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12 The Search for Cleaner Energylocked

12 The Search for Cleaner Energylocked

  • Daniel K. Gardner
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Where Is China’s Coal Consumption Trending?

Coal has been the primary energy source driving China’s recent “economic miracle.” In 2000 the country went through 1.5 billion tons of coal, and as energy demands have continued to skyrocket, so too has the consumption of coal. By 2013, coal use in China, having grown annually about 12%, had almost tripled to more than 4 billion tons, an amount equal to that consumed by the rest of world combined.

Inexpensive and plentiful, coal has supplied about 70% of China’s total energy mix annually since 2000 (by comparison, coal accounted for 18% of the US energy mix in 2013). While generating the energy that has propelled the country’s economy, coal has also generated much of the pollution that poisons its air, water, and soil and most of the greenhouse gases that make China the world’s leading contributor to global warming (almost 30% of the world’s total).

In 2014, for the first time in the 21st century, China’s consumption of coal unexpectedly declined, by 2.9% year-over-year from the previous year. The next year, 2015, witnessed a still greater decline of 3.7%. China, of course, remains by far the world’s largest user of coal, but some analysts, looking at the recent energy figures, have begun to argue that “history will likely show that 2013–2014 marked the peak in Chinese p. 190coal consumption.”1 If these analysts prove to be correct—if history does in fact show that China experienced peak coal consumption in 2013–2014—the country will have achieved that watershed a full decade earlier than most students of China’s environment thought possible.

By 2015 coal’s share in the country’s total energy mix dropped from 70% to 64%. The drop in coal consumption, both in absolute tonnage and in the share of the total energy mix, can be explained, in some part, by the slowing economy of the 2010s (especially in the manufacturing and construction sectors) and the related slowdown in the growth of energy demand. However, in larger, more significant, part, it can be explained by the country’s resolve to diversify its energy resources and to speed up the decarbonization of its total energy supply. As recently as 2011, when coal’s share of China’s energy consumption was still over 70%, non-fossil fuel’s share was just 8.4%, but as coal’s share has been dropping, non-fossil fuel’s share has climbed, reaching 12% in 2015. The most recent available figures show that in the first half of 2016, as the country’s consumption of coal continued to decline year-over-year, the use of non-fossil fuel rose steeply—solar by 28%, nuclear by 25%, wind by 14%, and hydropower by 13%.

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Will “Cleaner Coal” Have a Place in China’s Energy Plans?

Coal may be dirty, but it is cheap. Given China’s vast energy needs, it reasonable that the country would be looking at ways to make use of the abundant resource without doing significant harm to the environment. China has considered a number of technologies that would produce cleaner energy from coal. One is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process that can capture up to 90% of the carbon dioxide that is emitted from fossil fuel power plants. There are CCS technologies that can capture the CO2 before or after combustion. Once captured it must then be transported and deposited in a storage site, p. 191normally underground in a depleted gas or oil field, a saline aquifer, or the deep ocean. China and the United States signed an agreement in 2015 allowing them to share the results of their research into technologies to capture greenhouse gases.

CCS technology and use have developed more slowly globally and in China than expected. A major issue is expense. Coal itself is cheap, but the cost of capturing the CO2 it emits, transporting it, and injecting it safely underground has discouraged research investment and efforts in CCS. Environmentalists argue that any funding supporting the development of CCS is funding that would be better spent on developing renewable energy technologies. They also stress that CCS is designed to protect against carbon emissions alone; other pollutants, like nitrogen oxide and mercury, continue to be emitted into the atmosphere, contributing to acid rain, smog, toxic air, and soil degradation.

Additional concerns have arisen over CCS, especially over storage. Once injected into underground rock formations, how secure will the CO2 gases be? Might they escape into the air? Or might they leak from deep storage underground to contaminate drinking water? Could injection into rock formations trigger earthquakes; conversely, might earthquakes disturb the storage sites and permit the escape of CO2?2 The future of CCS in China is uncertain, but scientists agree that meaningful deployment of the technology will not, in any event, be feasible until well into the 2020s.

