China has announced the closure of more than 1,700 small, inefficient mines in the next year, while planning up to 70 new coal-fired plants, most of them at large coal bases like Ta Shan. In the population centers of the coast, coal is being phased out: coal use in Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing, will be reduced by half by 2017, the government says.
China is moving its coal operations westward into the interior and away from most of the population on the eastern coast.
To move all that electricity from the interior of the country to the coast, Beijing will invest nearly half a trillion dollars in ultra-high-voltage transmission lines built along west-to-east “power corridors.” Earlier this year the world’s largest UHV line started transmitting electrons from Hami, in Xinjiang Province, more than 1,500 miles east to Shanghai.
So far, 12 of China’s 34 provinces have pledged to implement absolute coal consumption targets, and six have said they will reduce their coal use by 2017, with greater Beijing cutting coal use by 50% in the next 3 years. If successful, these measures could reduce CO2 emissions by 700 million tons (MT) in 2017 and 1,300 MT in 2020
China is erecting huge industrial complexes in remote areas to convert coal to synthetic fuel that could make the air in its megacities cleaner. But the complexes use so much energy that the carbon footprint of the fuel is almost double that of conventional coal and oil.
The facilities, which resemble oil refineries, use coal to make liquid fuels, chemicals, power and “syngas,” which is like natural gas but extracted from coal. The fuels and electricity are then transported to China’s big cities to be burned in power plants, factories and cars.
Currently 16 coal base sites are being built and many are operational. One being constructed in Inner Mongolia will eventually occupy nearly 400 square miles—almost the size of the sprawling city of Los Angeles.
China has approved nine syngas plants, according to Chi-Jen Yang, a research scientist at the Duke center, who’s been tracking developments. Ultimately, 40 syngas plants are being planned, including five already approved at Ordos. If all are completed, they will release 110 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over 40 years, according to Chi-Jen, and they represent just a portion of the various coal processing facilities being planned and built on the coal bases and other scattered locations. That amount alone—110 billion tons—would represent almost a third of the carbon budget that’s remaining to all nations between now and 2050 if humanity is to avoid irreversible global warming.
Building out the coal bases will put China on the road to emitting 10 billion tons a year of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2030 and that’s even if the nation succeeds in meeting its goal of becoming 20 percent more energy efficient per unit of economic output, explains David Fridley, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who’s been studying Chinese energy use since the early 1980s.
Modeling studies that Fridley has worked on at LBNL show that under the most aggressive cleanup scenario, China’s carbon dioxide emissions will not peak until early in the 2020s. His projections don’t count the impact of the coal bases, but assume China instead will make a radical turn toward renewable energy. Currently, China is the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, pumping out 8.7 billion tons in 2011, according to the Energy Information Administration, compared to 5.5 billion tons by the U.S., the No. 2 emitter. It’s adding up.
“There’s no scenario we can conceive of that’s rational where coal gets backed out,”said Fridley of LBNL’s modeling projections for China’s energy future. “Coal is the foundation of their energy system.”
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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