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Everything You Think You Know About Coal in China Is Wrong|
“Research Note on U.S. and Chinese Coal-Fired Power Data” by Melanie Hart, Luke Bassett, and Blaine Johnson
China’s energy markets send mixed signals about the nation’s policy intentions and emissions trajectory. Renewable energy analysts tend to focus on China’s massive renewable expansion and view the nation as a global clean energy leader; coal proponents and climate skeptics are more likely to focus on the number of coal plants in China—both in operation and under construction—and claim its climate rhetoric is more flash than substance.
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In December 2016, the Center for American Progress brought a group of energy experts to China to find out what is really happening. We visited multiple coal facilities—including a coal-to-liquids plant—and went nearly 200 meters down one of China’s largest coal mines to interview engineers, plant managers, and local government officials working at the front lines of coal in China.
We found that the nation’s coal sector is undergoing a massive transformation that extends from the mines to the power plants, from Ordos to Shanghai. China is indeed going green. The nation is on track to overdeliver on the emissions reduction commitments it put forward under the Paris climate agreement, and making coal cleaner is an integral part of the process.
From a climate perspective, the ideal scenario would be for China to shut down all of its coal-fired power plants and switch over to clean energy full stop. In reality, China’s energy economy is a massive ship that cannot turn on a dime. The shift toward renewables is happening: China’s Paris commitment includes a promise to install 800 gigawatts to 1,000 gigawatts of new renewable capacity by 2030, an amount equivalent to the capacity of the entire U.S. electricity system.1 While China and the United States have roughly the same land mass, however, China has 1.3 billion people to the United States’ 325 million.2 It needs an electricity system that is much larger, so adding the renewable equivalent of one entire U.S. electricity system is not enough to replace coal in the near to medium term. To bridge the gap, China is rolling out new technologies to drastically reduce local air pollution and climate emissions from the nation’s remaining coal plants.
This issue brief covers three things American observers need to understand about coal in China:
China’s new coal-fired power plants are cleaner than anything operating in the United States.
China’s emissions standards for conventional air pollutants from coal-fired power plants are stricter than the comparable U.S. standards.
Demand for coal-fired power is falling so quickly in China that the nation cannot support its existing fleet. Many of the coal-fired power plants that skeptics point to as evidence against a Chinese energy transformation are actually white elephants that Chinese leaders are already targeting in a wave of forced plant closures.
Energy solutions that work well for China will not necessarily work well for the United States. In addition to the massive population disparity, the United States has access to cheap and plentiful shale gas, and China does not. If China is going to reduce emissions substantially, more efficient coal generation has to be part of its equation, at least for the near to medium term. In the United States, investing in next-generation clean coal plants is not a good solution because natural gas is cheap, plentiful, and lower-emitting than all but the most expensive coal-fired power.
Regardless of what works best in the U.S. market, understanding how Beijing is transforming its coal sectors is critical for understanding what to expect from the Chinese energy market going forward and how we should view China’s position in the global effort to combat climate change.