Another coal-related technology of interest in China is gasification, a process whereby coal is mixed with oxygen, heated at ultra-high temperatures, and thereby converted into synthetic natural gas (SNG). When burned, SNG discharges very few local pollutants into the air—many fewer than coal (perhaps 99% fewer)—which appeals to a leadership and people eager to curtail the deadly smog that routinely fills the skies. China in 2014 announced plans to build 50 coal gasification plants, mostly in the north and northwest—Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Gansu, and Ningxia—by 2020, though recently it p. 192has slowed down construction and scaled back the projected number.

Gasification is attractive in China for any number of reasons: (1) it makes use of a domestic resource that is inexpensive and abundant; (2) it strengthens the country’s energy security; (3) it props up a coal industry in decline, and offers it some protection from a hard landing; and (4) SNG burns much cleaner than coal.

Still, enthusiasm for gasification plants has moderated somewhat since 2014, and the role they ultimately will play in the country’s energy future is uncertain. Building a coal-to-gas plant is costly; so too is the process of converting coal to gas. As the price of natural gas, and oil too, has declined globally, the economic rationale for the deployment of gasification technology has become less clear to many in China.

But it is not the financial cost alone that has slowed the country’s development of a gasification infrastructure; it is also, importantly, the growing awareness of the severe impact that gasification plants have on the environment. An important Duke University study, “China’s Synthetic Natural Gas Revolution,” concluded that an SNG plant emits seven times more greenhouse gases than a conventional natural gas plant and nearly twice as much as a coal-fired power plant. Thus, the argument continues, a turn by China to SNG may well be a boon to the country’s local air quality, but it would be a disaster for global climate change.

The same study also contends that the production of SNG is water-intensive, requiring 50 to 100 times the amount of water needed to produce shale gas. Given that SNG plants would be located mostly in the coal-rich but arid and already water-stressed provinces of the north and northwest, SNG production would risk aggravating the country’s water crisis in the region that could least afford it. The area’s farmers and herders would be especially vulnerable to any reduction in water resources. In their conclusion, the authors of the Duke study advised that “Chinese policymakers should delay implementing p. 193their SNG plan to avoid a potentially costly and environmentally damaging outcome. An even better decision would be to cancel the program entirely.”3

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Can Shale Gas with Its Plentiful Reserves Replace Coal as the Country’s Major Source of Energy?

In efforts to reduce its dependence on coal, China has looked increasingly to natural gas. Like coal, natural gas is a fossil fuel, but when burned it emits 43% less carbon and 66% less nitrogen oxide than coal. Between 2005 and 2013 the country’s natural gas production doubled, yet it was still unable to keep up with growing demand. To supplement the domestic supply it turned to imports, which multiplied 10-fold between 2008 and 2013, making China the fifth largest importer of gas in the world.

With the largest recoverable shale gas reserves in the world (more than in the United States and Canada together), China has been talking about its own “shale revolution”—one like the boom in the United States—since 2012, when it announced it would begin hydrofracturing (fracking) its reserves. But that revolution has largely sputtered, and almost all of China’s shale reserves remain underground. Exploration efforts, while ongoing, have proved to be challenging.

Fracking is the process whereby chemically treated water is injected at high pressure through seams of rock to force the release of natural gas that is trapped there. In China the shale basins are located in mountainous and difficult terrain, with the shale buried 1.9 to 5 miles (3,000–8000 meters) underground. In the United States shale is found in flatland buried less than 1.86 miles deep (less than 3,000 meters). Additionally, China’s geological conditions are tectonically more complex and less stable than geological conditions in the United States. The know-how and technology developed in the US shale fields are largely untransferable to conditions in China. The test for China will be to develop the expertise and technology to access p. 194its shale reserves, and to do so in a cost-effective manner. But once it gets to the shale gas, there remains the crucial issue of transporting it: China does not have the pipeline infrastructure to move the recovered gas from the remote regions where it is drilled to the areas of the country where it is most needed—the populous centers of the east coast and southeast. Today China has only 28,000 miles (45,062 km) of pipeline, compared to 310,686 miles (500,000 km) of pipeline in the United States.

