China Goes Green

What is everything in today’s environmental dialogue?

Could it be that the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas is the same country that spends more on green technology than any other country?

Courtesy of John Biesnecker

It says everything about China, that a nation of 1.35 billion people which is enjoying a rapidly growing economy, chooses to spend unimaginably large sums of money to green-tech it’s industry – even as many competing domestic interests vie for government revenue.

Beijing residents rarely see the sky these days due to constant smog caused by coal-fired power plants, industrial pollution, transportation and the construction sector. Many cities in China are finding themselves completely blanketed by thick, particulate-laden clouds and worryingly, at a certain point smog begins to affect worker attendance and productivity rates – which affect the corporate bottom line.

According to a non-profit organization working throughout Asia; “It has been estimated that 410,000 Chinese die as a result of pollution each year.” That’s every year, folks.

It is a vicious circle. High pollution levels induce worker ailments, which lower productivity, resulting in lower profits, causing companies to demand stricter environmental regulations. Company directors are beginning to recognize the costs of inaction are much higher than the cost of environmental action.

China is now the largest producer of solar panels in the world, having surpassed the U.S.A. in late 2011. A smaller percentage of those panels are available for export these days as they are being redirected for domestic use as a way to taper the need for more coal-burning power plants.

Courtesy of Suntech Power Holdings

However, on account of the staggering demand for electricity due to the rapid growth in China, completion of one coal-fired electrical power generation station per week continues and has been the case since 2008. One must also keep in mind this significant number; for each ton of coal burned, 2.4 tons of CO2 is created.

Of particular interest to the Chinese government these days is the cost of constructing 100 megawatt blocs of electricity generation – enough to power 62,000 homes – using various methods;

A Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) solar power plant — which cost around 700 million dollars in 2010, but steadily dropping in price. Fuel cost for the Sun to power those curved mirrors is zero. CSP’s are noted for producing solar power 24 hours per day, storing the heat generated in vast underground pools of molten salt. After manufacture and construction, all emissions are zero. Low maintenance. A 100 MW CSP power plant saves the environment 164,000 tons of CO2 per year!

A Photovoltaic (PV) solar power plant — generally cost around 300 million dollars with prices dropping almost monthly. Fuel cost for the Sun to power those solar modules is zero. After manufacture and construction, all emissions are zero. Very low maintenance. A 100 MW PV power plant also saves the environment 164,000 tons of CO2 per year!

A coal-fired power plant — cost about 250 million dollars and that price is rising yearly as expensive environmental technology is added to improve air quality. Constant maintenance is a factor with coal-fired power plants.

In the coal power plant scenario, the construction cost is only one factor out of many high costs to be borne by the plant operator and ultimately passed on to citizens.

At the end of 2010, China operated 620 coal-fired power plants burning over 3 billion tons of coal per year. That’s a lot of CO2, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, airborne mercury, other toxins and particulate. After manufacture and construction, just the CO2 emissions alone amount to 7.2 billion tons per year. And, except for nitrous oxides (due to a successful Chinese government program to drastically reduce Nox levels) all those numbers will easily double by 2020.

Then there is the fuel equation; In China, coal costs 815 yuan ($125) a ton and it burns over 3 Billion tons per year, to total 375 billion dollars annually. Rail and shipping costs are extra – which represent a substantial amount of money alone. Some of China’s coal supply comes all the way from western Canada and the U.S.!

Significantly, those numbers too, are expected to more than double by 2020. That is a lot of money to spend year in and year out, even for the world’s #1 economic performer.

Which brings us right back to 410,000 deaths per year in China due to the environmental degradation of the air, water, land and even food. Is it any wonder that China is more determined than any country to pursue green-tech solutions to improve it’s environment?

In first-world nations, delivering on the environmental front is seen to be one step up from receiving a Cub Scout badge.

In China, delivering on the environmental front means saving tens of thousands of lives every year along with accumulating health-care savings.

Is it any wonder that the government of China has displayed such a high level of interest in pursuing green energy policy?

China’s government has realized the importance of clean energy to the very survival and health of many thousands of citizens per year and the economy. Although late entering the game – China is now making huge strides to properly address it’s environmental challenges.

Follow John Brian Shannon on Twitter:!/@JBSCanada

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