HONG KONG - 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 this year. If approved, detailed design work probably would require a few months and then installation could begin, said the project's principal technical adviser, H. X. Yang, solar energy specialist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Yang says it is too early to determine 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 says.
Among the potential uses is powering the region's 114,000 street lights, which consumed about $16 million worth of conventionally generated electricity last year.
"Hong Kong is special because we've got so many slopes without grass or trees," Yang said.
Government engineers say the Hong Kong region has about 54,000 man-made slopes - excavated cuts into the mountainsides. More than one-quarter of these have been stabilized by concrete to prevent dangerous rockslides.
Environmental groups have offered little resistance to the idea of deploying solar panels because the concrete-covered slopes are viewed as public eyesores. These areas also are costly to maintain, as they require frequent safety inspections and periodic repair work to prevent erosion.
"It would be a double plus," said R. K. Tam, spokesman for the government's Geotechnical Engineering Office. "We'd get rid of some ugly areas and generate electricity in the process."
Another important factor is motivating the Hong Kong government: keeping the city attractive to the foreign investment that lies at the heart of its remarkable prosperity.
In recent years, air pollution has become a growing health problem and an oft-cited drag on the city's efforts to entice investors to the region.
Any significant production of solar energy would reduce reliance on conventional power plants.