The costs and challenges aside, many people in China have been reluctant to embrace a “shale revolution.” For them, a number of environmental concerns loom. Fracking is water-intensive, requiring in the vicinity of 19,000 tons of water per well, and of China’s seven major shale basins, all except the Sichuan basin are located in the north, in dry and water-stressed areas. Fracking threatens to deplete further the low water tables there. They are anxious too that the chemically treated water that is injected into the rock might leak out and contaminate the groundwater. Finally, fracking elsewhere, including the United States, has been associated with methane leaks; a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane contributes to global warming and poses a health risk to the population exposed to it.

China has not altogether given up hope of a shale revolution, but, according to energy experts, the obstacles in its way have postponed it for another decade at least.

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What Is the Role of Renewable Non-Fossil Energy Sources in China’s Energy Mix?

Fossil fuels today constitute 88% of China’s total primary energy mix: coal holds the largest piece of the consumption pie (64%), followed by oil (18.1%), and then by gas (5.9%). While fossil fuels have been declining as a percentage of the total, non-fossil fuel energies have been scaling up. From 2010 to 2015, renewable energy (i.e., wind, solar, and hydropower) and nuclear energy (not a renewable source of energy, since p. 195uranium is a finite resource) increased their share from 8.3% of the total to 12%, and their combined wattage capacity jumped from 257 gigawatts (GW) to 534 GW, a 100% increase.4 In 2015 alone, as China’s consumption of coal fell 3.7%, its wind capacity increased 27% year-over-year (30.5 GW) to 145 GW—more than the combined capacity of the United States, Germany, and India—and its solar capacity increased 62% (16.5 GW) to 43 GW.5

The 13th Five-Year Plan lays out Beijing’s ambitious plans to expand the country’s non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 15% of the total energy mix by 2020. This chart lists the actual installed capacity of each fuel in 2015 and the 2020 target set for it in the 13th Five-Year Plan:





2015 levels

145 GW

43 GW

320 GW

26 GW

2020 targets

210–250 GW

110–150 GW

340 GW

58 GW

If we focus on renewable sources and leave nuclear aside for the moment, in 2015 China already led the world in installed wind power, solar power, and hydropower. And total renewable capacity was easily the largest in the world at more than 500 GW, followed by the United States with less than half that (220 GW). The recent Five-Year Plan makes emphatically clear that China intends to maintain its momentum in renewable energy growth. Indeed, for the past few years, China has invested more, by far, than any other country in renewable energy capacity. In 2015, for example, China put $102 billion to $111 billion into renewable energy (up from $39 billion just five years earlier), more than one-third of the world’s total ($286 billion) for the year, and more than the United States ($44 billion), Japan ($36.2 billion) and the United Kingdom ($22.2 billion) combined.

One hotbed of renewable energy construction is in the country’s northwest, home of the Gobi Desert. While much of this region is arid and inhospitable to agriculture, it is at the same p. 196time rich in both wind and sun. Since the late 2000s, companies eager to expand the country’s supply of wind energy have built large-capacity wind farms there. In fact, the Gansu Wind Farm in Jiuquan prefecture just outside of the city of Dunhuang is the largest wind farm in the world. In 2013 it had a capacity of 6.8 GW, more than all of the United Kingdom’s wind capacity at the time. By 2020, this one farm is expected to generate 20 GW of wind, just a little shy of what the whole of the United Kingdom and Spain together generate today.6

The abundance of wind in the Gobi is matched by the abundance of sun. The surrounding area of Gansu, Qinghai, and Xinjiang provinces has thus appealed equally to the solar industry and, indeed, is fast becoming the solar capital of the world. Qinghai is home to the world’s largest solar farm, the 850-MW Longyangxia Dam Solar Park, capable of powering 200,000 households (Figure 12.1).

Figure 12.1 Longyangxia Dam Solar Park in Qinghai province, the largest solar farm in the world

Bear in mind that the northwest, where wind and solar resources are especially great, is the area of the country where p. 197coal is king and water resources, required for the production of coal power, are scarce. Building a strong wind and solar power presence there—and allowing for reduced reliance on coal-generated power—will bring both environmental and economic benefits to the region.

