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coal briquettes
China is the world's leading user and producer of coal. It burns 24 percent of the world's coal, compared to 25.5 percent in the United States and 7 percent in India. In 2006, over 2.2 billion metric tons of coal was taken from Chinese coal mines “more than the United States, India and Russia combined. This was up from 2.1 billion in 2005, 1.7 billion in 2003 and 1.4 billion in 2002 and 70 percent more than 2000. The figure is expected to rise to 2.6 billion in 2010 and 3.1 billion in 2020, with coal production increasing at a rate of 10 percent to 15 percent a year.

Coal reserves: 1) the United States (27 percent); 2) Russia (17 percent); 3) China (13 percent); 4) Australia (9 percent); 5) South Africa (5 percent); Other (19 percent). China has 126 billion tons of coal, enough to last 75 years if consumption rates remain the same.

Recoverable coal deposits (tons in 2006): 1) the United States (268 billion); 2) Russia (173 billion); 3) China (126 billion); 4) India (102 billion); 5) Australia (87 billion); 6) Europe (66 billion); 7) South Africa (54 billion); 8) Ukraine (38 billion); 9) Kazakhstan (34billion); 10) South America (22 billion). [Source: Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy]

China is the world's biggest coal producer, the United States is second. Coal production and consumption: (production and consumption tons in 2006): 1) China (2,621 million and 2,578 million) ; 2) the United States (1, 161 million and 1,114 million ); 3) India (497 million and 542 million ); 4) Australia (420 million and 156 million); 5) Russia (341 million and 264 million); 6) South Africa (269 million and 195 million); 7) Germany (223 million and 272 million); 8) Indonesia (186 million and 44 million); 9) Poland (171 million and 155 million); 10) Kazakhstan (106 million and 79 million). [Source: Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy]

Coal consumption increases at a rate of 10 percent a year. In 2006, China added new power plants with more capacity than all of Britain’s China is beginning to use coal like oil to make liquid fuels and chemicals. The Chinese government is negotiating with the South African firm Sasol to build coal — to-oil plants that can produce 80,000 barrels of oil a day by 2012.

The production of coal-fired plants has slowed to some degree. They are no longer being produced at the rate of one a week and now add 80 gigawatts of power a year, down from 100 gigawatts a few years earlier. Even though China has huge coal resources, its consumption outstrips production. In 2007, China imported more coal than it exported for the first time.

The price of coal rose to $60 from $40 a ton in 2005 to a high of $200 in 2008. Coal delivered to southern China sold for $114 per ton in November 2010. Carl Pope, the outgoing president of the Sierra Club, told the New York Times there is a myth that coal is cheap and abundant: While there is a lot of coal geologically, and a fair amount of coal close enough to either ports or load-centers so that it is cheap at the power plant, there is not enough of this accessible, cheap coal to meet growing demand in Asia. Two factors make much of India’s and China’s coal expensive or inaccessible; it takes a lot of water, which is in short supply, to extract and burn the coal at mine-mouth, and it takes a lot of diesel fuel, increasingly expensive, to train/truck/ship it to coastal power plants and load centers.” [Source: Andrew C. Revkin, New York Times, November 22, 2011]

China's Dependence on Coal

Coal provides China with 69 percent of its primary energy and 80 percent of it electricity. It is relatively plentiful and cheap but very dirty. The government wants to replace coal with oil, natural gas and hydroelectric power primarily to clean up its air. Even so demand for coal keeps increasing as the economy grows and 60 new coal-fired power stations go on line every year. China could become a net coal importer between 2010 and 2015. China relies on coal to achieve its goal of energy independence. Thanks to coal China is 90 percent self-sufficient in energy — 20 percent more than most of the developed countries in OECD.

20080312-coal env news.jpgEven if drastic measures are taken China will still have to rely on coal for 65 percent of its energy needs for the foreseeable future. A Chinese coal engineer told the New York Times, "We are a developing country and we started without a very good foundation. We have so few choices and no funding, so our industries are going to rely heavily on coal for a long time to come." By some estimates China will have to triple its use of coal if it wants to achieve a standard of living near that of the United States. Some predict that by 2030 China’s demand for coal will exceed that of the rest of the world combined. Even though China far and away produces more coal than any other country demand is so strong it has limited exports.

