China is wedded to Dirty Coal

SUBHEAD: China remains wedded to dirty coal, despite huge investments in clean energy.

By Adam Minter on 15 May 2010 in Sierra Magazine - 

Image above: Chinese coal pollution from residential use is a big problem in 2010. From (  

Fly into Taiyuan, China, in the winter, and you will likely descend through an orange cloud. Taiyuan is the capital of Shanxi province, and Shanxi is the heart of China's coal country. The region's sulfur-heavy coal bathes the city and countryside in a sherbet-colored haze, making it difficult to distinguish the distant power plants from the towns and villages that dot the mountain landscape.

During my last visit, I exited a hotel elevator to find even the farthest reaches of the hallway tinted ginger. The next morning, when I walked outside to find breakfast, I passed storefronts where stoves--small and large--were fueled by piles of the locally mined rock. Behind those storefronts, coal-fired heaters warmed the back rooms where the shopkeepers live. In Shanxi, filthy coal is a part of daily life, providing a cheap, readily available source of energy that won't be replaced by renewables or reduced via conservation efforts anytime soon.

Shanxi is located in China's vast west, and most of the energy it generates is transmitted east, to Beijing and coastal cities whose residents are as addicted to coal as Taiyuan's shopkeepers are. Coastal Shanghai's expanding stock of high-rise condos, for example, are built without insulation, which minimizes construction costs but requires residents to use far more energy for heating than their counterparts in the developed world. The buildings, explains Rich Brubaker, founder of Collective Responsibility, a China-based nongovernmental organization, are essentially cement blocks, "and before you can really feel warm, you basically have to heat the cement."

Buildings account for well over half of China's energy demands, and total Chinese floor space is expected to more than double over the next 20 years, so Taiyuan's haze is certain to thicken. Will Latta, managing director of LP Amina, which manufactures pollution equipment for coal plants in the United States and China, estimates that fewer than 5 percent of Chinese coal-fired plants have equipment to reduce or eliminate nitrogen oxide, the main contributor to smog. "They're 15 to 20 years behind the U.S.," he says.

By one estimate, China was responsible for 85 percent of the worldwide growth in coal demand last year, and what it didn't obtain by mining the world's third-largest known reserves, it imported.

That's a trend that China's leaders, resolved to continue their country's economic growth of 8 percent a year, have no intention of slowing. For the past 30 years, China has followed a development blueprint that privileges job creation over all else--including environmental protection. Estimates vary, but coal may power as much as 80 percent of China's growing energy demand. Even though the country is determined to meet 15 percent of those needs with renewables by 2020, it will burn more coal then than it burns now, regardless of how many windmills are erected on the wide plains of Inner Mongolia.

China's growing dependence on coal is a story that the media, enamored of the country's recent green-tech initiatives, aren't telling. True, China is subsidizing a huge expansion of its alternative-energy industry--but in parallel with an expansion of its coal-fired power industry. For example, in gusty Jiuquan, in Gansu province, where a 12.7-gigawatt wind farm is being erected, the developers are also seeking permission--likely to be granted--to build several gigawatts of new coal-burning capacity to serve as a backup when the wind isn't blowing.

Drive to the edge of any moderate-size Chinese city and you'll inevitably find at least one haze-shrouded steel mill fabricating the girders for the new bridges that brought you there and the rebar for the gleaming hotel in which you're staying.

This is by design: China's economic planners believe that steel is central to a robust economy, so over the past three decades they've given it every possible advantage. That investment has paid off. In 2000, China's steelmakers manufactured 127 million metric tons of steel; in 2009, they produced nearly 600 mmt, or roughly 40 percent of the world total. Last year the United States produced a mere 63 mmt.

Image above: China in 1910 had hardly any industrialization and a much smaller population. From(

How did China achieve this industrial coup? By firing its furnaces with cheap, domestically mined coal. In the United States and other developed countries, roughly half of all steel is manufactured from scrap metal in electric-arc furnaces, which use less than half as much energy as coal-fired blast furnaces. But China's huge reserves of coal alter the equation, so the cheaper but far-less-efficient blast furnace method accounts for approximately 85 percent of all steel production.

The energy needs of China's drafty high-rises, built with cheap steel, weren't much of a problem during the early stages of the country's development. But as more and more of their occupants plug into the grid, cold and leaky buildings compete for coal resources with the country's ever-expanding industrial base. In January 2009, for example, China experienced a lengthy cold snap that caused unprecedented electricity demand and even rationing. By the middle of the month, two of Taiyuan's largest coal-burning power plants were left with less than seven days' worth of reserves to burn.

Nationwide, more than 200 plants reported that they were in the same dire situation, with a significant percentage claiming to have a mere three-day reserve. The price of coal in northern China rocketed 15 percent, and hundreds of dangerous, illegal mines that had been closed down in earlier safety crackdowns (roughly 10 Chinese miners a day died in accidents in 2008) were reopened to fill the demand.

But reopening mines takes money and time, so Chinese coal buyers turned abroad. Indonesia, Vietnam, and Australia led the list of potential suppliers. Between January and November 2009, total Chinese coal imports increased by 500 percent over 2008, to 110 million metric tons; imports from Australia increased by 2,770 percent, to 40 million metric tons. Even that wasn't enough to satisfy the emergency demand, so China turned to importing coal from as far away as Colombia. The crisis passed, and cheap domestic coal now accounts for more than 95 percent of Chinese consumption--a trend that is unlikely to change as China invests in better coal-mining technology. What about all those Mongolian windmills?

They can't do much to satisfy booming energy demand, because China's antiquated electrical grid is years, if not decades, from being able to transmit economical green energy where it's needed. Such transmission bottlenecks mean that China's wind farms typically run at only a quarter of their potential, and investors have to wait 12 to 15 years for a return on their investment, rather than the 5-year period enjoyed by their counterparts in the West.

"Until the renewable sector improves its capacity and output," says Collective Responsibility's Brubaker, "the grid is simply going to prefer coal for its consistent output." LP Amina's Latta has a slightly more optimistic outlook. He believes that China's national government will continue to promote pollution controls for its coal-fired power plants, "but how quickly national regulations filter down to the provincial, local level, that's the question," he says. Coal plants are often owned by local governments and officials, a profit-hungry group that has historically balked at complying with national environmental initiatives.

Until China updates its grid, the main beneficiaries of future demand surges will be Australian mining companies, not the nascent renewable sector. Environmentalists see shifting away from coal as a critical component in the fight against a warming planet.

But many Chinese face far-more-immediate health risks than climate change or even dirty air. "You don't worry about global warming when you're worried about whether all the food in your village is contaminated with industrial chemicals," explains one Chinese environmentalist, who asked not to be named. During the summer of 2009, for example, more than a thousand children in Hunan province were found to be contaminated with lead from local smelters.

"You worry about the government-owned factory contaminating the waterways and the local farms," he says. "You don't worry about energy efficiency or clean coal."


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