To preserve its limited land resources, China has also begun building wind farms in the water, along the country’s east coast. Currently, offshore farms represent only a very small percentage of the country’s wind power capacity—approximately 1 GW—but there are plans to ramp up capacity to 30 GW by 2020.

Turning to hydropower: since the establishment of the People’s Republic, China has been constructing dams at a torrid pace. For the Communist Party hydroelectricity has been the go-to alternative to fossil-fuel–generated power, a critical source of energy driving the country’s economic growth. There are today more than 87,000 hydropower stations in the country, the majority (77%) in the water-rich south. Of these, 23,000 are classified as large dams (dams exceeding 15 meters high), constituting a major chunk of the 57,000 large dams worldwide.

The country’s hydropower capacity is around 320 GW, the largest in the world by a large margin, 3.6 times the capacity of Brazil, the world’s number two producer (89 GW). This 320 GW represents the lion’s share of China’s renewable energy capacity of 508 GW. In 2015, hydropower was the third largest contributor to the country’s entire primary energy mix (8%), just after coal and oil.

With China’s pledge to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its total energy mix to 15% by 2020 and 20% by 2030, hydropower’s installed capacity is sure to grow. The 2020 target for 2020 is 340 GW, a number the country is expected easily to exceed; estimates have it that 2050 could see the capacity climb to as high as 500 GW, though many environmental groups are calling for curbing development sooner. Much of this hydro buildup is proposed for the country’s southwest, Yunnan and p. 198Sichuan provinces, and the Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau, where rivers from glacier runoff take form.

The Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province perhaps best exemplifies China’s longstanding hydroelectric ambitions (Figure 12.2). Spanning the Yangtze River in Hubei, it is the largest hydroelectric station in the world. Begun in 1994, it took about 14 years to complete. Its massive concrete structure is 1.45 miles (2.33 km) long and 607 feet (185 meters) tall, some five times larger than the Hoover Dam. Its energy capacity is a walloping 22 GW, more than 3 times the capacity of the Grand Coulee Dam (6.8 GW), America’s largest, and 20 times that of the Hoover Dam (2.1 GW). The reservoir behind the dam is 410 miles (660 km) long, more than two-thirds the length of the United Kingdom, and 0.7 miles (1.12 km) wide, with a total surface area of 420 square miles (1,088 km2).

Figure 12.2 Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province, the largest hydroelectric project in the world

Government sources proudly proclaim that a thermal power plant generating the energy produced by the Three Gorges Dam would burn 50 million tons of coal and emit 100 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

p. 199And it is not only within China’s borders that Chinese are building hydropower plants. They are aggressively exporting their dam-building experience globally, with more than 300 projects in more than 70 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe. Today, China is the dominant player in the world’s hydropower market.7

Biomass power plays but a very small role in the country’s total energy mix, accounting for just 5.5 GW in 2010 and 10 GW in 2015. While China has abundant biomass resources—in the form of farm and forestry byproducts and residential and industrial waste—the “utilization rate,” according to experts, is low, at about 5%. A report in the China Daily explains that the “vast majority is not harnessed as the proper technology is not fully in place.” In December 2016, however, the National Energy Administration of China announced plans to develop the biomass energy industry over the next five years in order to reduce coal use and clean the air.8

A number of motives explain Beijing’s efforts these days to build a strong renewable energy infrastructure. Reducing the reliance on coal consumption is no doubt at the top of the list. After all, reduced coal use is expected to result in better, cleaner air, greater availability of freshwater, improved public health, and a more secure energy future. But it should not be lost on us that China also sees clean energy and green technology as central to tomorrow’s global economy, and it wants to assume global leadership in that economy. Today, China already is the leading manufacturer in the world of solar photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, and home to the world’s largest turbine manufacturer, Goldwind Science and Technology, and the world’s largest solar module manufacturer, Trina Solar.

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What Are Some of the Limitations of Wind and Solar Energy Use in China?

China expects its renewable energy resources to represent an increasingly large share of its total energy supply over the next p. 200couple of decades. The development of wind and solar capacity has been phenomenal in recent years, and projections through the mid-21st century show no letup. Already, the country has both the largest wind and the largest solar capacity in the world.