It estimated that even with new land gas pipelines opening and alterative energies being exploited China will get at least 50 percent of its energy from coal in 2020 and beyond. Deborah Seligsohn of the World Resources Institute told AFP, “China has a lot of coal, has very limited supply of other fossil fuels and even with rapid growth rates in renewables, it will be difficult to actually replace the coal in use for quite some time.” David Fridley, a China energy expert at the University of California, Berkeley, told the New York Times, “Only coal can provide new capacity in the time and scale needed.”

Coal production has been slowed by crackdowns on illegal mines and transportation bottlenecks that keep coal from reaching all the places it is needed, This has led to a rise of coal prices. The increase of coal prices in turn has devastated the electricity-generating industry because companies that produce electricity are tightly regulated by the government and are not allowed to raise prices without government approval. The government, fearing a backlash from consumers, doesn’t want to raise prices. After coal prices spiked in 2003 and 2004, 85 percent of coal power plants lost money.

Coal and Chinese Life

Coal is used at a rate of about 1.5 tons per person a year. It is used to generate power for factories and electric plants as well as cook meals and heat homes. China burns the stuff so fast railroads can not deliver it fast enough and Chinese ships sit outside ports in Australia for weeks waiting for shipments of coal.

Jerry Goodell wrote in Natural History magazine: “In China coal is everywhere. It’s piled up on sidewalks, pressed into bricks, and stacked neat the back doors of homes. It’s stockpiled into small mountains in open fields, and carted around behinds bicycles and wheezing locomotives. Plumes of coal smoke rise from rusty stacks on every urban horizon. Soot covers every windowsill and ruins the collar of every white shirt. The Chinese burn less coal per capita than America does but in sheer tonnage, they burn twice as much.”

Water and pulverized coal are formed into cakes and bricks at farms throughout China. Bother peasants and city dwellers use these cakes for cooking and heating. In many places coal bricks are still delivered to people’s homes by tricycles or bicycles. One skinny 38-year-old coalman told The Times of London, “I just ride around with no fixed destination, just wherever people need coal to heat their homes.” Delivering coal is his winter job. He also works on a farm in the spring and summer.

Coal has enriched a few, provided hard, low-paying jobs for many but brought misery to many more in the form of dirty air and water and scarred landscapes. Poor scavengers rummage through hill-size slag heaps for usable chunks of coal to heat their own homes or sell. Describing one, Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “High on one steep incline, nearly 500 feet up, a scavenger named Chang Mingdong trawls for usable fragments of coal, dodging fresh loads of rock careening down the embankment, sidestepping the coal embers smoldering beneath the surface.”

See Air Pollution, Environment, Nature

Coal Producing Regions and Companies in China

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Coal-fired stove

The coal industry is a major employer in China. Coal mining employs 3 million people in China. There are about 30,000 legal coal mines in the country and the industry is growing rapidly. The 17,000 or so small mines account for a third of China’s coal output. There are thousands more illegal mines.

Much of China’s coal comes from Shaanxi, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia and Hebei provinces. The whole province of Shanxi is like a giant coal seam. Patrick Tyler of the New York Times, "Within a 300 mile radius” of Shanxi’s capital Datong “hundreds of thousands of coal miners are shredding subterranean seams thicker than ocean liners and hauling a black treasure to the surface to power the economic rise of China."Shaanxi Province, in Central China, once was the main coal source for power plants, but recent production and worker-safety problems there led the government to tap bigger coal deposits in Inner Mongolia. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, August 27, 2010]

Inner Mongolia in China’s far north is now the number one region for coal production in China. Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Mongolian coal production has exploded — up 37 percent to 637 million tons last year alone, with an additional 15 percent increase expected this year. Much of the coal is supposed to move to seaports on China’s east coast, to be shipped to big cities in the south. But pig-in-python style, even China’s brand-new freeway system cannot handle the volume.”

The city of Linfen lies in the heart of Shanxi’s coal country. It is located in an area with 400 mines and billions of tons of proven reserves that account for half of Shanxi’s coal production. Not surprisingly it is also one of the most polluted cities in China, if not the in the world. Black, sooty dusts hangs in the air.

Xinjiang has an estimated 2.2 trillion tons of coal reserves. 40 percent of China’s total. The Junggar Basin in northern Xinjiang contains the largest coal reserves in China, with more 300 billion tons of ore.

