Category: Ramblings

The posts below are the result of my experiences and observations from working on energy projects, from travelling through various countries and from meeting with people in the energy sector. With them, I aim to share knowledge and learnings, and they provide me with a platform for discussion and opinion on energy related matters.

The complex world of Japanese waste management

I recently got back from a two week holiday in Japan.  The first week was spent snowboarding up north and the second week was in the madness that is Tokyo.  In both, I encountered confusing, and strangely strict, recycling rules that were difficult to follow and seemed to change from region to region.

Ueno_park

In the house that a big group of us had rented at the snow, we were asked to separate our recycling into cans, bottles, food waste and other.  Simple enough.  Around the ski resort bins were separated into ‘combustible’ and ‘other’.  And then when we got down to Tokyo, we had four pages of instructions in the AirBnB welcome pack about what needs to be separated and how to do it.  Rubbish was collected on our street every day, but I couldn’t see any difference in the trucks driving around and they all seemed to lump rubbish bags together without any apparent distinction between bags.  Other than crates of cans and bottles that were loaded up separately.  Who knows where those crates came from.  It was incredibly confusing.

There are a lot of articles out there which go into the complicated nature of recycling in Japan in much more depth than I would be able to having been there for just one week.  I found this one interesting.

But it’s an important topic.  Because there are vending machines dotted (spray-painted) all around the streets of Tokyo.  Everything comes in plastic.  Individually wrapped goodies are ubiquitous, and when you buy a single plasticked thing, it gets placed in a plastic bag.  And having seen what I’ve seen in the Philippines, this was naturally a bit distressing.

The Rockefeller Foundation has two Japanese cities within its 100 Resilient Cities programme; Kyoto and Toyama.  I didn’t visit either, but the Toyama Resilience Strategy is probably reflective of other Japanese city priorities.  They celebrate their existing waste management practices, and point out that individuals take ownership of their role in keeping the city clean.  But from a municipal level they also discuss grander plans and highlight the importance of the development of the city’s waste to energy industry.   “With city incentives, seven different companies now turn “waste” into usable products at the EcoTown Industrial Park, started in 2002. An extensive waste recycling education center increases citizen awareness of the methods and importance of waste recycling.” [Source] . They also point out the importance of incorporating waste reduction and recycling principles into education programmes and messaging.

Layout of Toyama Eco-Town [Source: Toyama Resilience Strategy]
Layout of Toyama Eco-Town [Source: Toyama Resilience Strategy]
What they don’t seem to do is look at reducing the amount of waste generated in the first place.  It all seems to focus on waste management, recycling, combustion, landfill.  There doesn’t seem to be any emphasis on rethinking packaging of products in Japan.  Talking to manufacturers.  Rethinking the need for wrapping up Pocky chocolate sticks (yum) into two separate packets within one single box.

We felt plastic sick by the time we got home.  And considering how much work each individual is expected to do in their day to day household recycling, and the social pressure that seems to be experienced at this domestic level, it’s not clear if any of that pressure is being directed upwards.  Both at the regulators and at the suppliers.

Asia has a lot to answer for with plastic consumption.  And Japan has enough resources to find a suitable response.

Back in the business – the Australian energy business

GDay

I am coming up for air after a crazy and intense year of maternity leave.  Thanks to all who have kept in touch and apologies to those who were expecting the newsletters to continue.

My big news is that four months ago I started working for an engineering firm in Melbourne, in their renewable energy team.  I am back in the world of consulting, working as technical advisor on a number of solar projects around Australia.  It’s very similar to the work I was doing back in South Africa so it’s familiar ground.

This market is booming at the moment, and there are a lot of little interesting topics floating around that could use a bit of discussion.  What’s of clear interest to me is the number of South Africans moving over here with experience in renewables.  The slow down of the REIPPP programme in SA has had many people looking further afield for work.  Not including myself I can think of five people who were consulting in Cape Town while I was there, who are now based in Australia.  And that’s just within consulting.  There will be a whole heap more working for the other project players.

I’m slowly getting my head around the grid connection space.  It’s complicated, with uncertainties that seem to be driving developers around the bend.  Marginal and Distributed Loss Factors deserve their own youtube channel, and the Generator Performance Standards are tying people in knots.

Each state has its own planning rules.  The country is enormous with long tentacled electrical infrastructure.  The politics is political and the leaders love to leave.

