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Hong Kong eyes sunny side up power solution

It might not be the answer to California's power generation troubles, but for a corner of the world usually too busy turning a dollar to worry about energy efficiency, it's an innovative first for harnessing alternative energy.

Hong Kong, a city built amid jutting peaks, is exploring the idea of lining some of its steepest mountain slopes with solar panels. A feasibility study being conducted by the regional government's Geotechnical Engineering Office is scheduled to be completed early in the new year. If approved, detailed design work likely would require a few months, and then installation could begin, according to the project's principal technical adviser, H.X. Yang, a solar energy specialist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Yang says it is too early to determine just how much of the city's electricity could be generated by a large-scale deployment of solar panels. But if the idea is extended to include the facades and roofs of major buildings, the amount would be considerable, he believes.

Among the potential uses: powering the region's 114,000 street lights, which last year consumed about $16-million worth of conventionally generated electricity. Owners of private high-rise apartment buildings carved into the slopes could deploy solar panels on the ground to capture power for the buildings' outside lighting and internal communal areas, regional government officials say.

While some cities in the United States and Western Europe have reduced the need for conventional power by encouraging the use of solar panels on building facades, Hong Kong's topography gives it a unique advantage.

"Hong Kong is special because we've got so many slopes without grass or trees," Yang said.

There is another important motivating factor for the Hong Kong government: keeping the city attractive to foreign investment. In recent years, air pollution has become both a growing health problem and an oft-cited drag on the city's efforts to draw new investors. Any significant production of solar energy would reduce reliance on conventional power plants.

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