The Wude coal field in Inner Mongolia is one of China’s largest coal fields, extending over an area of 15 square miles. There, trucks carry loads from the open pit mines. Scavengers in donkey carts pick up pieces of coal that bounce off the trucks. The air is filled with black dust and acrid sulfur dioxide fumes from the coal fires that burn below the surface.

China’s rich anthracite reserves stretch across a 3,000-mile-long belt at depths up to 250 feet. Even so domestic supply is not enough. China imports large amounts of coal from Australia and other countries. In Newcastle, Australia — the world’s largest coal port — dozens of ships waiting in line for up to two weeks at time to carry coal back to China

Coal was selling $38 a ton in 2005, up from $8.50 in 2000. The price doubled in 2003. Coal demand is expected to drop somewhat as the Three Gorges dam and five new nuclear power plants begin generating electricity in the mid 2000s. In Inner Mongolia, a $2 billion plant is being constructed that turns coal into gasoline.

Shenhua is China’s largest coal producer and the world's biggest coal company. Based mainly in Inner Mongolia, it's production in 2006 was 150.5 metric tons, a 12.5 percent increase from the previous years, and is sales was 171.1 million metric tons, an 18.5 percent increase from the previous year. China Coal Energy is China’s second largest coal producer by revenue. Yanzhou Coal is another large coal company.

Coal Plants in China

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Coal-producing area in Shaanxi
Coal-burning plants produce about two-thirds of China’s electricity, compared to one-half in the United States. On average coal-fired power plants in China are more efficient than ones in the United States.

China is trying to develop cheaper, smaller, easy-to-build power plants. Coal fired plants can be built quickly and with relative ease compared to a nuclear power plant or large dam project.

To reduce smog, the low chimneys of small thermal power generators are being replaced by the towering smokestacks of more efficient “supercritical” plants. Although China is building one a new coal-fired plant each week, most of them are more efficient than similar facilities in the UK. They are also better equipped to remove sulphur dioxide and other noxious gases. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

Transporting Coal in China

The logistics of coal are a problem in China. Most of China’s coal deposits in the north, west and the interior of China while the industries are in the south and on the coast. Half of China’s railways capacity is used to transport coal. At peak times, 200-carriage trains pulled by powerful engines pass every 10 minutes on single rails through northern China, en route to ports and major power plants on the wealthy eastern seaboard.

China currently moves only 55 percent of its coal by rail, which is down from 80 percent a decade ago, as many coal users have been forced by inadequate rail capacity to haul coal in trucks instead. The trucks burn 10 or more times as much fuel per mile to haul a ton of coal.

One of the biggest challenges in China is moving coal from inland production areas to power stations and industries in the coastal regions. Most of it is moved by train. Sometimes there is so much coal to be moved there is danger of overwhelming the transportation system. The rail system devotes 40 percent of its capacity to moving coal but still can’t keep up with demand or supply enough railway cars to transport the coal. Bottlenecks in coal transportation have contributed to energy shortages.

Transporting the million s of tons of coal needed to keep China’s factories and power plants humming is struggle which strains the rail system and is vulnerable to bad weather. During the blizzard of 2008 coals shipments dwindled to half of what they are normally. As a result foreign exports were suspended and electricity was rationed in 17 provinces, most of them in the south. Even with energy conservation measures in place there were severe electricity shortages in the Guangdong area.In a typical example of the impact of the shortage of industry, a cement factory in Guangdong had no electricity between 7:00am and noon and 5:00pam and midnight. When they did get electricity it was 60 percent what they normally got.

Large amounts of coal produced around Datong are moved by rail to the northeast coastal port of Qinghuangdao and then moved by ship to industrial areas in the coastal province of Fujian and Guangdong. The rail line carries about 200 million metric tons a year. Another important rail line links the city of Houma in Shanxi to the ports of Rizhao and Qingdao in Shandong province and Lianyungang in Jiangsu Province.

Mines produce mountains of coal. The roads used by coal trucks are covered in black dust. In some places coal is delivered by trucks straight from mines to people’s homes.

Coal prices rose to $53.29 a metric ton in May 2007 in part because of a backlog of ships waiting for coal at the coal station at Newcastle, Australia, with many of is the ships waiting to pick up coal to take to China.

Export taxes on coking coal were raised to prevent coal needed at home to prevent power shortages from being exported.

