Energy Needs for China – The Dragon Needs to Slay Its Dependence on Coal

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You have probably read that China has energy production problems. The problem with China’s energy problems is that they cause problems for the rest of the world.

Here is an incident that perfectly exemplifies why China must improve its energy generation capabilities, and in particular, to develop alternative energy sources that are not dependent on coal. In August 2010 there was a 9-day traffic jam on a highway between Inner Mongolia and Beijing. Nine days! Why? Because trucks carrying coal to Beijing’s power plants blocked a road that was already somewhat restricted in traffic capacity due to road work. Unfortunately, without all that coal, Beijing would not be able to keep the lights on. Coal is currently used to produce about 70% of China’s electricity needs, and unfortunately that percentage is likely to increase in the future, not decrease. China is starting-up a new coal-fired power plant every week.

The pollution caused by China’s coal-based energy production is considerable and the greenhouse gas emissions from China alone are on pace to swamp those of the rest of the world. While Europe and the United States are reducing energy production from coal and fossil fuels by developing alternative energy sources such as wind power, solar power, and even nuclear power, China is taking relatively few steps in that direction.

Implementing carbon capture and storage technology (CCS technology) can potentially address the pollution and carbon emission burden that China is imposing on the rest of the world, with its heavy reliance on coal. The problem is that so far China is reluctant to invest in developing that solution because it will increase the cost of coal-based energy. Implementing CCS technology appears to be dependent on efforts underway in the United States and Europe.

To be sure, China is taking some steps to address its energy problem. Oil shale resources are being developed aggressively to relieve China’s dependence on imported oil. Oil shale could potentially offset some of the needs for coal as well. Selected clean technology solutions are also being pursued. Biofuels are being developed as replacement alternatives for petroleum-based transportation fuel. The world’s largest enzyme producer, Novozymes, has teamed up with Sinopec, the Chinese oil refiner, to build a large cellulosic ethanol plant that will use enzymes developed and manufactured by Novozymes. The large-scale adoption of biofuels could replace 10% of China’s petroleum needs and reduce water consumption, as well. China is also working on the manufacture of solar panels, although they are largely for export. Research on improved battery technology is also on the increase.

China recognizes its needs for alternative energy sources. But, being the world’s fastest growing economy, China also needs to assume a greater responsibility for weaning itself from fossil fuels. Developing and implementing more clean technology solutions to replace coal would be a step in the right direction.

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September 2011
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