China’s Coal Power Sector: Larger, But Also More Efficient

Our guest blogger is Julian L. Wong, Senior Policy Analyst with the Energy Opportunity team.

ap041021019504China’s energy sector gets a bad reputation because of its heavy reliance on coal, which accounts for 80 percent of its electricity supply, and its continued appetite to expand coal power capacity at a rate of two coal power plants a week. While all of this is true, it’s not the full story.

The plants that China is currently building are some of the most efficient in the industry. And as the Wall Street Journal reported today, China has a concurrent program of shutting down small, inefficient coal plants:

The National Energy Administration said Thursday that since 2007 it had closed 54 gigawatts of coal- and oil-fired power plants as part of the cleanup plan. That would amount to about 7% of China’s current electricity-generating capacity.

According to the Associated Press, this capacity translates to a closure of “7,467 generating units, meeting a previously announced goal 18 months ahead of schedule.”

These reports come a few days after Greenpeace China released a report entitled “Polluting Power: Ranking of China’s Power Companies,” which analyzes China’s ten biggest power companies across various metrics such as coal consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and share of renewable power. In sensationalistic fashion, Reuters tried to put an unhelpful gloss to Greenpeace’s report by proclaiming in a headline “Emissions of 3 big China power firms exceed UK,” conjuring images of ecological apocalypse. The Guardian has a similar headline.

No doubt, China’s reliance on coal makes it a leading carbon emitter, but this is hardly news. To say that “greenhouse gas emissions from the three biggest Chinese power firms in 2008 were higher than those of the entire United Kingdom” is rather meaningless without context.

We need to ask — how big are these firms? It is certainly not the case that China’s biggest three power plants are matching the entire UK in carbon emissions. China’s three biggest utility companies, with fleets of hundreds and hundreds of power plants accountable for 30 percent of the entire power supply for China and its 1.3 billion people (30 percent x 1.3 billion = 390 million), match the carbon emissions output of the entire economy of the UK and its 61 million citizens. Viewed in that light, China isn’t doing that badly.

The Greenpeace report is actually much more balanced and hopeful than the Reuters and Guardian headlines indicate. It rightfully points out the challenges that China’s biggest power firms face in terms of carbon emissions and environmental costs, but it also recognizes China’s achievements in increasing coal combustion efficiency and increasing renewable energy share in certain circumstances, in addition to its active program of shutting down plants.

Sensational headlines conveying half-truths can do much more harm than good. If we are to actively engage China in international energy and climate cooperation, we need to have an accurate understanding of what’s really happening there on the ground.

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