Coal and the Environment in China

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Bringing coal to homes
It is estimated that the use of cheap coal cost China $248 billion, the equivalent of 7.1 percent of GDP, in 2007 through environmental damage, strains on the health care system and manipulation of commodity prices. The figure was arrived at by the Energy Foundation and the WWF by taking into consideration things like lost income from those sickened by coal pollution.

Coal has been tied to a number of health problems. In towns like Gaojiagao in Shanxi it has been linked with a high number of birth defects such neural tube defects, additional fingers and toes, cleft pallets and congenital heart disease and mental retardation.

China's coal problems is a global problem. China burns more coal than America, Europe, and Japan combined. Julio Friedmann, an energy expert at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, near San Francisco, told The New Yorker, “The decisions that China and the U.S. make in the next five years in the coal sector will determine the future of this century.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, December 21, 2009]

See Air Pollution, Global Warming, Environment. Nature

Coal Mines

China employs more than 6 million people in the coal business. The massive state mines are like small cities. They have shops, clinics and dormitories. Much of their operations are mechanized. Better mines take measures to protect against accidents, require miners to take safety courses, and have closed circuit video cameras in the shafts. In run down mines miners live dormitories in which they are sometimes forced to sleep in the same bed and do much of the work by hand in very unsafe conditions.

The state mines provide pension and health care for workers. In many cases providing these benefits have made them unprofitable, Many are struggling to make ends meet. Many have gone bankrupt; hundreds of thousands of miners have lost their jobs. In the mining town of Yangjiazhangzi (250 miles northeast of Beijing) more than 20,000 miners and their families, angered by the loss of their jobs and corruption, battled with police and soldiers.

Many miners work at small, unsafe and unlicensed private mines that are notorious for ignoring safety regulations and producing fatalities and serious injuries. These mines are usually run by private entrepreneurs, who sometimes subcontract facilities developed by the government. One agency counted 65,313 illegal mines in 2006.

Small unlicenced coal nines produce about a third of China’s coal but are responsible for three quarters of all mine-related deaths. Many of these mines lack ventilators and basic safety equipment. Gas explosions and flooding are common. The government blames mine owners and mining companies that turn a “a deaf ear to safety regulations and management processes.” Labor leaders blame market reforms which put an emphasis on profits over safety.

One official told the Washington Post, “Local governments, because of their own interest and profit motives, secretly tolerate these dangerous coal mines. Now, its more severe because of the shortages. There is even more incentive to tolerate danger because th price has gone up.” Some think if anything the situation might get worse as dwindle supples driver miners deeper into the earth.

Dirty Coal Mines in Shanxi

Shanxi Province has traditionally been the home of China’s coal industry. The mines there tend to be old, dangerous, dirty and inefficient.

Describing a mine on the side of the Huojitu river is the traditional mining region of northern Shaanxi province, Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “At the small Bandingliang colliery, the pit has been dug so far into the hillside that truck drivers take 30 minutes to reach the coalface, fill up and return with their load...The tunnels are filled with exhaust emissions, coal dust and the roar of blasting.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

“We drill holes,” Zhao Zhaoguo, a migrant from Henan province told The Guardian on his way down the shaft. “We stuff explosive inside, then a detonator. We set it off, and then, 'voom'  there's a big bang.” Such techniques have made China's mines the deadliest and most inefficient in the world.

Scientific Coal Mining in China

Prompted by President Hu Jintao's drive for “scientific development,” the Chinese government is working hard to reduce waste, improve safety and boost productivity in the coal industry. Many small private collieries have been shut down. Managers at these mines say they have been given a choice of modernization or closure. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

“The technology is becoming more and more advanced,” oe miner told The Guardian. “In the future it will be fully electrified and mechanixed. all we will have to do is press a button, and the coal will just come up by itself.”

New technology has boosted the nation's annual coal production to 2.2 billion tons and doubled the output of some mines.

Much of the new technology is being put to work around Ordos, a city in the deserts of southern Inner Mongolia and near coal-mining area of Shaanxi province. is home to the world's biggest coal company and the planet's most efficient mine. The extensive coal and gas deposits below Ordos has turned this arid, northern outpost into a boom town. The local economy grew eightfold between 2004 and 2009 while the population has swollen almost 20 per cent.

