Green Olympics … the Butterfly in China

April 16, 2008
Beijing is promoting this as the first "Green Olympics"

Runners recently began a long, serpentine trek of 85,000 miles to carry the Olympic torch from ancient Olympia in Greece to its terminal spot in Beijing, China, for the opening of the summer Olympics on Aug. 8, 2008. With the Olympic focus on Beijing, several energy items in the news got me thinking about energy policies in a slightly different way (or, possibly, several ways). It may seem like a leap of imagination, trying to connect the Olympic Games to your bottom line with energy policy, but maybe not. The 2008 summer games could help focus concern about international energy markets on growth of the Asian continent as never before. (You can watch it all unfold at

Beijing is promoting this as the first "Green Olympics" by touting the "harmonious relationship between man and nature, the advantages to environmental protection, and healthy living brought about by advances in technology." The arrival of spring has kick-started forestation work around the Beijing National Stadium, commonly referred to as the "Bird's Nest." The project began on April 4 and, when finished, will include 2,742 newly planted trees and 77,000 square meters of new grass. In fact, Beijing is aiming to transform itself into a place where "the air is fresh, the water is clear, and the surroundings are pretty" — at least during the Olympic Games. But, they say that air pollution there on a typical day normally is 5-times higher than the maximum for human lungs to absorb and remain functional, as stipulated by the World Health Organization. China depends upon coal to generate 80 percent of its electricity, and it has 500 new coal-fired plants on the books. So, plans are being made to shut down the massive city as much as possible during the games to assure that performance of the athletes will not be compromised.

Zhang Yimou, director of the opening ceremonies, promised to present a splendid show with some 10,000 performers who already are in rehearsal at several locations around the Beijing suburbs. No doubt the games will be spectacular and seen on billions of television monitors around the world. But, they symbolize big challenges from the other side of the world. China is rapidly emerging as the biggest trading partner and investor in the United States, and also our greatest competitor for world energy reserves (especially oil). For example, GM (General Motors) has announced plans to invest $1 billion per year with its Chinese partners to design and build small, energy-efficient cars with strange names for the skyrocketing transportation demand that's expected in the coming decade.

A 4th annual international conference and expo on green buildings was convened on March 31, 2008, by the Ministry of Construction, when Chinese government officials, experts, and companies assembled to discuss how to reduce energy consumed by buildings. In the conference, design theory, technologies, and materials of green and intelligent building were the major topics. Also on the agenda were the past development, the current engineering practices, the operation, and the supervision of green building and residential real estate. In 2007, China saw a 3.27-percent year-on-year drop in energy consumption for each 10,000 yuan of Gross Domestic Production (GDP), according to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in his government report to the First Session of the 11th National People's Congress. The country plans to spend nearly $200 billion (U.S.) by 2020 to increase renewable energy use to 15 percent of total supply, as well as reduce the energy that its buildings consume by 65 percent.

Scan across the globe to the North American continent and zoom into the location of your buildings. As a user of energy resources, what do you see? Can you put all of the energy-policy options into some manageable perspective? The scale and complexity is difficult to imagine. For example, Congressional committee hearings recently put executives of the top oil companies on the spot to explain their record profits. One of them told stockholders they have no plans to increase oil supplies because rising prices will provide the needed growth in return on investment. Another pointed out that the United States consumes 20 railcar loads of coal every second to generate electricity. Stop for a second and try to imagine that.

A report to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) indicated that it would cost up to $6 billion to build the transmission infrastructure needed to connect all the potential wind generators in Texas to the state-operated grid. In fact, connecting all of the new wind generators to the grid is the greatest challenge to transmission-line builders all over. When you consider that each and every wind generator must be synchronized with all the others, fed into the system, backed up for the times when breezes are scarce, the challenges are immense. Solar-power technology seems to be potentially approaching competitive status with the cost of nuclear generation, but it has the challenge of illuminating cities after dark.

