Written by Melissa Brown and Ghee Peh

Coal in the hands

China is a global technological leader in renewable energy and is the world’s largest consumer of solar power. Both of these accomplishments came after Chinese policy leaders realised that coal-fired power generation stood in the way of cleaner skies and lower cost power
IMAGE

The world’s coal power plants. Image source ©Carbon Brief

As China knows, “clean” coal simply does not exist. Yet in October 2019, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang renewed focus on what the global public relations’ arm of the mining industry calls “clean” coal, with comments on China’s potential for the development of new coal and coalbed methane technologies.

“Clean” coal describes a hope that new emissions abatement or carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology might one day solve the coal problem. To date both technologies have proven uneconomic and unsuccessful in reducing emissions.

This apparent conflict between China’s track record of leadership in clean energy technologies and its troubled relationship with coal will leave China watchers parsing Li’s comments for insight into China’s plans for the 14th Five Year Plan which will cover 2021 to 2025. They may have to dig a little deeper to unpack this saga, however.

While it is tempting to believe that China’s leadership may be harbouring some special plans for “clean” coal, the more likely scenario is that they are using the “clean” coal narrative to distract from a more uncomfortable problem.

China’s under-utilised coal-fired power capacity

Simply stated, China has far too much under-utilised coal-fired power capacity. In commercially driven power systems, this would be unsustainable. Beijing, however, is not yet ready to make the tough decisions necessary to acknowledge the problem or to fund the type of regional stabilisation programs that may be needed to down-size coal production and power.

These decisions are tough for three reasons. The first is that China’s coal-power fleet is young, reflecting a legacy of planning mistakes and over-building due to local government incentives. Tragically, much of this over-building took place over the past five years even as Chinese renewable energy technologies were winning market share.

The second reason is cost. To deal with growing health problems associated with nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur oxides (SOx) and particulate emissions, the leading Chinese coal-fired power companies have spent the past five years extensively retro-fitting their domestic fleet with new pollution abatement equipment. For a sector with high debt levels and very thin margins, this was a major capital expenditure burden that the companies hope to be able to recover through longer asset lives and improved dispatch, neither of which are a sure thing.

The third reason relates to the fundamental nature of coal itself. In a word, coal is dirty and any effort to make it “clean” raises costs and reduces operational efficiency.

Indonesia’s Adaro Energy produces “Envirocoal” which purportedly has less SOx and NOx per kilogram than grades of coal commonly found in China. Unfortunately, it also has lower energy value. IEEFA estimates that a coal-power plant would have to burn 26 per cent more “Envirocoal” to generate roughly the same amount of power that can be produced using domestically sourced Shanxi coal before considering the added handling, storage, or transport costs for increased coal requirements.

This is where the most awkward flaw in China’s “clean” coal narrative should be acknowledged. The economics of coal do not work. It reinforces the case for accelerated decommissioning of older and sub-scale coal units. And it also tips the planning balance in the direction of investments that can accelerate China’s grid build out to increase the dispatch of renewables. A grid that can integrate clean deflationary renewables provides a hedge against coal price volatility and reduces the need to pass pollution remediation costs on to price-sensitive consumers.

There is one final flaw in China’s “clean” coal narrative. It equates “clean” with pollution and air brushes carbon emissions out of the equation. Investors have seen evidence of this disconnect for years. China’s leading coal-fired power companies are enthusiastic in reporting to investors about the dramatic improvements they have achieved with their new ultra-low emission coal-fired generating units. For example, China Shenhua reports reductions in per kilowatt hour (kWh) emissions of “soot”, SOx, and NOx of 5.5 per cent, 9.3 per cent, and 17.9 per cent respectively over the past five years.

These pollution intensity improvements must be put in context. China Shenhua increased their installed capacity of coal units by 46.8 per cent during the same period and generation by 25.1 per cent. That means that any gains are offset by more coal-fired generation, adding to the company’s conventional pollution emissions and its still unreported carbon emissions.

While Western and Asian power equipment companies have poured money into failed investments in technologies like CCS, China instead has a legitimate claim on global technological leadership in renewable energy.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post. Reproduced with the authors’ permission.


