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Asia Increasingly Turning to Renewable Energy

Rising energy demands due to rapid industrialization, combined with soaring oil prices and worrying levels of pollution leave many Asian countries but one choice: diversify their energy sources.The region is increasingly turning to renewable energy.

Government cars in Malaysia run on bio fuel made from palm oil. The Philippines uses sugar cane waste to produce power. More than 30 million Chinese get their hot water from solar heaters. And India is Asia's leading user of wind energy.

These are just some of the many examples of how Asia is increasingly exploring alternative sources of energy. The motive is obvious. The rapid industrial expansion in many countries - combined with rising affluence - has led to a growing need for energy. The demand cannot be sufficiently met by conventional energy sources such as oil, coal and gas. And the problem is worsened by rising oil prices - as most Asian countries are oil importers.

Zhao Wei is an environmental officer with the United Nations' Environmental Program in Bangkok. She says another reason governments are trying alternative energy is concern about pollution and climate change caused by the use of fossil energy.

"Asia is known for the heavy air pollution and the acid rains and the brown clouds (that) cover Asia has caused a lot of concerns and also leads to a lot of health problems," Zhao said. "So countries now realize that by shifting some of the power supply to alternative energy, especially clean energy, that's the only way to go to really address the air pollution issue."

For some countries, one alternative is nuclear power. Energy agencies say that over the next decade, most of the world's new nuclear power stations will be built in Asia, particularly in China, India and South Korea.

But even those countries also are promoting renewable energy options.

Eric Martinot is an expert on renewable energy and visiting professor at Beijing's Qinghua University. He says it is little known that China is the world's leading investor in renewable energy.

"China is the single-largest country in terms of annual investment and also in terms of power capacity, the renewable energy power generation capacity in China is larger than any other single country," he said. " Of course in China it's mostly small hydropower but it's still considered renewable. The other area in China that's really been booming is solar hot water. The solar hot water industry in China is also the number one in the world - by far."

Martinot says other sources, such wind energy, biomass power and bio fuels are less developed in China, but the government in January passed a renewable energy law to promote them. China's target is to have renewable sources produce 10 percent of its power by 2010 - not counting large hydropower projects such as the Three Gorges Dam. In comparison, by 2010, less three percent of China's electricity will come from nuclear power.

India plans to create 10 percent of its power supply through renewable energy by 2012. Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines also have ambitious policy targets for renewable sources.

Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros, a Philippines climate and energy activist for the environmental organization Greenpeace, says one of the big challenges is how to make sustainable energy economically competitive. Large hydropower plants are one of the few sources that can compete with fossil fuels in price.

Ronquillo-Ballesteros says government support is key because only governments can provide the framework needed to make sustainable energy a rational economic choice. First, he says, countries must have legally binding renewable energy targets.

"They can also provide a very good regulatory framework so we can remove some of the price distortions in the electricity market and I think more importantly, they can provide a very good investment environment so that particularly foreign investors and international financial institutions would come and invest in the developing countries of Asia," she said.

Renewable energy investment comes from a diverse range of public and private sources. Qinghua University's Martinot says there is a growing belief in the investment community that renewable energy is a serious business opportunity.

Multilateral lending agencies such as the Asian Development Bank as well as a number of donor countries like Germany and Japan are injecting increasing amounts of money into renewable energy in Asia.

Renewable energy is especially beneficial for those living in Asia's rural areas, where many people are not connected to the power-grid. Traditionally, rural residents have burned wood, agricultural waste and dung for home cooking and heating.

China and India are promoting improved stoves that cut fuel use 50 percent. Small hydropower systems power water pumps and irrigation systems in many countries. In China, biogas for rural home lighting and cooking - produced in small plants - is widespread, while the Philippines has solar community battery charging stations.

Zhao with the United Nations' Environmental Program says rural renewable energy often does not show up in statistics about energy production and consumption.

"But in many Asian countries those are the only type of energies people can have, like informal sectors for drying food and cottage industry, they all use different types of small scale renewable energy resources. Those need to be encouraged," she said.

Many experts warn, however, that the promotion of renewable energy needs to go hand in hand with greater energy efficiency. Greenpeace projects that at least 30 percent of future energy needs can be met by simple conservation methods.

Faced with higher oil prices and declining supplies, saving energy has moved higher on the agendas of both governments and companies in the region in the last few years. Experts, however, warn that attention could fade if oil prices fall, and they urge governments to avoid future crises by continuing the move toward renewable energy.