China coal powerplant myths debunked
October 9, 2008 10:44 AM   Subscribe

MIT report debunks China energy myth. A detailed analysis of powerplants in China by MIT researchers debunks the widespread notion that outmoded energy technology or the utter absence of government regulation is to blame for that country's notorious air-pollution problems.
China's power sector has been expanding at a rate roughly equivalent to three to four new coal-fired, 500 megawatt plants coming on line every week.. most of the new plants have been built to very high technical standards, using some of the most modern technologies available.. [but] market pressures encourage plant managers to buy the cheapest, lowest quality and most-polluting coal available, while at the same time idle expensive-to-operate smokestack scrubbers or other cleanup technologies.. "the kinds of technology currently being adopted in China are not cheap. They're not buying junk, and in some cases the plants are employing state-of-the-art technology." The Chinese state has substantially improved its ability to implement and enforce rules on technology standards. It has been slower, however, to develop such abilities for monitoring the day-to-day operations of energy producers.
Part of the continuing story of Chinese lack of oversight plaguing the food industry, lead in toys, etc..
posted by stbalbach (11 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
So, like most places, it comes down to "what costs less?".

I don't think this tendency bodes well for us.
posted by SaintCynr at 1:08 PM on October 9, 2008

I kinda wish they'd say what the difference is between "state of the art" coal-burning technology is.. and "old" coal-burning technology. Are we talking 50% better? Or 500% better in terms of emissions reductions, if used correctly..? (or 5%?)
posted by mhh5 at 1:16 PM on October 9, 2008

Are we talking 50% better? Or 500% better in terms of emissions reductions, if used correctly..?

In terms of CO2, no difference whatsoever. In terms of sulfer, mercury, NOx, or whatever, could be a lot better.
posted by Chuckles at 7:38 PM on October 9, 2008

Here's an article on the control of mercury in coal fired power plants. Measures investigated remove up to 98%.
posted by Chuckles at 7:44 PM on October 9, 2008

Like Chinas state of the art powdered milk?
posted by Iax at 11:40 PM on October 9, 2008

I think the best thing any government can do when it comes to regulating any industry is to ask only one question: how to prevent externalization of costs. In this particular case, make it more expensive to burn crap or idle scrubbers.

The biggest reason the "leave the invisible hand of the market to it" crowd has it wrong is that it allows for industries like this to dump their bad effects on others.
posted by DreamerFi at 2:10 AM on October 10, 2008

This is silly. Of course the Chinese purchase state-of-the-art equipment, just as they purchase state-of-the-art luxury sedans, clothes, and electronics. The key is how they operate them. It's not just the coal, but the scrubbers themselves. Look, I've seen the kinds of regulatory "inspections" that they do in China. First off, the owner of the plant is a party member and the brother-in-law of the governor's first cousin, so the governor and his hand-picked local cronies don't want to rock the boat. The local "inspectors" come over to the plant once every couple of months or so. They sit in the boss's office and shoot baijiu and smoke copious ammounts of cheap cigarrettes (a couple cartons of which will get stuffed into their uniform pocket on their way out). They might get shown around the office and introduced to a couple of people (especially that cute new receptionist, where'd you find that one, Wang, you old dog?) They might go down to the floor, if there's time. Maybe they've got their cousin with them that's never seen a coal plant before, so down they go, more of a tour than an inspection. Out goes the inspector, in goes the high sulfur coal with the scrubbers off (to save them from wearing out, do you know how much those things cost?).

Every once and a while the guys from BJ have to come down. They come in a caravan, announced well in advance. Everything is spit shined. The scrubbers are all shined up, after all, they are unused still. All the workers have clean uniforms. They turn and stand tall and proud at their gleaming work stations as the inspectors from Beijing nod their heads approvingly, "oh, hen hao" and move on down the line. Then they leave and head back to Beijing. Off come the scrubbers, in goes the high sulfur coal. Even if they did notice that the scrubbers seemed a bit unworn they wouldn't say anything, after all there is no reason to embarrass anyone, especially since Lao Wang has been coming in several hundred thousand yuan under budget for the last three quarters!

To show their approval, Lao Wang is named the Deputy Minister of Energy Plant Inspection for Anhui Province. He'll keep his side post as president of Hubei High Sulfur Coal Mine number 12, the mine that conveniently provided the state-of-the-art coal plant with all that cheap high sulfur coal.

Later, when it is revealed that acid rain and mecury down wind of the plant has denuded hundreds of thousands of hectares of valuable farmland and poisoned a lake containng a rare species of crab, Lao Wang will be shown in the newspaper filing criminal charges against some mid-level manager at the state-of-the-art coal plant for "secretly" having the scrubbers shut down and high sulfur coal burned. It will be terribly embarassing. Though he will receive less than a slap on the wrist, the mid-level manager will eat rat poison out of shame.
posted by Pollomacho at 4:51 AM on October 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is silly. Of course the Chinese purchase state-of-the-art equipment. The key is how they operate them.

Which is exactly what the MIT report and FPP says.
posted by stbalbach at 9:47 AM on October 10, 2008

Which is exactly what the MIT report and FPP says.

Right, I thought that was pretty obvious though, no? It's like a study stating, "Bears more likely to defecate in forests."
posted by Pollomacho at 9:55 AM on October 10, 2008

Right, I thought that was pretty obvious though, no?

You've been there and seen it! But even in the last Presidential debates, it was mentioned China needed technology to clean up power plants. And just about every thing I've read it's always been about how China's power plants are old and outdated. I found the fact they have the technology in place, and are simply not using it, a real eye opener. Also hopeful that the problem is relatively easily fixable.

From the debate:

Obama: ..the United States government is working with the private sector to fund the kind of innovation that we can then export to countries like China that also need energy and are setting up one coal power plant a week.

Although in retrospect it's unclear if he's talking about "clean coal" (carbon) or scrubbers (air pollutants).
posted by stbalbach at 6:55 AM on October 11, 2008

I agree with pollomacho, this is far from the first report I've seen that points out they're using modern machinery in China. This doesn't rule out the potential for iinnovation that stbalbach (via Obama) mentions. The fact is the modern machinery is still pushing out masses of CO2, and with the rates of expansion of the Chinese economy, energy demand and thus power plant construction that adds up to significant climate impacts. There is huge potential for innovation, particularly relating to things like Carbon Capture and Storage, if you can get that working and the economics pans out then there's potential for significant reductions in impact. (I have to admit to scepticism about CCS, but the idea is been sold as a huge step forward by a lot of big commentators in the energy sector.)
posted by biffa at 5:03 AM on October 16, 2008

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