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Sinking land in Shanxi

Modern, Scientific Chinese Coal Mine

In southern Inner Mongolia the coal industry is much more modern, efficient and “clean” than it is China's old rustbelt cities. Shenhua, the world's biggest coal company, runs several mega-mines in the region, the most advanced of which is the fully automated Shangwan pit, which produces more than 1 million tons of coal a month with just 300 workers. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

The Communist party mine secretary, Wang Tianliang, is proud of its efficiency and safety. He told The Guardian, “In this mechanized working face, this single shaft and single face ranks No 1 in China in the world we are No. 1. In more than 3,000 days of operation, we have not had a deadly accident.”

On his visit to the automated Shangwan mine, Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “On the outside at least, the state-owned company's pit resembles a garden more than a mine...The pit face is 355 meters below the surface. The tunnel is wider and cleaner than the London Underground. There are just a handful of miners at our destination. They work with remote control devices that change the direction, position and speed of a German-made cutting machine that slices back and forth along a 300-meter-wide coal face. Giant Hydraulic supports keep the tunnel stable until the cutters have moved on. This hydraulic system is 100 per cent made in China,” says Wang proudly.”

“In the control room, Wang shows me a bank of computers that run the operation displayed on a wall of CCTV images. One screen tracks the position of every worker in the mine. Another shows the rail depot, where a long line of carriages is filled automatically from conveyors at the rate of a ton a second.”

“Before being loaded the coal is broken, filtered and scrubbed. The station is one of 17 washing and loading centers owned by the company. Here too, the story is one of expansion. According to the depot's deputy manager, Yuan Jun, the capacity has increased sixfold since 2002.The Carriages from Shangwan  each containing 60 to 80 tons of coal  are hauled off by powerful engines towards other mines, where more cargo is added.”

Coal Miners in China

Miners generally make around $172 a month but sometimes earn as little as $70 a month. They have little labor representation, health benefits or legal protection. If they get injured they have to pay for their treatment out of their own pockets. If they die their families receive little compensation.

Miners in state-owned mines typically leave for work at 3:00am and return home at 5:00pm covered in a layer of black grit. Days off are few and far between, sometimes only twice a month, even at legal mines. “I really feel like were are slaves,” one miner told is the Washington Post.

Many miners work six or seven days a week in eight-hour shifts, with no break for meals. Each is paid according to how many carts he fills. After room and board and other expenses are subtracted the miners can save or send home the equivalent of a few dollars a month.

Coal miners often earn so little they scavenge hill-size slap heaps for usable chunks of coal to heat their own homes, eat meat only twice a year and subsist on a diet of cabbage, corn gruel and potatoes. They often work in mines owned by owners who live in villas and drive in new black Audis.

Despite the poor working conditions and low pay, many Chinese are anxious to do the work because they have few other ways of making money. Many miners plan to work for several years and save enough to buy some more land or animals. Most miners are migrants. Many are impoverished farmers or laid off workers from distant provinces who are desperate for work. Often several family members work in the same mine.

Mine owners in Shanxi are notorious for their greed and flashiness. Newspapers keep track of how many Hummers, Ferraris and Rolls-Royces they drive and how many luxury condominiums in Beijing and Shanghai they possess. Their wealth is especially obvious because they operate in some of China’s poorest provinces. Many mines are operated by relatives of government officials.

Coal Miners at Work in China

Miners typically wear a yellow safety helmet and a miners lamp and have coal dust imbedded in their forehead lines and dust in their ears. Some work in tunnels that are so low they have to crouch when working and crawl or duck walk when moving through the tunnels. Some wear what amounts to loincloths because the mines are so hot and drag buckets of coal that weigh as much as the miners through the shafts by hand. The only light comes from lamps on the miner’s head. In some cases the lamps are nothing more than candles, whose flames are extremely dangerous when gas fumes are present.

Describing work done at an unlicenced mine near Datong, Erik Eckholm wrote in the New York Times, "Men wearing head lamps climb down crude shafts, where they use picks and crowbars to pry loose chunks of coal...With shovels and by hand, they heap the coal onto metal carts that are jerked through long corridors to open air. Finally is loaded onto trucks for eventual sale throughout China and abroad."

Describing a coal miner at worker in a mine around Pingdingshan on Henan Province, Jane MacArtney wrote in the Times of London, “Mr. Zang...climbs into a metal pulley lift and starts a 100m journey down ...Water drips down the walls. The only light is from a lamp on his plastic helmet. Mr. Zang, wearing rubber boots and a blue cotton jumpsuit, makes his way under the logs and branches that support the tunnel. He follows the narrow rail track for the coal cars, ducking his head to avoid a broken support or dip in the ceiling.”

