Monday, May 14, 2012

The New Seven Wonders of Green Technologies

Except of course in the case of fair democratic elections, I tend to take popular votes with a grain of salt, particularly in the age of the internet. For instance, last year's intense lobbying to get Jeju-do in the list of the New 7 Wonders of Nature reminded me of that 1999 Time Magazine internet poll supposed to select the Man of the Century: at one point, following a surge by Turkish nationalists, Mustapha Kemal was leading in most categories, from best politician to best scientist and best artist. If the same poll were led today, Pyeongyang would probably ask millions of zombie computers to cast a ballot in favor of KIM Il-sung, or even KIM Jong-il, the most prolific author ever (according to the legend, KIM The Second wrote more than 1,500 books).

I do believe in crowdsourcing, though, and in the benefits of consulting non-experts. But you have to keep a clear editorial line and some level of expertise in order to tame the wildest pet projects (exhibit A, without any picture, please: the infamous 'floating island' built on the Han River after the design of an ordinary Seoul citizen, following an open call for suggestions).

New and exotic ways of tackling environmental challenges have probably come out of a recent brainstorming session organized by Seoul with its citizens ("Great Citizens' Debate On Reducing One Nuclear Power Plant" - April 16, 2012), and I have the confused feeling that there might be some correlation with the list of 7 "Green Technologies" announced last week by Seoul Metropolitan Government for its future R&D investments (KRW 1.5 bn next year).

In Seoul, 90% of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings and transports, which explains the priority set, until now*, on energy saving technologies and processes, building efficiency, waste management, electric vehicles, fuel cells, public transportation, bikeshare programs, regulations against abuses in air-con / heating... But here, it's hard to find any kind of focus considering the - drum roll please - list of New 7 Wonders of Green Technologies (actually the "Support for Promotion of Green Technology Development in Seoul 2012")**:

1- "development of a power generator using low waterfalls"
2- "elimination of black carbon emanating from meat roasted on open fires in Korean restaurants"
3- "recycling of landfill-bound waste"
4- "development of an anaerobic digestion model and processes for maximizing methane production"
5- "technology for evaluating the performance of LED lighting systems"
6- "development of light LED street lamps focusing on forward lighting"
7- "technology for developing and maintaining natural grass school playgrounds"

Let's start with point 1. If hydropower for low waterfalls is not as worthy of the Ig Nobel Prize as a 50 year long study on knuckle-cracking (for this most essential piece of research, the last Prize recipient used himself as a guinea pig), it doesn't seem to be a priority for a city that does boast splendid mountains, but basically regulates Cheonggyecheon or the Hongjecheon Waterfall by using simple faucets.

To me, point 2 sounds like a bulgogi version of the "Clean Coal" imposture: instead of wasting money on R&D to eliminate "black carbon emanating from meat roasted on open fires in Korean restaurants", why not regulate the use of charcoal altogether? And even I, a BBQ-loving ogre, am fully aware that the best way to reduce the carbon footprint would be to eat less meat.

Now all the way down the list, to point 7. "Developing and maintaining natural grass school playgrounds"? The citizen who suggested this brilliant idea probably never tried to grow natural grass in a country with very dry and cold winters, and very hot and humid summers. No wonder many schools used dirt in the first place, switching to artificial turf when the technology got better and cheaper: you can enjoy green all year round without feeding Monsanto shareholders, and save for genuine biomass over the rest of your campus. If I were Seoul city, I'd rather invest in sustainable low-cost urban farming techniques that can work all year round (soil-less cultivation, vertical crops...), and replace all those acres of "vinyl houses" (the negation of sustainable farming and a visual pollution if I ever saw one), with genuine, "natural" grassland.

Seoul Mayor wants to give away land for citizens to tend small kitchen gardens and I see the point. The concept is very popular in Europe, and has a positive social impact at the micro level of small neighborhoods. It's also good for image, and Lotte Department Store recently installed one on its rooftop as a 'well-being' service to its customers. But implementing it on a large scale, with individuals often abusing chemicals to compete for the best shrubbery, could prove counter-productive. Such initiatives should always remain sincere, and, literally, 'grassroot'.

Until now, big cities have been the problem, and they have to become the solution as most humans live in urban environments. Yes, cities need more nature, and bringing the countryside into the city is always pleasant, but it's no more a solution than bringing the city into the countryside. Smart urban farming may also help solving the tricky food equation our planet is facing, and reduce the negative impacts of agriculture in rural areas.
"Anaerobic digestion" (point 4) or algae biomass could become sustainable alternatives to fossile fuels, knowing that, of course, the aim of the game is not to "maximiz(e) methane production", methane being great fuel, but also a gas much more damaging than CO2 when it comes to greenhouse effect.

"Recycling of landfill-bound waste" (point 3) is not a new idea, and progress can be made simply by optimizing existing processes. For instance, the Nowon-Dongdaemun waste valorization center used to be lagging behind Seoul's three other centers, working at 67% capacity compared to 80% for Yangcheon-gu, Mapo-gu, and Gangnam-gu. Series of reunions helped close the gap within only 100 days, and even led to reductions in production costs.

Since their promotion was already a priority for the previous administration, Seoul is more in the implementation stage for LED technologies (points 5-6). The city just signed a MOU*** with the 206 member strong Korea LED Association (KLEDA - to replace, with a 40% discount on materials and installation, all the lightings in the underground parking facilities of 1.2 million apartments and 800,000 business buildings by 2014, with hospitals and convenience stores as potential future targets. Those who cannot invest even at that discounted price will continue paying on their following electricity bills as if there were no savings, until the investment is fully paid for. Furthermore, the equivalent of 1% of the equipment will help finance energy for underprivileged citizens. The estimated economy of energy is 297 GWh or KRW 32.7 bn per year.

At our micro level, we're far from producing that much energy with our few solar panels, but they do trim off great chunks of our electricity bill. Even considering the fact that, if you play by the rules and install separate counters, you end up paying more VAT than you should. But that's part of the game. When you want green back, you don't always expect greenbacks.

Seoul Village 2012
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*see previous focuses on environment, for instance "Electric buses, Smart Chargers : Seoul is really getting serious", "Seoul Rooftops Go Green", "Public bike rental services bloom in Seoul and around"...

**"Technology to be developed to generate hydroelectric power in Seoul"
***"Seoul to distribute 2 million LED lights by 2014"

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