China’s addiction to coal runs deep in the heat

China has a response to the heat waves now affecting much of the northern hemisphere: burning more coal to maintain a stable electricity supply for air conditioning.

Even before this year, China was emitting nearly a third of 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 from coal, the dominant fuel source, than it did in June 2022.

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 effort of the 1,000 workers who worked without leave this spring to finish one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants in southeast China in time for summer.

The contradiction in Chinese energy policy is that the country also leads the world in the installation of renewable energy sources. It dominates most of the global clean energy supply chain – from solar panels to battery storage to electric cars. However, for reasons of energy security and local politics, they double down on coal.

After three days of negotiations in Beijing, John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, said on Wednesday that China’s coal program was the toughest issue. “The question now is to shift from some dependence on coal,” he said.

The United States, which emits far fewer greenhouse gases than China, is headed in a different direction. It hasn’t built a new coal-fired plant in a decade, while cutting coal use roughly in half and increasing use of natural gas instead.

No country has large underground coal reserves like those in China, where officials see domestic supplies as essential to energy security. Zhang Jianhua, director of the government’s National Energy Administration, called coal the “ballast stone” for his country’s energy mix.

“I have always considered protecting national energy security the most important task,” he said at a news conference this spring.

China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, said in April 2021 that his country would “strictly control coal power projects, strictly control the growth of coal consumption” until 2025 and then “gradually reduce it” over the next five years. In mid-September 2021, it 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 power grid and caused blackouts up and down the country’s coast. Workers had only a few minutes’ warning to flee the office towers before the elevators shut down. A sudden power outage at a chemical plant leads to an explosion, injuring dozens of workers.

The disaster prompted emergency efforts to increase coal mines and build more coal-fired power plants in China. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent disruption of Russian energy supplies to Europe, has only increased Beijing’s determination to rely on coal as the core of its energy security.

China imports mostly oil and natural gas, most of which arrives through sea lanes controlled by the navies of the United States or India, two geopolitical rivals. After the partial meltdown of three nuclear reactors in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, China limited nuclear plant construction to a few sites near the coast.

As of January, China had more than 300 coal-fired power plants in various stages of proposal, permit or construction, according to Global Energy Monitor, a research group. This was two-thirds of the coal-fired power being developed worldwide.

Contribute to the construction boom: During the 2021 blackout, Chinese provinces tried to store electricity and not sell it to other provinces. Many local and provincial governments have responded by attempting to build coal-fired power plants within their borders.

“Building all this redundant supercapacity is going to raise our entire energy cost,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental group.

Almost all new factories in China are being built by state-owned companies because private developers see the facilities as financially unviable, said David Fishman, a China electricity analyst at Lantau Group, a consultancy in Hong Kong.

As China builds more coal-fired plants, it is also a leader in solar and wind power. It has installed 3.5 times as much solar capacity and 2.6 times as much wind capacity as the United States, according to the International Society for Renewable Energy, an intergovernmental group in the United Arab Emirates.

China’s largest wind and solar projects tend to be in sparsely populated western and northwest regions, where the weather is sunny and windy most of the year.

But these locations are far from the provinces near the coast where most of the population lives and where many electricity-hungry companies are located – and where the weather is generally more cloudy and less stormy.

Connecting huge solar farms and rows of wind turbines to coastal areas requires the construction of high-voltage power lines. China has built more miles of high voltage lines than the rest of the world combined.

One problem is that these fonts are very expensive. Chinese energy companies must purchase strips of land 200 meters wide each line, over hundreds of miles. To be cost effective, lines need to transmit electricity around the clock. But the sun does not shine brightly all day and the wind does not blow all the time.

As a result, the majority of new coal-fired power plants in China are built in conjunction with wind and solar projects, to make sure they can transmit power continuously, said Kevin Tu, a Beijing-based energy expert and non-resident fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Another big climate change problem posed by China’s continued heavy use of coal is how that coal is mined. More than most countries, Chinese coal is mined underground, a practice that tends to release a lot of methane into the atmosphere. methane 20 to 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the warming effects of the atmosphere. Chinese physicists have estimated that a quarter of all methane emissions in China come from more than 100,000 coal mines, most of them small mines long abandoned but still leaking gas.

One unexpected force could help China reduce its dependence on coal: the collapse of its real estate market.

Factories use two-thirds of China’s electricity, and the dominant users are the steel, cement and glass manufacturers that supply the country’s massive construction effort.

But housing prices are falling because years of overbuilding have produced as many as 80 million empty apartments. Developers started building nearly a quarter fewer apartments in the first half of this year compared to the year before.

However, even a housing slowdown will not reverse the massive investment in coal that China has just made. “All the coal that has been added means that it is difficult for China to be more ambitious” in tackling climate change, said Michel Meidan, head of China energy research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, an independent research group. “It is likely to hold a more stringent schedule on emissions.”

me you Contribute to the research. Chris Buckley Contributed reporting from Taipei, Taiwan; And Lisa Friedman from Beijing.