THE FUTURE OF ELECTRICITY
New energy in China
Water, wind, and solar projects blossom, but coal remains king
Today coal provides a colossal 80 percent of China’s electricity.
China is also now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The communist government of the People’s Republic of China wants to change that. Ambitious projects already well under way are intended to shift China’s energy mix and brighten that country’s international energy reputation.
A Chinese government program to encourage a variety of solar power installations goes by the name Golden Sun. The largest state-owned electric utility company, China Huaneng Group, boasts of a “three-color corporate culture.” Red symbolizes “serving the needs of socialism,” blue stands for “relentless innovation,” and green represents “environmental protection.”
Demand for electricity for industry and household use for China’s 1.3 billion people is increasing dramatically every day. China’s 11th Five Year Plan, which encouraged more partnerships with international capitalist companies to develop energy resources to meet this demand, was upgraded in March with the even more comprehensive 12th Five Year Plan.
China builds plants for renewable power
China intends to increase its use of natural gas to generate electricity (currently only 4 percent), but pipeline projects and other infrastructure needed to develop this option do not get much publicity.
Instead, internal news reports and international headlines tend to focus on China’s enormous energy-building boom involving the big three of renewables—hydro, wind, and solar.
Now that Three Gorges Dam is adding electricity to China’s power grid, construction is continuing at 14 other multigenerator hydroelectric dams, including the Xiluodu project on the Jinsha River and the Jinping project on the Yalong River. As these dams are completed, China figures it can triple its hydroelectric capacity during the next 25 years.
China’s building a lot more wind farms, too. China Radio International, the government-run media outlet, recently reported that a gigantic 2.5-megawatt direct-drive wind turbine passed critical engineering performance tests. China believes it can more than triple its wind-power capacity within just 10 years.
Huge projects to increase electricity production from solar power are also under way. In Ordos City, Inner Mongolia, construction is planned on the first phase of what government officials say will be one of the world’s largest photovoltaic solar energy farms, capable of producing 2,000 megawatts of electricity.
China’s central government is shoveling hundreds of billions of dollars into these high-profile renewable energy construction projects as part of its efforts to create a new, greener image—and provide jobs.
However, a report from the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) puts the impact of China’s big buildup of renewable electricity production into perspective. To keep up with ever-increasing demand, China’s big energy build-out also includes huge increases in the number of coal-based power plants. According to EIA’s 2010 “International Energy Outlook,” China will continue to depend on coal for the majority of its electricity for a long time.
Under the central economic planning policies and environmental rules now in effect within China, the EIA says coal’s share of electricity generation will indeed decline from its present share of up to 80 percent.
But by the year 2035, coal will still dominate, providing the vast majority—74 percent—of China’s electricity. How China uses that coal could be very different.
U.S., China forge partnerships for coal
President Barack Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao announced in November 2009 the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, a $150 million joint effort to improve technology for coal-based power plants in both countries.
University researchers and electric utility industry engineers are working in their respective countries on ideas to use coal in more environmentally responsible ways. As they test these advanced coal technologies, they’re sharing their findings with each other. American participants include several investor-owned electric utilities, as well as the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research.
China Huaneng Group’s showcase project for advanced coal technology is the extremely complicated GreenGen project in Tianjin.
The GreenGen construction project will demonstrate a unique combination of two new technologies on a commercial scale. The first phase includes an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) coal-based generating system, similar to two IGCC plants already operating in the United States (like Indiana’s Wabash River and Florida’s Polk Power Station).
Instead of using pulverized bits of coal, an IGCC system first converts the coal to a gas. This process is useful in removing two air pollutants, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, before combustion. A key innovation at China’s GreenGen power plant is to also separate and capture carbon dioxide as part of the gasification process.
The second phase of the GreenGen project will move that captured carbon dioxide into underground storage in the nearby Dagang oil fields as part of an enhanced oil recovery process. As the project moves forward, Chinese engineers will share their on-the-scene experiences with this advanced technology with their American counterparts.
CHINA TAKES A NUCLEAR POWER PAUSE
Five days after a massive earthquake and tsunami severely damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex, China’s State Council ordered new safety inspections at all 13 of its nuclear reactors, which provide about 2 percent of China’s electricity supply.
Twenty-six new nuclear projects are either in the pre-approval, approval, or active construction phases to meet China’s goal to increase nuclear power’s role to 6 percent of its generation mix.
All stages of the approval process for new nuclear facilities are temporarily suspended, including two pebble-bed reactors (a concept that uses nuclear material shaped like billiard balls instead of long skinny rods) in Shidao in Shandong Province.