Clean our Cloud

From mainland's pregnant mothers to waste management policy, Chief executive-elect Mr C.Y. Leung has strived hard to make changes in controversies that have garnered much attention by the public. Yet, whether or not he is a truly inspiring leader, goes to the wisdom of foreseeing the issue that is unknown to the public and the courage to make policy change. Here's one of the most important challenges in the foreseeable future – the problem of 'Dirty Data'.

Leung mentioned in his election platform that turning Hong Kong into a data-center hub is one way in which the city can climb out of its economic slump. The existing government is also committed to fostering Hong Kong as a prime location for data centers in Asia Pacific, and global IT companies like NTT and Google have already set foot in Hong Kong. However Greenpeace has found that our current energy mix is the one big obstacle towards Hong Kong's ambition in becoming Asia's "Dataport".

It's no news that Hong Kong has an overwhelmingly dirty energy mix, with over half the energy being produced from coal, followed by gas and nuclear energy imported from China. Electricity generation accounts for 67% of local greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while renewable energy currently makes up less than 1%.

Therefore if our leaders would like to explore a new development pathway for the city, undoubtedly they will also need to find a way to incorporate clean energy, else Hong Kong becomes a culprit in accelerating climate change.

Data centers consume a lot of energy and becoming one of the fastest growing industries. According to the Commerce and Economic Bureau, power usage of upper tier data centers are so large that just one data center can use up as much as 30-40 times the electricity as a typical high density building. If data centers are powered by dirty energy, like they will surely be in Hong Kong if we continue the current energy mix, not only will it create a huge environment impact but also hinder further business opportunity.

Companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook are beginning to lead the sector to a clean energy pathway through innovations in energy efficiency, prioritizing renewable energy access when siting their data centers, and demanding better energy options from utilities and government decision-makers. Both Google and Yahoo are increasingly powering their facilities with renewable energy even as they continue to expand. Facebook has also stepped forward to lead the way to a cleaner cloud through its ongoing efforts to share energy efficiency technology through its OpenCompute initiative. This is in addition to an announcement of a new siting policy in December last year that prioritizes clean energy for its infrastructure.

The world is moving towards investments which are sustainable. And instead of joining in this "race to the top", competing with other Asia cities by providing more clean energy, currently the Hong Kong Government is going against the trend with a "race to the bottom" – providing cheap and dirty electricity. 

In three months Hong Kong is stepping into a new administration, it is the right time to make ambitious, positive change to bring about a better future for Hong Kong. For too long we have lived with an outdated and polluting energy mix. For too long we haven't thought differently and increased the uptake of renewable energy. Opportunities are out there – CLP is building new wind farms adjacent to Tseung Kwan O, a location reserved for developing data centers. The government should encourage these data centers to sign power purchase agreement with the wind farms enabling them to use clean energy directly, and the wind power resources are abundant in Guangdong.

Are we going to take the step of importing clean energy to improve our energy mix and environment? Will Mr Leung take up this challenge?

Image © Clement Tang / Greenpeace