The Problem with Chinese Energy

MIT issued a report today debunking the assumption that China’s air pollution problems are caused by old technology and a lack of governmental regulation.
The MIT report states that in a survey of 85 plants the researchers found that most of the new plants are built to very high technical standards. However, market forces are causing plant managers to idle expensive smokestack scrubbers and are encouraging the use of the cheapest lowest quality coal. The study suggests that new regulatory efforts need to focus on monitoring the plants daily operations and to regulate the mines and coal markets to discourage the use of cheap coal. Low quality coal is available locally and transportation costs involved in bringing in high quality coal from China’s northwest region creates an incentive to use the cheap coal. The problem with using cheap coal is that it makes it very expensive to run the scrubbers. The decision that has been made is that they will simply turn them off while using the cheap coal. Otherwise, I assume the reasoning goes, there is no incentive to use the cheap coal in the first place. This approach likely results in each plant emittng many times the sulfur, NOx and other harmful pollutants than would otherwise be emitted. The article does not quantify this increase in HAP emissions, but it is likely on the order of at least ten. So, those 182 plants being brought on line each year may be equal to nearly 2,000 well-run plants when it comes to emissions.

One fact I was unaware of was the sheer pace of China’s growing energy sector. While here in Iowa we are witnessing the slow and painful birth of a new 649 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Marshalltown, China is adding a new 500 megawatt coal-fired power plant every forty eight hours! From the time that the Marshalltown plant was formally announced to the time that it will go on line in 2013, China will have added 1,000 new power plants if that pace is sustained.

This is all very sobering. Burning coal is the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions. If the Chinese plants are not even using their expensive scrubbers, and are turning down higher quality coal in favor of cheap, high-sulfur coal, then what can the rest of the world do to make a measureable impact on global warming? This is especially true given the massive increase in infrastructure and output. The only silver lining on this sulfuric cloud is that many of the new plants are indeed equipped with the best technology to remove impurities. So, if the Chinese government can get control over the supply being used and the regulations to enforce the use of scrubbers then maybe the dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions can be slowed.

— James Pray

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About James Pray

Attorney with BrownWinick Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa.
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