However, the world’s fastest growing economy will continue to rely upon coal in upcoming decades to fuel its economic growth; the difference is that it is also striving to do so in a greener fashion to keep its promise on emission cuts.
China’s economy has leaped forward in the past three decades and so has its energy consumption, with an annual growth rate at more than 8 percent in the past 10 years, according to data from the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Currently, coal supplies about 70 percent of China’s energy use, mostly for the power sector and steel industry. Demand for coal has been rising in absolute terms as the world’s largest coal producer and consumer needs more energy for economic development.
However, the massive burning of coal in an inefficient way has caused serious pollution, subjecting China to frequent criticism from western countries, labeling China the “biggest polluter”.
Coal consumption is the major cause for pollution in China, with more than 70 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions related to coal burning
It also poses a threat to the country’s energy security, experts said.
However, China’s appetite for energy is growing, as it is still a developing country, fast on course to industrialization and urbanization.
Government officials, experts and companies attending the China (Taiyuan) International Energy Industry Expo in coal-rich Shanxi province agreed that China would remain largely dependent upon coal for its main energy supply in the decades to come.
The key in dealing with the energy issue would be to make coal consumption greener through clean technologies and gradually reduce dependence on coal by expanding the share of renewable and clean energies, they said.
In 2009, China’s total energy consumption exceeded 3 billion tons of standard coal, of which 68.7 percent was from coal. Primary energy demand would be expected to hit 4.2 billion tons of standard coal by 2015 on the assumption of an 8 percent annual growth in GDP, according to the government’s primary research.
About 3.8 billion tons would be supplied by coal, Fang Junshi, an official from the National Energy Administration, predicted in June.
For China, coal is dominant in the energy mix, not only at the present time, but also in the coming 40-50 years
He forecast that China would consume more than 90 billion tons of coal in the coming 40 years and coal would account for more than 35 percent of total energy consumption.
“We can’t imagine how long our development would last if we continue the polluting and inefficient means of coal consumption to push up the economy”, Vice-minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng said.
Additionally, the growing demand for coal stands at odds with the government’s plans to reduce carbon emissions over the next decade.
Last year the government vowed to cut the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP in 2020 by 40 to 45 percent, compared with the 2005 level.
China also announced earlier, in its 11th Five-year Plan (2006-2010), that it would reduce energy consumption relative to GDP by 20 percent in the five years to 2010.
Premier Wen Jiabao said in Tianjin this month that China’s energy consumption per GDP was down 15.6 percent during the first four years of the country’s 11th Five-year Plan.
To seek an energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly path for economic growth was a “pressing” task for the country, and also imposed a tougher requirement for the energy sector, Gao said.
These targets have prompted the country to accelerate its steps in exploring cleaner technology in coal consumption and boosting use of renewable and new energies as future energy alternatives.
“In the long term, large scale use of coal will depend on how quickly techniques can be deployed to extract and use coal in ways that are competitive with current and emerging competing energy sources in terms of both cost and environmental performance,” said Dr Jonathan Sinton, China Program Manager at the International Energy Agency’s Directorate of Global Energy Dialogue.
Clean and efficient utilization of coal, instead of direct coal combustion, is crucial and urgent for China to pursue a low-carbon economy, Ni Weidou said.
“Especially coal gasification and its derived multi-production energy system are a comprehensive solution to the energy challenges that China is facing,” he said, urging more efforts be made on the transition to this technology to avoid air pollution and energy security problems in China.
Coal gasification technology uses high temperatures and pressure to break the molecular bonds in coal to produce gases that can be recombined into a variety of fuels and chemicals.
Projects employing such technology have been on the government’s agenda for its development push as China has plenty of coal, while gas and oil are in short supply. In addition, carbon dioxide will be easier to capture and store during the process than during direct burning, Ni said.
To turn coal to gas is also a cleaner way to utilize coal and also increase gas supplies with lower emissions in consumption, which the country is conducting on a trial basis.
Du Minghua, deputy director of China Shenhua CTL & CTC Research Institute, said at present China had started construction of four pilot coal-to-gas projects in Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, and Xinjiang, with output of 15.1 cubic meters per year. The four projects are due to become operational from 2011 to 2013.
China National Offshore Oil Co (CNOOC) intends to invest up to 100 billion yuan ($14.9 billion) on a coal-to-gas project in Shanxi with annual output of 10 billion cubic meters in the coming five years, according to the company’s general manager, Fu Yucheng.
Coal-dependent China has also been looking to renewable energies and new energies to meet the country’s energy demand due to concerns on the environment and sustainable development.
Greener energies, such as wind and hydropower, solar power and nuclear power, have been on the government’s agenda for a development push
The government announced last year that it planned to generate at least 15 percent of its energy capacity from wind, solar and other renewable energy sources by 2020, reducing fossil fuel consumption to 85 percent.
Fossil fuels in the total energy mix are currently 91 percent.
China will invest 5 trillion yuan into renewable energy projects over the next decade under an industry development plan, China Securities Journal reported in early August, citing the State Information Center.
“China has made great progress in developing its new energy industry in the world,” Vice-minister of Science and Technology Li Xueyong said.
For example, by the end of 2009 the total installed capacities of wind power had increased by 51 fold to 17,580 megawatts (MW) compared with that in 2000. Also, the capacity for solar power had hit 230 MW, up by 7.7 fold from 2000.
Dr Jonathan Sinton said the government should intervene on an unprecedented level with targeted technology policies to address the cost-competitiveness gap and expand funding for research and development during the pre-commercial stage.
China has allocated more than 10 billion yuan to the research and development of energy conservation and emissions reduction technologies during the 11th Five-Year Plan, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Li Xueyong said the Ministry of Science and Technology is planning research work on a development strategy for the next five years and would take new energy industries as a focal point and increase support of technology research and development.