Thursday, November 8, 2007

China’s Green Energy Gap - Economic Expansion at Any Price

BOXING, China — By next autumn, a muddy construction site here in a rural part of eastern China will give way to a small power plant that burns corn stalks and cotton stalks to generate electricity for nearby villages and steam for a neighboring industrial complex.

The plant would be ready sooner, but only four companies in China make the specialized precision boilers that the biomass plant requires. And all those companies are plagued by backed-up orders and delivery delays. Similar problems bedevil the wind turbine industry in China.

The same big utility company building the green plant in Boxing, CLP, has just opened a coal-fired plant in southernmost China. On schedule and built for half what it would cost in the West, that plant will generate 1,200 megawatts of electricity — compared with 6 megawatts from the Boxing biomass plant. CLP is so impressed that it is bidding to build coal-fired plants in India with Chinese technology.

These are the realities faced by companies seeking to make themselves more environmentally friendly in China, where coal is king. Coal-fired plants are quick and cheap to build and easy to run. While the Chinese government has set goals for increasing the use of a long list of alternative energies — including wind, biomass, hydroelectric, solar and nuclear — they all face obstacles, from bureaucracy to bottlenecks in manufacturing. CLP’s differing energy choices are a case study in how one company grapples with the need to provide electricity to hundreds of millions of impoverished Asians even as it is under a self-imposed goal of trying to limit emissions of global warming gases.


The problem is particularly acute because governments across Asia, from China and India to Indonesia and the Philippines, are turning mainly to coal to meet their soaring electricity needs and prevent blackouts, even though coal produces more global warming gases than any other major source of electricity.

China’s increase has been the most substantial. The country built 114,000 megawatts of fossil-fuel-based generating capacity last year alone, almost all coal-fired, and is on course to complete 95,000 megawatts more this year.

For comparison, Britain has 75,000 megawatts in operation, built over a span of decades.

The most talked-about alternative to coal in China involves plans to quadruple the country’s share of power from nuclear energy by 2020. But the plan, which contemplates dozens of reactors, still amounts to just 31,000 megawatts of nuclear power over the next dozen years.

“That’s minuscule,” said Jonathan Sinton, a China expert at the International Energy Agency. China builds more coal-fired capacity than that every four months.

(For purpose of comparison, when the Three Gorges Dam is fully operating it will generate 18,000 megawatts. When the Rio Baker and Rio Pascua are fully dammed they will generate 2355 megawatts. The coal plant they discuss in China will generate 1200 megawatts. )


The future of hydroelectric power in China is clouded by severe environmental problems at the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

One of the strangest features of China’s energy policy is the paucity of environmental controls on coal-fired plants, because rules governing them were written long ago. Renewable energy projects actually face a more stringent review of their environmental impact.

Here is the full article.