China has an answer to the heat waves affecting much of the Northern Hemisphere: burning more coal to maintain a steady power supply for air conditioning.
Even before this year, China was emitting nearly a third of all energy-related greenhouse gases – more than the United States, Europe and Japan combined. China burns more coal each year than the rest of the world combined. Last month, China generated 14 percent more electricity than in June 2022, and the entire increase was generated by coal-fired plants.
China’s ability to ramp up coal use in recent weeks is the result of a massive national drive over the past two years to expand coal mines and build more coal-fired power plants. State media celebrated the hard work of 1,000 workers who toiled without holidays this spring to bring one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants in southeastern China to completion in time for the summer.
The paradox of China’s energy policy is that the country also leads the world in installing renewable energy. It dominates most of the global supply chain for clean energy – from solar panels to battery storage to electric cars. Yet for reasons of energy security and domestic politics, it is spending twice as much on coal.
After three days of talks in Beijing, President Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry said on Wednesday that China’s coal program has been the most difficult issue. “Now it is a question of moving away from some dependence on coal,” he said.
The United States, which emits far fewer greenhouse gases than China, is going in a different direction. It hasn’t built any new coal-fired plants in a decade, while nearly halving its coal use and instead ramping up its use of natural gas.
No country has underground coal reserves as large as China, where officials consider increasing domestic supply essential to energy security. Zhang Jianhua, director of the government’s National Energy Administration, described coal as the “ballast stone” of his country’s energy mix.
“Always regard safeguarding national energy security as the most important mission,” he said at a press conference this spring.
China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, said in April 2021 that his country would “strictly control coal power projects, strictly control the growth of coal consumption” by 2025, and then “gradually reduce it” over the next five years. In mid-September 2021, he separately banned any further contracts for China to build coal-fired power plants in other countries.
A week later, in late September 2021, hot weather overloaded China’s electric grid and caused blackouts up and down the country’s coastline. Workers were given only minutes’ warning to flee the office high-rise buildings before the elevators shut down. A sudden power failure caused an explosion at a chemical factory, injuring dozens of workers.
The debacle prompted an emergency effort in China to increase coal mining and build more coal-fired power plants. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent blockade of Russian energy supplies to Europe has increased Beijing’s determination to rely on coal as the core of its energy security.
China imports most of its oil and natural gas, much of it through sea routes controlled by the navies of the United States or India, two geopolitical rivals. After a partial meltdown at three nuclear reactors in Japan’s Fukushima in 2011, China has limited the construction of nuclear plants to a few locations close to the coast.
As of January, more than 300 coal-fired power plants were proposed, permitted or in various stages of construction in China, according to Global Energy Monitor, a research group. This was two-thirds of the coal-fired capacity being developed worldwide.
Contributing to the building boom: During the 2021 blackout, Chinese provinces tried to hoard electricity and not sell it to other provinces. Many local and provincial governments have reacted by trying to build coal-fired power plants within their borders.
“Building all this super-redundant coal power will drive up our overall energy costs,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental group.
Practically all of China’s new plants are being built by state-owned enterprises because private developers find the facilities financially unviable, said David Fishman, China power analyst at the Hong Kong consulting firm Lantau Group.
While China is building more and more coal-fired plants, it is also a leader in solar and wind power. The United Arab Emirates has installed 3.5 times more solar power capacity and 2.6 times more wind power than the United States, according to the International Renewable Energy Association, an intergovernmental group.
China’s largest wind and solar projects are in the sparsely populated western and northwestern regions, with sunny and windy weather for most of the year.
But those locations are far from the provinces near the coast where most of the population lives and where many power-hungry companies are located – and where the weather is typically cloudy and less windy.
Connecting huge solar panel farms and rows of wind turbines to coastal areas requires the construction of ultrahigh-voltage power lines. China has built more miles of ultrahigh-voltage lines than the rest of the world combined.
One problem is that such lines are extremely expensive. China’s power companies must buy 200 meters wide of land over hundreds of miles for each line. So to be cost effective, the lines need to transmit power round the clock. But the sun doesn’t shine all day and the wind doesn’t blow all the time.
As a result, most of China’s new coal-fired power plants are being built in conjunction with wind and solar projects to ensure they can transmit power consistently, said Beijing energy expert Kevin Tu, who is a non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
Another major climate change problem posed by China’s continued heavy use of coal is how it is mined. Compared to most countries, coal in China is mined underground, a practice that releases a lot of methane into the atmosphere. is methane 20 to 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide Under the influence of its heating in the atmosphere. Chinese physicists have estimated that a quarter of all methane emissions in China come from its more than 100,000 coal mines, most of which are small mines that have long been abandoned but are still leaking gases.
An unexpected force could help China reduce its reliance on coal: a slump in its real estate market.
Factories use two-thirds of China’s electricity, and major users are the steel and cement mills and glass manufacturers that supply the country’s vast manufacturing effort.
But housing prices are falling because years of over-construction have created nearly 80 million vacant apartments. Developers started construction on about a quarter fewer apartments in the first half of this year than a year ago.
Yet even the housing slump will not reverse the huge coal investments China has just made. “The amount of coal that is being added means it is difficult for China to be more ambitious in addressing climate change,” said Michal Meidan, head of China energy research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, an independent research group. “This complicates a potentially more aggressive timeline on emissions.”
li yu Contributed to research. Chris Buckley Contributed reporting from Taipei, Taiwan; And Lisa Friedman from Beijing.