary Richard Chan notes that four codes of efficiency practice were laid out in 1998, the performance-based Building Energy Code was introduced in 2003, and was updated in 2007. “The Buildings Energy Efficiency Ordinance was enacted in November 2010, mandating prescribed buildings including commercial buildings to comply with the Building Energy Code and the Energy Audit Code issued under the Ordinance in 2011. The Ordinance provides a regulatory framework for building energy efficiency performance with respect to energy audit requirements,” Chan clarifies.The issue is whether that framework is comprehensive enough.

Government regulations are largely directed at new buildings, which would seem to be the minority given the SAR’s office and housing supply crunch. “The green building rating system is targeted at that top 25 percent that want to be really green and [have] energy efficient, grade-A properties rated Platinum,” business development manager Lennox-King states. “But the actual case in Hong Kong is there are 20,000 commercial buildings that are going to be here for the next 20, 30 years. What about them? You can’t go back and get a LEED or BEAM rating for an existing building.”Maybe not, but, “The Buildings Energy Efficiency Ordinance was enacted in November 2010. It mandates the compliance with codes of practice promulgated by the EMSD concerning the energy efficiency of four major types of buildings services installations and energy audits … The codes of practice will be applied to new buildings and major retrofitting works in existing buildings as specified in the Ordinance,” says the EB.

Either way (Energenz has worked in buildings as little as seven months old), commercial buildings are among Hong Kong’s biggest carbon offenders, consuming 40 percent of the city’s power, and some may not be as green as they think they are. “You can have a Platinum-rated LEED building that performs extremely poorly. It doesn’t look at the actual operation data of the building,” Heraud remarks. Like those shopping centres in winter. It’s that kind of waste that green certifications can’t measure—and which cost a fortune. Describing a typical case study building, Lennox-King claims Energenz revealed savings totalling 26 percent and millions in cash over 2 years. “Some are slightly incredulous about the amount of savings. ‘We thought we were green building. How are you qualified to do this?’” Lennox- King recalls. “The people that design these buildings are not the people that pay the electricity bills. There’s a disconnect between the responsibilities,” Heraud adds.

And that may be Energenz’s trump card. When the Australian government introduced NABERS initially, “[it] got 40 percent voluntary uptake before it became mandatory,” Lennox-King points out. The major driver for efficiency in Australia is reducing carbon emissions, but the bottom line speaks louder in Hong Kong. Money talks, and it will speak even louder when major multi-nationals start passing over tenancy in buildings that don’t perform efficiently enough for head office. Australian property owners were compelled to act by threats of losing tenants, and some of the bigger landlords here are feeling that pressure too.

The Ordinance is expected to save 2.8 billion kWh in the first decade and reduce emissions by 1.96 million tonnes according to the EB spokesman. But as Lennox-King sees it, “[The government] can meet most of their targets by telling CLP to switch the fuel they’re using,” which should be the third step following efficiency regulations and design guidelines. “But you’re still feeding the same demand. Change the demand,” Heraud chimes in, stressing demand isn’t simply behavioural, but includes reporting, improved maintenance and a host of simple fixes. Making matters moot, a fuel switch could lead to rising fees. That would be good for Energenz, but it’s a lazy solution that does nothing about inexplicable wintertime A/C.