While renewables are nice and clean, they're not expected to assume the role of base-load electrical generation for decades to come. Coal, hydropower, natural gas, and nuclear are the main sources we have for powering continued economic growth.

There are objections to expanding all of them. Coal is dirty to burn and dangerous to mine. Hydropower is about maxed out; there are few additional water resources large enough to dam up with public approval, and none are planned. China is completing its immense Three Gorges hydropower plant, 20 times the size of Hoover Dam. Nuclear power plants cost up to 10 times as much to build as an equivilant coal plant, and you have the challenge of storing the radioactive waste plutonium forever. The spector of Chernobyl still lies abandoned for all to see what can happen to an area if the worst-case scenario of nuclear power plant meltdown should ever occur again, as it did on Saturday, April 26, 1986. The story has been there for years, neglected and forgotten. Now, it's merely a silent ghost town. Radiation near the abandoned reactor is still 300,000-times higher than normal. You can see pictures of it by visiting ( The shift toward increasing use of natural gas will require more imports transported by liquefied gas tankers, and few people enthusiastically welcome new volatile ports on the coastline close enough for economical piping to major population centers.

Now, when you overlay all the various government jurisdictions onto the decision-making process, you may see that the energy policy affecting your bottom line is exceedingly complex. The range of policies, from regulated energy monopolies to free-market competition that exists among the various states and the federal government, requires the wisdom of King Solomon to sort out. But, sort them out we must, because countries like China stand at the door of progress with vast potential for changing the world. Consider that not only does the United States possess less than 5 percent of known world oil reserves, but that it's also a minor operator of large crude-oil tankers. As of 2007, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency counted 4,295 oil tankers of 1,000 long tons of deadweight (DWT) or greater worldwide. Panama was the world's largest "flag state" for oil tankers, with 528 of the vessels in its registry. Six other flag states with more than 200 registered oil tankers: Liberia (464), Singapore (355), China (252), Russia (250), the Marshall Islands (234), and The Bahamas (209). In comparison, the United States and the United Kingdom had only 59 and 27 registered oil tankers, respectively.

Perhaps it's time to get off the short-term fixes and patches that have been the story of U.S. energy policy for decades and get serious about comprehensive, long-range planning. We must learn how to maintain our economic growth and international standing in a new era of Asian presence that will challenge our basic assumptions about energy markets.

Perhaps the Games in Beijing in August will be followed by a new awareness of the global economy, in which decisions made about the sources of energy supply and delivery methods of products and services will be debated and decided. Perhaps we must begin to learn how to decouple energy usage from economic growth as China is doing, with all the changes in lifestyle that would bring. This is a goal not presently on the agenda of the U.S. Department of Energy. We could begin by changing the business plans of energy companies, from maximizing quarterly profits to maximizing energy independence; then, maybe consider the cars that GM is building in China. Perhaps we also could begin demanding zero-energy buildings, at least as a goal, if not a reality. This is possible with current technology, as proven by Ferreira Construction's 42,000-square-foot headquarters, converted from an existing building at 31 Tannery Project, in Branchburg, NJ. Completed in 2006 for $6 million, it employs radiant heat, efficient HVAC and boilers, photovoltaic solar collectors, and Web-based digital controls to produce surplus electricity annually equivalent to a 1-month supply. It also reduced its carbon footprint by 83 percent. Of course, utility stockholders are not well served by such developments.

Someone once observed that a butterfly in China changes the air currents over North America. Will we feel only a slight, temporary flutter from the Olympic Games of 2008, or will they touch off a long-range evolution of discussion about international energy futures not yet imagined? Perhaps the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing are connected to energy events in your hometown more than you presently think. As you watch the games in August, consider the energy implications of the new Chinese Olympic venues that you will be viewing. Underneath the new architecture are some issues that represent a serious world challenge for our nation.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Buildings, create an account today!

Sponsored Recommendations