Asia Can Help Lead Climate-Change Fight

As officials meet in Copenhagen to hammer out a new global climate-change policy, Asian clean technology companies are poised to benefit from their large home markets and expertise in low-cost electronics manufacturing. Already, such companies as Sunpower (SPWR) are relying on engineers in plants in the Philippines to improve yields and bring costs down. Companies such as Suntech in China have taken the lead in producing silicon-based photovoltaic cells. On Dec. 10 wind-power producer China Longyuan had a strong debut on the Hong Kong stock market, raising more than $2 billion in an initial public offering that rose 9.4% on the stock's first day of trading. The success of such companies demonstrates that Asia's scientists and technologists are capable of taking the lead in helping the world make the transition to renewable energy resources. We just need to give them the right challenge. Detractors argue that initial capital costs for some renewable sources are still expensive. They also point out that sources of renewable energy such as wind and solar are intermittent: The wind doesn't always blow when you want it to, and the sun doesn't always shine in a particular location. Tax Holidays and Other IncentivesThese issues, however, are slowly being solved both financially and technically. Cost considerations are now being offset by financing mechanisms such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and its carbon credits and by incentives such as the feed-in tariff popularized in Europe. In Asia, the Philippines Renewable Energy Act of 2008 gives companies and entities that engage in renewable energy such incentives as income tax holidays for the first seven years of operation and exemption from import duties on many types of renewable energy equipment. The Philippines also gives renewable power producers the right to charge a slight premium over fossil fuel sources. The feed-in tariff premium is reviewed periodically and set by the newly formed National Renewable Energy Board, composed of representatives from the government and private sectors. With proper planning, it's also now possible to overcome technical issues related to wind and solar sources. Averaged over a large area and connected through the grid, there is always a place where the wind and sun are available at any given moment or where backup is available. Storage mechanisms such as batteries, elevated lakes, and old salt caverns can store excess energy until needed. Researchers are also working on issues related to connecting increasingly intermittent generating sources to the grid. They're also looking at the use of smart appliances with built-in chips that can adjust their demand depending on the power situation at a given moment. Road Map to 2030While all these changes could lead to major improvement in the potential for renewable energy, the cover story in the November issue of Scientific American argues for an advance more groundbreaking. The Sci Am article contends that theoretically, renewable energy can already power 100% of our energy needs and replace carbon-emitting sources altogether in two decades. The article's authors, Stanford professor Mark Jacobson and University of California Davis researcher Mark Delucchi, chart a road map to shift the power and transport sectors to renewable energy by 2030. Jacobson (who heads Stanford's Energy Program) and Delucchi say this is possible by combining wind, concentrated solar, geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaic, wave, and hydropower and linking them together in an intelligent manner. The authors base their arguments on a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Energy and Environmental Science. They argue that shifting vehicles from liquid fuels to electricity and cutting energy losses would make possible a reduction in global energy demand of 30%. We all know, however, that what is theoretically possible is not always practical. As we saw with Beta vs. VHS or Windows vs. Linux, advocates and detractors of a particular technology will always exist. On the question of large-scale adoption of renewable energy, the main barriers now are cost and practical considerations, whether these be technical or business-related. To speak of 100% renewable energy is still radical at this time, even among technologists. It is somewhat akin to John F. Kennedy's challenge in the early 1960s to the U.S. scientific community to send a man to the moon before the end of that decade. Theoretically possible? Yes. Practical? Not yet. If made a goal, though, it can be. We know where JFK's dare led us, and sometimes it simply takes the right challenge to go in a particular direction. Don't get me wrong. Aiming for a 100% renewable energy future will be fraught with obstacles and will require a lot of money, time, and energy. There will be some failures along the way. How to pay for the change will be a big question. But goal-directed science with legions of engineers and scientists in Asia and other parts of the world, all aiming for one goal, should be able to rid us of our reliance on fossil fuels, too. Return to the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit Special Report Table of Contents

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