But a considerable portion of that capacity goes unused each year. In 2015, for example, 12% of the country’s energy from solar and 15% of the energy from wind sat idle. A number of factors help to explain this waste. The rapid expansion of wind and solar energy resources has far outpaced the ability of the grid to absorb and transmit the power they generate. Transmission lines are not yet sufficiently extensive or powerful to accommodate the swelling electrical load. A related consideration is the remote location of the production centers of wind and solar energy. North and west China, home to much of the renewable industry, are too far from the urban and industrial hubs of the east and south, where power demand is highest, to allow for the bulk transmission of their wind and solar energy supply. A system of high-voltage power lines is needed to carry wind- and solar-produced electricity across the country.

Without connectivity to the grid, wind and solar energy producers obviously cannot hope to distribute their supply of power. Still, connectivity to the grid does not alone ensure distribution. Grid operators, looking ahead a day or so at the weather forecast (e.g., wind, rain, sun, heat) and the respective availability of different sources of energy, decide which power plants their grid networks will draw on. But for decades the state has made clear that it expects grid operators to give priority access to coal power, with the intention of encouraging the building of coal-fired power plants to drive China’s economic development. And this expectation has suited grid operators just fine since coal is predictable and reliable, not to mention inexpensive and abundant.

The end result, however, has been that wind and solar plants, capable of producing considerable amounts of power, p. 201stand idle much of the time, since the country’s grids have been unable, or slow, to accept their electricity. For example, in the sun-drenched provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu, unused or “curtailed” solar power represented 26% and 31%, respectively, in 2015; in wind-rich Gansu, Xinjiang, and Jilin, wind curtailment rates all exceeded 30%. The grids’ preference for coal-fired power helps explain why today China generates less electricity from wind power than the United States despite having almost double the wind power capacity.

President Xi’s pledge in September 2015 at a meeting at the White House to implement “green dispatch” is giving hope to the country’s environmentalists that China is, in fact, shifting gears and henceforth will give priority grid access to renewable and clean energies, thereby reducing what is now a significant waste of clean energy that could be replacing coal-generated power. Xi’s words are worth quoting:

China’s “green dispatch” system will prioritize power generation from renewable sources, and establish guidelines to accept electricity first from the most efficient and lowest-polluting fossil fuel generators. This approach will accelerate the phase down of high-polluting, energy-intensive power while supporting the deployment of renewable and non-fossil sources, and will better utilize China’s rapidly growing solar and wind capacity while supporting its ambitious non-fossil energy targets of 15 percent by 2020 and around 20 percent by 2030.9

A final limitation of wind and solar energy that must be taken into account is that until a convenient and economic means of storing wind and solar power is developed, both solar photovoltaics and wind turbines will be capable of providing power only when the weather cooperates. This “intermittency” means that at the moment neither wind nor solar can serve as a reliable stand-alone source of power.

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p. 202Are There Concerns over the Deployment of Hydropower in China?

Few in China would dispute that hydropower is cleaner and less damaging to the planet than coal-fired power, but over the years, awareness of problems associated with the buildout of hydroelectric facilities has grown. Whether these problems, in the end, outweigh the benefits of hydropower use is a matter of some debate. The problems that generate the greatest concern are the following.10

Ecological Effects of Dams

Dams interrupt river flow, alter the river’s velocity, temperature, and chemical balance, and trap silt, all of which, in turn, affects plant and fish life, fish population, fish migrations, soil health downstream, downstream water resources, and the health of downstream rivers and lakes.