“The wine of drills at the coal-face grows louder. But first Mr. Zang has to stop to help two other miners as they use brute force and a log to a lever a derailed coal truck back on the track....On the surface, a miner heaves a truck off the pulley lift, pushes it by hand along the rails and empties its load down the side of a coal heap. A bulldozer and two men with shovels then fill a lorry that will take the coal for processing.”

The documentary Yuam Shan (“Distant Mountain”) by film maker Hu Jie in the 1990s showed the horrid conditions that miners worker under.

Coal and Subsiding Villages in China

Coal mining produces all kinds of problems. In Da Antou, a village that sits on the slopes of a coal-filled mountain In Shanxi Province, houses are breaking apart and falling into the ground because the mountain it sits on has been hollowed out by coal mining.

Almost every house in the village has some cracks. Some residents have been woken up in the middle of the might as their windows shattered apart and cracks’some several inches wide’spread across the walls and ceilings. Other have had holes opened in their roofs, tiles drop on their floosr and bricks topple from vaulted ceilings. Occasionally entire rooms collapse. The shifting earth has also disrupted water supplies and made many sources of water unusable.

Many residents have had to abandon their homes out of fear their houses will collapse on them and their children. The government and the state-owned coal company mining the mountain have given the village about $350,000 in compensation to help build new homes. By some estimated 7,700 square miles of Shanxii has been hollowed out by mines and other areas may have similar problems

In October 2007, 12 people died when five houses crashed into a collapsed mine tunnel in northern Shanxi Province. Workers had been extending a tunnel under a residential area in the city of Yangquan. In the initial reports it was unclear whether the dead were in the tunnel or the houses.

Coal Diesel and Gas Liquification in China

“With oil prices high, China's policymakers are hedging their bets by investing in one of the world's most controversial fuels: coal diesel,” Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian.” Shenhua is once again at the forefront of development. Last year, the company launched a pilot that uses an advanced technique on a scale never seen before in the world. In its first 12 months, the experimental liquefaction facility in Ordos expects to produce more than a million tonnes of vehicle fuel.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

“Coal-to-liquid technology has a long history. It was developed in Nazi Germany and enhanced by apartheid-era South Africa to get around fuel embargoes. Japan, the US and several other nations also launched small-scale trials after the oil price shock of the early 1970s. Most experiments were abandoned due to environmental and cost concerns.”

“China has launched two major coal-to-liquid projects. One, in Ningxia, is a tie-up with SASOL that uses the South African firm's gasification methods. The Guardian is the first western media organization to visit the other facility, in Ordos, which pioneers a direct liquefaction technique that “cracks” carbon with hydrogen extracted from water to produce clear diesel.”

“In the future, Shenhua hopes to expand production fivefold, largely using coal from the nearby Shangwan mine. The main driver is cost. Shu Geping, the chief engineer at the plant, says the price of liquid coal is competitive when the cost of oil is over $40 a barrel. In the future, as production increases and the technology is improved, it will become even cheaper.”

Environmental Concerns with Coal Diesel and Gas Liquification in China

Environmental concerns will weigh against these economic benefits. On the surface, the plant is impressively clean. There is no smell and in the glow of an Inner Mongolian sunset, white and pink smoke billows from its pipes. But for each tonne of the liquid, six and a half tons of water must be piped from an aquifer more than 70 kilometers away and more than three tons of carbon dioxide are released into the air. These are major concerns for a country that is already desperately short of water and increasingly criticized as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

“Government researchers have been cautious about adopting this technology nationwide because liquid coal results in 50 percent to 100 percent more emissions than a comparable amount of oil. The prospect of millions of petrol tanks being filled with such a fuel has alarmed environmentalist groups. “Developing this technology on a big scale will lock China up even further in its unsustainable reliance on coal, which is the biggest cause of climate change,” said Yang Ailun, of Greenpeace.”

“Last year, the government blocked several new proposals for coal liquefaction facilities. But this may be to ensure the monopoly of the state firm. According to Shu, Shenhua plans to build another facility near Xinjiang's largely unexploited coal deposits. In the long term strategic concerns may ensure a future for liquefaction. “To make the most of our energy strengths, producing oil from coal is of great strategic significance,” he said. “I've read that if the output of coal-to-liquid plants could reach 50 million tons a year, then China's energy problems would be solved.”

