The problem with change is it takes so long to get here. China built its incredible industrial might by using thousands of cheap laborers to build cheap to fuel coal-powered generating plants. Then it reaped the whirlwind of air that was unsafe to breathe. Now it is focused on renewable energy.
Carbon Spewing Facilities Belching Crud
All those carbon spewing facilities belching crud into the skies over China led to smog in its cities so thick you could cut it with a knife. The incidence of asthma and other respiratory diseases skyrocketed. Having clean air for their children to breathe became the number one priority for people when choosing where to live.
China’s leaders looked around at the damage their industrial revolution had wrought and decided then and there to do something about. Long before COP 21 in Paris, China was racing full speed ahead into the renewable energy future, building solar power plants in the Gobi Desert and wind farms everywhere. And it started closing hundreds of those old, high-polluting power plants.
China’s Coal Plants Are Ultra-Supercritical
While China is a global leader in renewable energy, it still needs lots of electrical power to keep its economy humming. The build-out of its renewable energy resources will take decades to complete. In the meantime, the country is building a fleet of new state-of-the-art coal-fired generating plants that are significantly cleaner than the vast majority of coal plants in the US.
When it comes to generating electricity from steam, efficiency rises with temperature and pressure. There are basically three types of conventional power plants — subcritical, supercritical, and ultra-supercritical. A report by American Progress defines them as follows:
Subcritical: In these conventional power plants, coal is ignited to boil water, the water creates steam, and the steam rotates a turbine to generate electricity. The term “subcritical” indicates that internal steam pressure and temperature do not exceed the critical point of water — 705 degrees Fahrenheit and 3,208 pounds per square inch.
Supercritical: These plants use high-tech materials to achieve internal steam temperatures in the 1,000–1,050 degrees Fahrenheit range and internal pressure levels that are higher than the critical point of water, thus spinning the turbines much faster and generating more electricity with less coal.
Ultra-supercritical: These plants use additional technology innovations to bring temperatures to more than 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure levels to more than 5,000 pounds per square inch, thus further improving efficiency.
There is only one ultra-supercritical facility in the US. China has 90. Among the top 100 generating plants in the US, the oldest was brought online in 1967. Among the top 100 generating plants in China, the oldest was built in 2006.
Ultra-supercritical coal plants use less coal and create few emissions. Not zero emissions, to be sure, but still less than older subcritical and supercritical facilities. China’s new coal plants use 286 grams of coal to generate a kilowatt-hour of electricity. US plants burn 375 grams per kilowatt-hour, on average. China’s top 100 plants create about 20 million fewer metric tons of carbon emission than America’s top 100.
China will require all coal plants to be at or below 310 grams per kWh by 2020. Those that do not meet the standards will be closed. Of the top 100 plants in the US, none can meet that standard today. With the Trump-inspired war on regulations, it is unlikely any will do so in 2020 either.
Coal And Jobs
The Shanghai Waigaoqiao No. 3 power station has two 1,000 megawatt ultra-supercritical units. 250 employees operate both.
Not far away, the Waigaoqiao No. 1 plant has four 300 megawatt supercritical units operated by 600 employees. The older Shidongkou No. 1 power plant also has four 300 megawatt units. It needs 1,000 people to keep the electrons flowing.
Things don’t get any better for job growth down in the mines. New high tech mining techniques need fewer workers with picks and shovels. The Chinese government warns that it expects 1.3 million coal miners will lose their jobs by 2020. By contrast, it expects renewables to create ten times that many new jobs by the beginning of the next decade.
Why The Spike In New Coal Plants In China?
But didn’t China build a bunch of new coal fired plants recently? Yes, it did and the American Progress report deals with that issue. “What American observers need to know is that many of those new plants are white elephants that China cannot fully utilize. They represent a blip rather than a trend, and Beijing is already moving to shut down many of these new plants.”
American Progress Did Its Homework
Their researchers actually went to China last December to visit several coal-fired plants. They went down into the mines and talked to dozens of local, regional, and national officials.
Their conclusion is that many of the newer plants were commissioned by local officials who saw the winds of change coming and ordered the construction of new coal-fired plants before certain government incentives were withdrawn.