It’s a big mish mash and a bit wishy washy.  And it’s a lot to get your head around.

So watch this space.  Perhaps all that I can promise is that you learn along the way with me.

Melaka – one of Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities

In August 2016 we left Singapore by bus and landed in Johor Bahru, a city that seems to exist solely for the purpose of supplying Singapore with goods by truck.  We spent one night there before heading to Melaka (also sometimes referred to as Malacca.)  Here we found a small city rich in history, diversity, personality, beauty and with a lot of character.

Part of its history is that it was under Dutch occupation or control for a long time, and there is evidence of this throughout the city.  In the architecture and the way things are named (like the Stadthuys or city hall in the middle of town.)   I found myself wondering if this is the part of the world that so many Cape Malay people in South Africa can trace their heritage back to.  And it turns out that there were slaves sent from Melaka to Cape Town.  I found the experience that much more personal to think on it; that there was such a distant and yet very real link between this city that I had stumbled upon, and my home town.

melaka_10

The 100 Resilient Cities initiative lists the following as Melaka’s resilience challenges:

  • Coastal flooding
  • Cyber attack
  • Declining or ageing population
  • Disease outbreak
  • Landslide
  • Overtaxed/ under developed/unreliable transportation system
  • Poor air quality/pollution
  • Rainfall flooding
  • Rising sea level and coastal erosion

Coastal flooding/Rising sea level and coastal erosion/Rainfall flooding

These concerns are easy to understand.  The city is centred around the Melaka river, which winds its way around the city and flows out to the ocean.  It flows right through the heart of the touristy section of the city, and buildings and infrastructure are built right up to the water’s edge.

There is clearly a lot of history connected to the river.  A beautiful water wheel, ship exhibition, and tourist attractions and activities are set up around the river.  It is therefore not hard to imagine that the city is vulnerable to the effects of flood and sea level rise.

melaka_1 melaka_2 melaka_3 melaka_4melaka_11 melaka_5

Overtaxed/ under developed/unreliable transportation system

We stayed in the city centre.  We had arrived by bus from Johor Bahru and had used a bus to get from the main bus terminal to the hotel where we were staying.  This worked well and was very cheap.  But that is as far as our experience of the public transportation system went.  For the rest of our time, we walked around the city.  We didn’t brave the brightly coloured and adorned tourist tricycles.  But it’s not hard to imagine that the transport system is stretched and stressed.

melaka_7melaka_6melaka_8 melaka_9

Disease outbreak

I’m not really sure what diseases they are referring to with this, but this was one of my favourite signs in Melaka.  My guess is that they’re more worried about non-STD related diseases, but still, play safe folks.

Melaka

Bangkok – one of Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities

Bangkok is an incredible monster of a city.  We spent ten days there at the beginning of 2016 and saw a tiny fraction of it.  A friend of ours was staying in an apartment block where the roof was accessible on the 45th floor, with panoramic views of the city.  It goes on and on and on.  High rises as far as you can see.  Shining lights, the constant buzz of traffic.

bangkok_night_er

bangkok_night_er_1

The 100 Resilient Cities initiative describes Bangkok’s resilience pictures as the following:

“In addition to a bustling tourism industry, Thailand’s capital city is home to 10 million residents within 1,500 square kilometres. Nearly half the population comes from other provinces and countries, seeking better opportunities, and many are considered poor and vulnerable. In 2011, Bangkok experienced a severe flood with estimated damages of $45 billion to global supply chain, out of which only $10 billion were insured. This sparked the development of a manual for flood management that includes lessons for resilience building. However, technical expertise and financial resources for creating and executing resilience strategies remain limited.

Resilience Challenges:

  • Ageing infrastructure
  • Coastal flooding
  • Drought
  • Overtaxed/ under developed/unreliable transportation system
  • Pollution or environmental degradation
  • Poor transportation system
  • Rainfall flooding
  • Riot or civil unrest”

Sounds like a lot of cities.  Here is what I found, in my short stay there.