Carbon Capture at Gas Liquification Plant in China

“Shu insists his new facility can be good for the environment because it is equipped to capture and condense carbon dioxide for possible storage. Next year, the facility will begin one of China's most ambitious carbon capture and sequestration research programs. In a US-backed project, it will store 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually in a nearby saline aquifer.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

“Its small beer compared to the 3 million tons of emissions from the plant, but a successful pilot project could pave the way for a wider scale adoption of the technology that many believe is of global importance.”

“Beijing's policymakers are doubtful. They believe dumping carbon underground is expensive and risky for local environments. But under foreign pressure, they have identified more than 100 sites for potential storage. Ordos will lead the way, but it remains to be seen whether its scientists will be as successful with carbon storage as they have been with coal liquefaction.”

Trying to Build a Cheaper Coal Gasifer in China

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “A pair of engineers took me to see their laboratory: a drab eight-story concrete building, crammed with so many pipes and ducts that it felt like the engine room of a ship. We climbed the stairs to the fourth floor and stepped into a room with sacks of coal samples lining the walls like sandbags. In the center of the room was a device that looked like a household boiler, although it was three times the usual size, and pipes and wires bristled from the top and the sides. It was an experimental coal “gasifier,” which uses intense pressure and heat to turn coal dust into a gas that can be burned with less waste, rather than burning coal the old-fashioned way. With a coal gasifier, it is far easier to extract greenhouse emissions, so that they can be stored or reused, instead of floating into the atmosphere. Gasifiers have been around for decades, but they are expensive — from five hundred million to more than two billion dollars for the power-plant size’so hardly any American utilities use them. The researchers in Xi’an, however, set out to make one better and cheaper.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, December 21, 2009]

“One of the engineers, Xu Yue, joined the gasifier project in 1997. A team of ten worked in twelve-hour shifts, conducting their experiments around the clock. “There was a bed there,” he said, pointing to the corner of a soot-stained control room. (The image of China as a nation of engineers toiling for pennies is overstated; Xu Yue works hard, but he earns around a hundred thousand dollars a year.) Beyond salaries, everything about the lab was cheaper than it would have been in the U.S., from the land on which it was built to the cost of heating the building, and when the gasifier was finished it had a price tag one-third to one-half that of the equivalent in the West.”

When Albert Lin, an American energy entrepreneur on the board of Future Fuels, a Texas-based power-plant developer, set out to find a gasifier for a pioneering new plant that is designed to spew less greenhouse gas, he figured that he would buy one from G.E. or Shell. Then his engineers tested the Xi’an version. It was “the absolute best we’ve seen,” Lin told me. (Lin said that the “secret sauce” in the Chinese design is a clever bit of engineering that recycles the heat created by the gasifier to convert yet more coal into gas.) His company licensed the Chinese design, marking one of the first instances of Chinese coal technology’s coming to America. “Fifteen or twenty years ago, anyone you asked would have said that Western technologies in coal gasification were superior to anything in China,” Lin said. “Now, I think, that claim is not true.”

China’s Coal to Electricity Program

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, in 2007 “a truckload of Beijing municipal workers turned up in my neighborhood and began unspooling heavy-duty black power lines, which they attached to our houses, in preparation for a campaign to replace coal-burning furnaces with electric radiators. Soon, the Coal-to-Electricity Project, as it was called, opened a small radiator showroom in a storefront around the corner, on a block shared by a sex shop and a vender of funeral shrouds. My neighbors and I wandered over to choose from among the radiator options. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, December 21, 2009]

“Two-thirds of the price was subsidized by the city, which estimates that it has replaced almost a hundred thousand coal stoves since the project began, five years ago, cutting down on sulfur and dust emissions. I settled on a Marley CNLS340, a heater about the size of a large suitcase, manufactured in Shanghai. It had a built-in thermostat preprogrammed to use less electricity during peak day hours and then store it up at night, when demand was lower — a principle similar to the “smart meters” that American utilities plan to install in the next decade.”

The price of coal rose to $60 from $40 a ton in 2005 to a high of $200 in 2008. Coal delivered to southern China currently sold for $114 per ton in November 2010.

Image Sources: Westport Schools; BBC; Environmental News; Tropical Island

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012

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