The Truth About Coal, China, and Smog

The Truth About Coal, China, and Smog

Environmental extremists, especially those wedded to the CO2 hypothesis for global warming, have repeatedly reported on China’s smog and how coal-fired power plants were to blame.

An expert on China, Xizhou Zhou, at the IHS Market CERAWeek, painted a completely different picture, which is far closer to the truth than what environmental activists have been preaching.

It turns out that the northern part of China, which gets very cold in the winter, has relied on dispersed, small, inefficient coal-fired plants for heating.

These small, dispersed coal-fired plants provided 70% of northern China’s heating.

Beginning in the spring of 2017 these plants began to be shut down, and in many cases torn down.

Natural gas was, in many instances, the solution for providing heat, but using natural gas created other problems, primarily cost, lack of underground storage space and the need for LNG imports.

However, shutting down dispersed coal-fired plants for heating created a shortage of heat for homes, schools and businesses and the government decreed that other energy sources should be used … which was interpreted to mean using clean coal.

Chart from Xizhou Zhou IHS, CERAWeek article

As the chart shows, the plan is to use clean coal to help solve the smog problem.

Nearly all new coal-fired power plants being built in China are High-Efficiency Low Emission (HELE) designs. HELE plants are also referred to as Ultra-Supercritical power plants.

The HELE plants used for heat are combined heat and power plants, where heat is supplied to the community while electricity is generated for the grid.

As a result, Mr. Zhou said:

“Northern China’s residents experienced consecutive blue sky days without even a yellow alert. Many first-time visitors to the Chinese capital wondered where the infamous Beijing smog had gone.”

What China recognizes is that coal can be used safely and at low cost to provide electricity and heat.

HELE coal-fired power plants can’t currently be built in the United States due to regulations left over from the Obama administration. Current EPA regulations require that no more than 1,400 pounds of CO2 be emitted per MWh. HELE plants emit around 1,700 pounds per MWh.

While environmental activists were pointing their finger at coal-fired power plants, it was actually the small, inefficient dispersed coal plants used for heating, along with automobiles, that were the key contributors to smog in northern China.

What China has done, is to use coal to help solve its smog problem, and thereby create “Blue Skies”.

In this case clean-coal, or Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants, can create Blue Skies.

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6 Replies to “The Truth About Coal, China, and Smog”

  1. I am no fan of coal as you know. It is an area where we disagree. But home furnaces, or (in this case) small district heating plants are often a major cause of pollution. A big power plant has the space and probably the money for some NOx control and a baghouse. Home heating…no such thing. Glad you pointed this out!

    • That’s a good question for which I don’t have a complete answer.
      Piping steam to residences is what has typically been the case, especially in Europe. Piping makes sense in cities where apartment buildings are common, as opposed to single-family residences where piping makes no sense.
      At this point, I have assumed that China is using the same approach as in Europe, but I’m looking for confirmation.

  2. The reality is that coal still generates over 41% of global electricity. It can be replaced by natural gas in very few places like USA, Mexico and Canada. in Japan, they should turn on all nukes as soon as possible. Since the nukes are already paid, there is no cheaper and cleaner electricity.