Consider, for instance, that the Yangtze carries about 500 million tons of silt each year to the Three Gorges area; most of it is trapped by the dam there and deposited in the reservoir. The downstream area of the Yangtze is consequently deprived of this sediment, and the effects of this are (1) a deficit in nutrient load downriver, (2) growing coastal erosion, and (3) changes to the ecology of the East China Sea, the outlet for the Yangtze. The dam has also been blamed for having disrupted the habitat of the Chinese sturgeon, the sturgeon, and the paddlefish; all three are now considered endangered. The famous rare freshwater dolphin that once lived in the Yangtze, the baiji, was recently declared extinct. Overfishing, water pollution, and the dam have been held responsible. Since the completion of the dam, the two largest freshwater lakes in China, Dongting and Poyang, downstream in Hunan and Jiangxi respectively, have shrunk dramatically, much of their areas having gone dry. Experts attribute the conditions of these lakes to the much-reduced river flow resulting from the damming.

p. 203Population Resettlement

It is estimated that in the past half-century more than 23 million people have been forced to resettle to make way for dams. They are promised housing and resettlement cash in return but often receive less than full compensation. The land available to them for farming is typically degraded, and their lack of skills, training, and education makes them poorly suited for most other jobs, even if they are available. Of the 23 million people displaced by the dam-building frenzy, 8 million are said to be living below the poverty line.11 Finally, there is also the often-high emotional cost of being uprooted from all that they have ever known. The Three Gorges dam alone necessitated the resettlement of a government-estimated 1.3 million people, though the actual figure is likely closer to 2 million.

Loss of Farmland

When the Three Gorges reservoir was filled, according to official reports, 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages were submerged, forever lost. So, too, were 74,131 acres (30,000 hectares) of agricultural land, which experts regard as some of China’s most fertile. In a country where land resources have been chipped away and food security has become a state priority, flooding vast swaths of arable, cultivated land represents a considerable sacrifice.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Hydroelectric is often described as a zero-emissions energy source, but this is not the full story. The flooding reservoir water swallows up plant life and inundates trees and forests; as the vegetation and soil rots with time, the surface water of the reservoir releases into the air carbon dioxide and methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Earlier, scientists believed that the surface of reservoirs may account for 20% of all human-made methane emission, but recent research suggests that it is still higher, although the researchers p. 204themselves say that the issue needs more study. Still, there is now a strong scientific consensus that dam reservoirs release a considerable burden of greenhouse gases into the air and are major contributors to climate change.12

Earthquakes and Landslides

Much of China is geologically unstable and seismically active. This is especially true in western and southwestern China, where the current hydro expansion is taking place. Looking at dams that have been built, are under construction, or are planned in the region, a Probe International 2012 study concluded that 1.4% are located in “zones of low seismic hazard,” 48.2% are in “zones of high to very high seismic hazard,” and the remaining 50.4% are in “zones of moderate hazard.” The upshot here—that 98.6% of these dams are located in zones of moderate to very high seismic hazard—is worrisome to geologists and environmentalists. Structural damage to a dam, or a dam’s collapse, could lead to massive and uncontrollable flooding downstream.13

But recent studies have begun to indicate that the dams themselves, with the weight of the impounded water, can place tremendous pressure on the underlying geological plates and activate movement. This is called “reservoir-induced seismicity.” There is a growing belief among scientists that the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake outside of Chengdu, which killed almost 90,000 people, may have been set off by smaller quakes triggered by the nearby Zipingpu Dam. The 2014 earthquake in Ludian county in Yunnan, responsible for over 600 deaths, has been tied by some geologists to two dams within 10 kilometers, both of whose reservoirs were being filled at the time of the quake. Research into reservoir-induced seismicity is still in its early stages, but thus far it suggests that caution should be taken in constructing dams in seismically active areas of China.14

A 2010 study by seismologists at the China Earthquake Administration has added to concerns: researching the seismic activity in the Three Gorges area during the 6.5-year period p. 205(2003–2009) in which the reservoir was being filled, they found that the area around the reservoir registered 3,429 small earthquakes, a 10-fold increase in frequency over the era before the Three Gorges Dam was built.15

With dams also comes the worry of landslides. The fluctuation of water levels in their reservoirs makes for quick changes in water pressure, which, in turn, weaken and destabilize the surrounding terrain. Seismic activity—a tremor or a quake—can set a perilous landslide in motion. So, too, can heavy rains, as the May 2016 Fujian landslide, which took more than 40 lives, reminds us.