Ageing infrastructure:

The smell of Bangkok is not for the faint of heart or nose.  On one particularly smelly day, we walked over a stormwater drainage line and it smelled like an open sewer.  There are a number of channels running through the city and they also smell.  I’m not sure if this is linked to the age of the infrastructure, but it seemed to me that the city was not adequately equipped to manage its wastewater or its stormwater.  There is water all around and through Bangkok.  It is not hard to imagine that flooding can happen quickly and that its impact could be quite severe.

bangkok_channel_er

As with a number of Asian cities, the electrical and communications infrastructure looks like a real challenge.  A bird’s nest or spider’s web of cables.

Thailand is not poor though.  There was a stark contrast between Bangkok and the cities in Vietnam and the Philippines that we had just been in.  We experienced one power outage while I was there, but that appeared to be from maintenance work on the local grid.  Not from capacity issues.
bangkok_elec_er

Transportation

We stayed in Chit Lom.  It’s an easy, if a bit long, train journey from the airport into the city centre.  Our apartment was within easy walking distance to the train station, and the elevated walkways that link one shopping centre with another (shopping is not taken lightly in Bangkok…)  On one particularly touristy day, we took the train to the water’s edge, and then caught a boat to one of the temples.  That was my experience of Bangkok’s public transport.  Fast, regular, air-conditioned and predictable trains, and boats.

 

bangkok_skytrain_mrt_routemap

On one day we tried to take a taxi from Chit Lom to a neighbouring suburb, but the driver turned us away, and recommended taking the train as it would be faster.  On another day we took a taxi to their secondary airport, to go to Chang Mai, and we crawled through the traffic.  From this one taxi ride, and from our walking around the city, it’s clear that traffic is an issue.  I am not sure what the public transport system is like once you are out of the city centre.  There are a number of bus routes operating, some of which run all night but the city is enormous, with millions of people needing to move around every day, all day.

So when 100RC lists poor transportation as a challenge, I can understand why.  The train system is set up for people to move from the airport to major hubs easily.  It can’t possibly handle 10 million people. It’s monstrous infrastructure running through the city.  It can’t have been easy or cheap to build, and any expansion to it must be a gigantic undertaking.  The city is hot, and it’s not easy or comfortable to walk around.

The city is hot, and it’s not easy or comfortable to walk around.

Skytrain
Taxis, cars, trains, buses and tuk-tuks. Bangkok has it all.

bangkok_trains_er

Bangkok_waterway_ER_1

Pollution/environmental degradation

Plastic is the tragedy of Asian cities (with Singapore the major exclusion – possibly Seoul too, but I’m yet to go there).  It’s everywhere and it’s heartbreaking.  No stretch of road, or expanse of water, is free from it.

Bangkok_waterway_ER_2

The air quality was also not great.  Our friends who live there have commented that at times they have to stay indoors because the air quality is too bad to be outside, particularly as they have a young child.

The SkyTrain is built above roadways, and this infrastructure naturally traps vehicle exhaust fumes.  I was four months pregnant while we were there and it made me feel quite conscious of what air I was breathing in.

Riot/Civil unrest

This was not our first time in Bangkok.  We spent a day there in December 2013.  It was around the time of civil riots in the city, and we were quite conscious of this as we made our plans for the day.  In August 2015, the Erwaran Shrine, located within the city centre, and a short ten-minute walk from where we were staying in Chit Lom in 2016, was bombed.

Then in October 2016 the national monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, died at the age of 88, after reigning for 70 years.  This has led to more concerns regarding civil unrest in the country.

For all of these threats and the knowledge in the back of our minds that the country, and therefore its capital, was experiencing this discontent, we never came face to face with it.  We were conscious while we were there that it’s recommended that tourists avoid talking about the king, the military junta or politics in general with local Thai people.  It’s difficult to get a sense of what local people are struggling with, or living with if you aren’t really able to talk to them about it openly.  That says a lot itself I suppose.

bangkok_golf_er

Other experiences

While we were in the Philippines I saw a sign which broke my heart a little bit.  It was in a public lavatory, and said something to the effect of ‘Our children are precious, please protect them’ and made reference to child trafficking.  I was reminded of that sign when walking around Bangkok.  Old white males sitting at tables being served by young, beautiful Thai women or men dressed as women.  Viagra (or a cheap knock-off) for sale by street vendors.  The sex industry seems to be alive and well in Bangkok.

It’s hard to see this and not feel that local Thai people are being exploited by wealthy westerners.  Surely this has an impact on a place’s resilience?  If your people are objectified and targeted by a certain demographic of tourist, it must have a knock-on effect.