Energy-Strapped Asian Countries Forced to Become More Efficient

Across Asia, soaring oil prices and unrelenting demand for energy are forcing companies and countries to become more energy efficient.

BANGKOK, Thailand — G Steel, one of Thailand's leading steel firms, recycles all its waste water and has cut its electricity use by 38 percent over the past five years.

In China, the government has threatened contractors with hefty fines if they violate building codes for saving energy.

South Korea has launched a campaign to convince consumers to toss out their old, less efficient appliances, while Japan's Environment Ministry last week turned off its heating to save fuel.

Across Asia, soaring oil prices and unrelenting demand for energy are forcing companies and countries to become more energy efficient.

Governments are rolling out tougher standards for automobiles, appliances and new construction while offering tax incentives for energy-conscious employers.

Companies are scrambling to save energy to protect their bottom lines, as well as attract Western partners and bolster their environmental credentials.

Some companies are finding savings by tossing out old boilers or reusing old tires, waste oil or saw dust for fuel.

Others are investing in more efficient plants. The Anhui Tiandu Paper Co. in China, for example, built a plant that produces heat and power together and is 30 percent more efficient than traditional power systems.

"If you spend all the gas, all the electricity, you know it is not very good for the country," said Dr. Somsak Leeswadtrkul, the founder of G-Steel Public Co. Ltd., which is investing $2.2 million to cut natural gas use by 15 percent.

While solar power, wind power and other kinds of renewable energy offer hope for the future, they won't be viable on a large scale for decades to come.

So governments are looking to squeeze more out of their economies -- clamping down on everything from leaky office buildings to wasteful coal-fired power plants, which provide two-thirds of Asia's electricity.

Such conservation measures could help Asian countries cut their energy use by as much as a quarter in the next 15 years and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, experts say.

While alternative forms of energy are being developed, "the absolute reduction in energy consumption and greenhouse gases will come through energy efficiency," said Sophie Punte, who is overseeing a U.N. program promoting energy efficiency among 40 companies in Asia. The program is set to be expanded in Africa and Latin America.

Since the 1970s, energy efficiency measures such as minimum energy performance standards for appliances have become commonplace in the United States and Europe.

But in Asia, energy efficiency has largely been limited to South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Australia.

China is one of the region's most wasteful economies. Its 1950s era power plants and outdated, state-owned factories use 11 times more energy than neighboring Japan and three times more than the global average, according to Douglas Ogden, of the China Sustainable Energy Program.

China's rapid growth has only made things worse, forcing it to spend billions of dollars in recent years constructing scores of polluting, coal-fired power plants, which waste two-thirds of their coal, Ogden says. Coal is used to generate 79 percent of the nation's electricity, according to the International Energy Agency, based in Paris.

China has been trying to reduce its dependence on coal, but the electricity system itself so far has largely eluded reform, Ogden says. Signaling a shift to more energy-efficient nuclear power plants, China said last month it plans to add 40 new nuclear generators by 2020.

Still, energy demand is outstripping supply, resulting in power blackouts -- and prompting Chinese leaders to champion energy efficiency. Last year, Beijing put in place new fuel efficiency standards for vehicles and implemented a five-year plan that calls for improving energy efficiency 20 percent by 2010.

The government, working with the California-based Natural Resource Defense Council, said this month it will implement stricter building codes to save energy, such as using lightweight concrete that is a better insulator and double-paned windows to hold heat.

Developers that ignore the rules could be fined $62,000 or lose their licenses.

"If you don't meet the energy-efficient standards, you will lose your job," said Construction Ministry Vice Minister Qiu Baoxing.

Thailand and the Philippines mandate efficiency standards for appliances and offer tax incentives for companies investing in efficiency projects, the Asian Development Bank said.

South Korea spent $680 million last year to replace factories with energy efficient facilities, officials said.

Japan, a leader in the field, has promoted a "Cool Biz" campaign to persuade companies to reduce their air conditioning and heating use by having workers dress more casually. Last week, Japan's Environment Ministry had a "Warm Biz" campaign during which it turned off its heat in an effort to save energy.

"I think you will see energy efficiency growing throughout Asia and it may well overtake the West," said David Crossley, an Australian-based energy adviser with The Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership.

Still, many Asian companies say there remain significant barriers to energy efficiency, including a lack of financial incentives, opposition from management worried about the cost and weak environmental laws, according to a U.N. survey last year.

And in the region's poorest countries like Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam as well as vast swaths of India and China, the challenge is simply providing electricity, never mind making it efficient.

"There are still a lot of people who don't have access to energy," said Gerald Doucet, secretary general of the World Energy Council in London. "The per capita consumption of energy is very low when you take in the entire population. The focus in countries like Vietnam is to get more electricity."


Kana Inagaki from Tokyo and Yu-sup Lee from Seoul contributed to this story.

Source: Associated Press

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