Climate Change

Of concern, too, is how climate change might affect the country’s future hydropower capacity. The Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau region is the source of 10 of Asia’s major rivers, including those on which China today is building, or planning to build, new hydropower plants—Jinsha River (upper reaches of Yangtze River), Nu River, Lancang River, and Yarlung Zangbo River. Owing to rising temperatures (3.42°F [1.9°C] since 1961), the glaciers in the plateau region, which feed the headwaters of these rivers, have shrunk 33% in the past century. Some scientists warn that two-thirds of these glaciers could be entirely gone as early as 2050. The effect that this magnitude of glacial melt would have on China’s water resources—and on the country’s hydropower capacity—is, literally, incalculable.16

The frequency and severity of droughts are expected to increase in the coming decades as the climate changes. Droughts will affect river flow, which in turn will create greater variability in the capacity of hydropower plants to generate electricity.17


The Chinese government has targeted 10 rivers as key to their plans for large-scale hydro expansion. Three of these rivers, p. 206located in China’s southwest, are the Lancang, the Yarlung Zangbo, and the Nu. But building dams on these rivers entails geopolitical risks, as they are all transboundary: the Lancang starts in Qinghai, flows into Tibet and Yunnan, and then makes its way to Southeast Asia as the Mekong River, streaming through Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam; the Yarlung Zangbo has its headwaters in Tibet, snakes its way into India, where it becomes the Brahmaputra, and then merges with the Ganges and flows out to sea through Bangladesh; and the Nu, which has its source in Qinghai, flows into Tibet and Yunnan, and then streams into Myanmar and Thailand as the Salween.

Tensions arise when China builds dams on, or diverts water from, the length of these rivers within its borders. After all, dam building and water diversion there mean changes to river flow, sediment and nutrient load, pollution levels, and aquatic life downstream, across its borders. Agriculture, especially rice and wheat production, and fisheries, wild and farmed, are profoundly affected; so too is the supply of drinking water, for a large and growing population. And the more water China draws to generate hydropower for its use, the less is available to its riparian neighbors to develop their hydropower resources. The crux of the problem is that there exist no international treaties that govern the use of these transboundary waters.18 And China has not shown an eagerness to participate in any such treaties.

By controlling the headwaters of the Lancang/Mekong, Yarlung Zangbo/Brahmaputra, and Nu/Salween, China, in effect, exercises considerable power over more than 1 billion people living in countries to the south. In the coming years, as China moves forward with plans to expand its hydropower capacity, the risk of skirmishes with neighboring peoples over water use and rights looms. To ensure stability in the region, China should proceed with care and in a spirit of cooperation.

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p. 207What Are China’s Plans for the Development of Nuclear Power?

Nuclear energy, which has lost favor globally, is enjoying a boom in China. Nuclear first entered the picture in the 1970s when the Chinese government targeted it as a “developing industry.” In 2004, the government called for accelerated development of nuclear energy, from “moderate development” to “positive development.” The Fukushima disaster in 2011 slowed the growth of nuclear energy around the world; the Chinese government suspended the construction of all nuclear reactors to ponder the future of nuclear power. But a year later it lifted the suspension, intent again on forging ahead, and by the end of 2012 the country had 14 nuclear reactors in operation, with an installed capacity of 11 GW. By 2015, the number of reactors had more than doubled to over 30, another 20 were under construction, and nuclear capacity had more than doubled to 26 to 28 GW.

Since lifting the suspension, then, China has become a big-time player in nuclear energy (Figure 12.3). In 2015, only the United States (99 GW), France (63 GW), and Japan (40 GW) had more nuclear power capacity than China. And while these three countries—along with many others—have curtailed construction of nuclear power plants, China is building capacity. The 13th Five-Year Plan target is to construct 6 to 8 new plants annually through 2020—a total of 30 to 40 additional plants—which would bring the number of reactors to 60 to 70 and the nuclear capacity to at least 58 GW (with another 30 GW under construction). This would likely put China just behind the United States as the world’s leading producer of nuclear energy.