中国应该把注意力锁定在其经济的实际收益,并设定好清洁能源的标准

作者:Melissa Brown和Ghee Peh

Pile of coal isolated on white background中国是全球可再生能源技术的领导者,也是世界上最大的太阳能消费国。之所以能取得这两项重大的成就是因为中国政策领导人了解到燃煤发电是保护环境清洁的巨大阻碍,也是低成本电力发展的拦路者。

中国了解到真正意义上的“清洁”煤根本不存在。在2019年10月,中国总理李克强再次强调了什么是全球公共关系部门所称的“清洁”煤炭,并评论了中国在开发新的煤炭和煤层气技术方面的潜力。

“清洁”煤是一种新希望,即新的减排技术或碳捕获与封存(CCS)技术有一天可能会解决煤炭问题。但迄今为止,这两种技术都被证明是不经济的并且在减排方面也不成功。

中国在清洁能源技术领域上的领导地位和煤炭使用之间的矛盾让中国观察家们深度分析了李总理对于煤炭开发的评论,深入了解了中国的“十三五”规划,并预计该规划将涵盖2021年到2025年。当然,他们可能需要挖掘得更深一些才能揭开这个传奇。

尽管人们很容易相信中国领导层可能在“清洁”煤炭方面有一些特殊计划,但更有可能出现的情况是他们正在利用“清洁”煤炭的说法去转移一个可能会更令人不安的问题的注意力。

中国未被利用的潜在燃煤发电能力

简单地说,中国的燃煤发电能力远远没有得到充分的利用。在商业驱动的电力系统中,这是不利于持续发展的。中国政府需要了解到缩减煤炭生产问题的必要性、以及为电力规模地区的稳定项目提供资金的重要性,但是政府尚未准备好去做出这一艰难的决定去改变现状。

这些决定之所以艰难有三个原因。首先,中国的煤电发展还很年轻,这也反映出了由于地方政府激励煤电发展的措施,煤电机队存在着规划失误和过度建设的遗留问题。不幸的是,尽管中国的可再生能源技术有着飞跃的发展,但是煤电在过去5年的过度建设也遗留了一些问题。

第二个原因则是成本。为了应对日益严重的与氮氧化物(NOx)、硫氧化物(SOx)和颗粒物排放相关的健康问题,中国领先的燃煤发电企业在过去5年里对国内船队进行了大规模改造,安装了新的污染治理设备。对于一个债务水平高、利润率极低的行业来说,这是一个重大的经济支出负担。这些燃煤发电企业希望能通过延长污染治理设备的寿命以及提高效率来回本,但这两种方法都不一定行得通。

第三个原因与煤的基本性质有关。煤炭本身是脏的,任何使其“清洁”的努力都会增加成本,并且降低运营效率。

印尼的阿达罗能源公司生产的“环保煤”据称每公斤含硫和氮氧化物比中国常见的等级煤要少。不幸的是,它也有较低的能量值。IEEFA估计,在考虑因煤炭需求的增加而需要增加的装卸,储存或者运输成本之前,燃煤电厂必须多燃烧26%的“环保煤” 才能产生与使用山西本土煤大致相同的电力。

中国“清洁”煤炭的发展有不得不承认的缺陷。煤炭经济是行不通的。它加速了旧煤和亚规模煤炭单位的退役。同时,它也使规划平衡朝着投资方向倾斜,因为投资可以加速中国的电网建设和增加可再生能源的使用。一个能够集合清洁通货紧缩可再生能源的电网可以影响煤炭价格的波动,并减少了对价格敏感的消费者在转嫁污染治理成本上的担心。

中国“清洁”煤炭的说法还有最后一个缺陷。它将“清洁”等同于污染,而空气中的碳排放却被排除在等式之外。多年来,投资者已经看到了这种脱节的证据。中国领先的燃煤发电企业热情地向投资者汇报他们新推出的超低排放燃煤发电机组所取得的显著进步。列如,中国神华集团报告称,在过去5年内,“煤烟”、硫氧化物(SOx)和氮氧化物(NOx)每千瓦时的排放量分别减少了5.5%、9.3%和17.9%。

对这些污染强度的改善必须着重考虑。同期,中国神华集团的燃煤发电装机容量增长了45.8%,发电量增长了25.1%。这意味着任何污染的改善都将被更多的燃煤发电给抵消,因为燃煤发电不仅增加了该公司传统的污染排放,还有没报告的碳排放。

虽然西方和亚洲的电力设备公司在CCS等技术上的投资失败了,但中国在可再生能源领域所占据的全球技术领先地位是合理的。

这篇文章首先发表在《南华早报》上。经作者许可复制。

Resource Center Whitepapers, Videos, Case Studies

Conferences & Events

No events