Considering All Options
It is hard to forget the days of heavy haze earlier this year in Beijing. Recently, severe smog reappeared during the National Day holiday.
On September 30, there were more than 200 micrograms of PM2.5 particles in each cubic meter of air in the capital city. The smog made Swedish tennis player Robert Lindstedt complain at the China Open: "How much of your life disappears when you spend your time here?"
But there is still hope. On September 23, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau revealed plans to invest nearly 1 trillion yuan to manage air pollution over the next five years. Of that, 300 billion yuan will be devoted to reducing levels of PM2.5 by one-fourth.
This plan shocked me. At first, I was proud. Thirty years ago, China would not be able to raise this much money for environmental protection. But then I became sad. Trillions of yuan! How much could be done with this amount of money if it was used elsewhere.
The fact is, according to the plan, even if we do invest all this money, average PM2.5 levels will only drop to 60 micrograms per cubic meter of air, far above the 25 microgram standard set by the European Union.
So the question is: Are there cheap and fast ways to deal with the smog?
When examining the origins of the PM2.5 particles, it is clear that the No. 1 cause is burning coal. Coal-fired power plants burn 20 million tons of coal annually.
In fact, different coal-burning methods have different impacts on air quality. For some of the major coal plants in China, the concentration of PM 2.5 particles per cubic meter of waste air is around 100 micrograms. For some others, the concentration reaches to several hundred micrograms per cubic meter.
Since January 1, 2012, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has set the upper limit of particle concentration at 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Some plants have already met it. The Shanghai Waigaoqiao No. 3 Power Generation Co. has reduced emissions to only 11 microgram per cubic of air. The waste incineration power plant in Nuremberg, Germany, managed to reduce the concentration to 0.7 micrograms per cubic meter. This is only 7 percent of the upper limit for particle concentration set by Chinese regulators for waste incineration power plants and only 2.3 percent of the standard set for coal power plants. (Both Chinese plants are coal-fired.)
The Beijing government intends to convert coal-burning plants into ones burning natural gas, but the cost will be very high.
First, the fixed cost of equipment upgrading will be in the tens of billions of yuan. This also includes costs for exploring, exploiting and transporting natural gas. If we intend to use coal gasification, that process will also incur heavy costs.
Second, the price of natural gas is far higher than coal, which means there will be high extra costs in the long run. Since almost every big city in China suffers from the air pollution problem, demand for gas would be pushed even higher.
On the other hand, it would cost around just 1 billion yuan to renovate coal-fired plants in Beijing and reduce the concentration of particulate matter to 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
It is possible to reduce concentrations without abandoning coal plants. Examples can be found in Ruhr industrial base in Germany. The area has a similar population density and coal-fired power generation capacity as Beijing, and even has a higher steel production capacity than the Shougang Group, the largest steel producer in Beijing. (It was recently moved out of capital due to environmental concerns.) Yet particulate concentrations in the Ruhr area were only 21 micrograms per cubic meters of air as measured in 2012, only one-fourth of Beijing's level. Therefore, if it is possible to reduce particulate concentrations in the emissions of coal plants to 70 percent in the short term and even 95 percent in the mid- to long term, why is it unnecessary to go through the expensive process of switching from coal to gas?
The second largest coal consumer is boilers for heating.
There are two types of coal-burning plants. The first is the big central heating facility. Most of the heating facilities within the Fifth Ring Road in Beijing are burning gas to supply heat, while those outside still use coal. The majority of coal-burning central heating plants have fume treatment equipment. But the quality of treatment is relatively low and usually leaves the particulate concentration in the waste air at about 100 micrograms per cubic meter. If we upgrade all of these facilities, it is possible to reduce concentrations to around 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air and the total cost will be only several billion yuan. The alternative is, again, switching them all to gas, which will increase the fuel cost by 50 percent and become a long-term financial burden.
The second type of the coal burning plant is smaller but a much bigger contributor to air pollution. It uses small boilers to supply the neighborhoods that are not covered by central heating. Many of those plants have low-quality fume treatment equipment, but only use them when the inspectors visit, which causes serious air pollution. These kinds of small boiler plants are important but difficult for the government to deal with.
There are two ways to solve the issue. The first is to build central heating facilities in those neighborhoods using government funds. This would cost several billion yuan. Another is to switch coal-burning boilers to gas with increased cost.
Wind power could be another way to reduce reliance on gas. When the production of wind-powered electricity exceeds transmission capacity, some of the electricity is abandoned. In 2012, the percentage of abandoned wind-generated electricity actually took up one-fifth of the total production. Interestingly, most of the abandonment happens in the winter and also after midnight, the peak time for heat consumption. Therefore, by using wind-powered electricity to generate heat to supplement heat from burning gas, air pollution will be reduced and efficiency will be increased. Beijing is blessed by its proximity to wind farms in Heibei Province and the Inner Mongolia region, where abandonment happens very often.
Furthermore, it is also possible to reduce coal consumption by improving the energy conservation in existing buildings. But the cost would be really high, more than hundreds of yuan per square meter. Even in Germany it takes around 40 years to renovate the existing houses to reach higher energy conservation standards.
But the ultimate goal of reducing air pollution caused by heating should be to build low-energy-consuming buildings that can retain warmth without using the central heating system. Today, the cost of constructing such buildings has become quite low, adding only 400 yuan per square meter to the overall cost, a drop in bucket comparing to the 30,000 yuan average real estate sales price in Beijing.
Rural residential heating can be another cause of pollution. In the past 30 years, the per capita housing area in rural areas has grown from 6 square meters to 50 square meters. This increased energy consumption for heating. The heating method has also shifted from burning straw to coal. Each year, more than 2 million tons of pollutants are emitted into the air without any purification. The damage to air quality far exceeds what has been caused by urban coal consumption.
One way of reducing the coal consumption and ensuring indoor heating is to use renewable energies such as solar power and wind power. Another strategy would be to encourage renovation of rural buildings to make them more environmentally friendly. This will not only solving the problem of rural residential heating once for all, but also increase the efficiency of land use.
The author is the executive director of the Sino-German RenewableEnergy Cooperation Centre
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