Figure 12.3 Sites of nuclear power plants in China

Source: Research Institute of Tepia (as of Nov. 2008)

The country’s plans for nuclear power extend beyond 2020: the government recently announced that the post-2020 goal is to construct 10 new plants each year. The China Nuclear Energy Association has thus projected that by 2030 China’s installed nuclear capacity will be 160 GW, and by 2050 it will p. 208 p. 209reach 240 GW, 10 times the country’s present capacity and 2.5 times more than the capacity of the United States today.19 Some experts think the capacity in 2050 will be closer to 400 GW, generated by what would be 400 to 500 new nuclear reactors.20

As of early 2016 China’s nuclear agenda also includes building, by 2020, 20 floating nuclear power plants, which could sail to remote sites wherever power is needed.21 Construction of the first such floating reactor began in 2017. It is believed that the main uses of China’s floating nuclear plants will be to generate power for offshore oil and gas exploration and for building and operating artificial islands on reefs in the South China Sea. Tensions over what is viewed in the region as China’s aggressive behavior are already high, and China’s plan to build a fleet of floating nuclear plants is intensifying them.

The Beijing leadership views nuclear energy as a clean alternative to fossil fuels, a source of power that emits many fewer pollutants and much less carbon. But as with wind and solar energy, Beijing believes that the country’s investment in nuclear energy will benefit more than the environment alone. Already, today, China is helping to build reactors in countries around the world: Pakistan, Argentina, Britain, and Romania, to name a few.22 China is positioning itself to be the leader of what it is convinced will be the economy of tomorrow, an economy based on clean energy and green technology.

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Is There Opposition to the Government’s Plan to Promote Nuclear Power?

There has been some vocal opposition by those who worry that the country may be ramping up its nuclear capacity far too quickly, and that in its eagerness to develop the economy and new sources of energy the government is putting the people’s safety at risk. One prominent nuclear physicist at the Chinese Academy of Science, He Zuoxiu, called the rush to build another 30 to 40 nuclear plants by 2020 “insane,” and predicted p. 210that China will “most probably” suffer from a nuclear disaster by 2030.23 “China has to have nuclear energy—we need the power,” He Zuoxiu acknowledges, “but we need to slow down and take a more measured approach, and really learn the lessons of Fukushima.”24

The nuclear plants operating today are situated mostly along the east and south coast, where energy is in highest demand and where there is ready availability of water, which is essential for cooling the reactors. But as space along these coasts is running out, the government is building, and plan­ning to build, reactors inland, locating them near rivers and lakes that can supply cooling water. Many question the wisdom of expanding nuclear sites inland. Nuclear power plants require more water—for cooling purposes—than coal-fired power plants producing the same amount of electricity. The country’s fresh water is already in short supply, with groundwater drying up and rivers and lakes even disappearing. Will inland nuclear plants be competing with local farmers and inhabitants for limited water resources? Will there be enough water to keep the reactors running (in the summers between 2003 and 2009 plants across Europe were forced to stop operations owing to limited water availability)? Will climate change, with the heat waves and droughts that are expected to result, make matters still worse?

China—especially the central and western parts—is a country of intense seismicity and, as a consequence, highly vulnerable to destructive earthquakes. Since 1900, more earthquakes have struck China than any other country in the world. According to the China Earthquake Administration’s Institute of Geology, nearly 800 of them were of magnitude 6 or above. For some, like Wang Yi’nan, a student and colleague of He Zuoxiu, building nuclear facilities in a region of such known tectonic instability is irresponsible: “Nuclear power is not yet controlled, not yet tamed, not yet safe . . . China cannot take the enormous risks of building nuclear power plants inland.”25

p. 211While the above experts, and others like them, have expressed concerns about China’s intention to go all-in on nuclear, the general public has seemed, until recently, largely amenable to—or at least silent about—Beijing’s efforts to build the country’s nuclear capacity. Likely, anxiety over the health-threatening smog has inclined the public to look favorably on a nuclear alternative that promises clean energy. This was especially true before 2011 and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Since then, criticism of nuclear development appears to be growing, and with the criticism have come some protests. Local residents, worried principally about the effects on their health, have gathered to express opposition to plans to build a nuclear power plant in Pengze county in Jiangxi (2012), a uranium processing facility in the city of Heshan in Guangdong (2013), and a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the city of Lianyungang in Jiangsu (2016). Thus far, the protests have been localized and have shown little sign of expanding into a countrywide anti-nuclear movement.