Taking advantage of a slowdown in electricity demand, China has sped up a campaign to close small, inefficient coal-fired power plants, a major source of the country's pollution.
But even as the country improves its energy efficiency in advance of climate talks in December, China's overall power demand will keep rising. More wind and solar energy is on the way, but in the mean time closed coal plants will be replaced by ... more coal plants. Huh?"Cleaner," More Efficient Coal Plants
The National Energy Administration has mandated that all new coal plants be cleaner and more efficient. The least efficient plants in use in China today convert only 27 to 36 percent of the energy in coal into electricity. But the most efficient ones are as much as 44 percent efficient. In other words, they can cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than a third compared with the older plants.
The average efficiency of an American coal-fired plant is 40 percent, but China is rapidly closing the gap.
Alongside sulfur dioxide control technology, cleaner, so-called "ultra-supercritical" plants use extremely hot steam to achieve the highest efficiency. Also under construction are trigeneration plants, like the one Hillary Clinton visited outside Beijing.
China has sought to cut costs through economies of scale by building many identical power plants at the same time: now it can cost a third less to build an ultra-supercritical power plant in China than to build a less efficient coal-fired plant in the United States.
The government has also begun to require power companies to retire an older, more polluting power plant for each new one they build.
Still, only about 60 percent of the new plants in China are being built using newer technology, and only 50 percent of all plants have the emissions control equipment to remove sulfur compounds, both of which technologies are more expensive. And often those that have the technology don't always switch it on.
Enemy No. 1: Sulfur Dioxide. Casualty: Jobs
The most recent closures -- a total of 7,467 generating units, meeting a government goal 18 months ahead of schedule -- are largely aimed at lowering sulfur dioxide emissions, which causes acid rain and contaminates the country's water. The closures could reduce SO2 output by about 1.1 million tons and carbon dioxide by 124 million tons per year.
A more difficult number: the 400,000 jobs lost when the plants were closed. That may be why the plants are likely being only closed, not dismantled -- so they can be reopened if needed later. (Such plants are not easily upgradable.)
Sure enough, some local authorities and plant managers have attempted to restart some of the closed plants, the AP reports -- before being "punished" by the central government.
Better Energy Intensity, And More
This all sounds good. Improvements in efficiency -- or energy intensity -- will likely be the backbone of China's commitments at the Copenhagen climate conference in December.
Already, China's efforts appear to be having an impact on its heavy CO2 emissions. As the New York Times reports, In its latest annual report last November, the International Energy Agency cut its forecast of China's annual increase in emissions of global warming gases to 3 percent from 3.2 percent, in response to technological gains, particularly in the coal sector, even as the agency raised slightly its forecast for Chinese economic growth.
But it remains to be seen how much of an impact better efficiency will have as China's power demands continue to rise.
Keep in mind the baseline scenario: China, which draws 60 percent of its energy from coal, still burns more of the black stuff than the United States, Europe and Japan combined.
On that note: just last week China announced big new utility-scale subsidies for solar.
China's Coal Burning Costing $13 Billion Per Year
China's Coal Fires Burn 20 Million Tons of Coal Per Year
China's Closing 31 GW of Coal-Fired Plants
Pollution is Worse Than Ever in China, Citizens Say
China's Stunning New Renewable Energy Standard: 20 Percent by 2020