Caixin OnlineEnvironment Local Gov'ts Use Newfound Power to Approve Dirty Coal-Fired Power Plants
01.15.2016 14:03

Local Gov'ts Use Newfound Power to Approve Dirty Coal-Fired Power Plants

When environmental ministry handed provinces the right to approve projects, it didn't expect them to green light facilities it shot down
By staff reporter Kong Lingyu

(Beijing) – A decision by the central government to grant more power to local governments regarding decisions on new power plants appears to be backfiring, as local officials have interpreted the move as a green light to build highly polluting facilities.

As part of reform efforts to decentralize power, the Ministry of Environmental Protection in March 2015 handed authority for vetoing power projects on the grounds of environmental concerns to provincial governments.

But the ministry may now be flummoxed to see that the move has resulted in a slew of project approvals by local authorities. In the northern province of Shanxi alone, 23 coal-fired power plants won approval from March to October last year, including two, owned by ChinaCoal Pingshuo Group and China Resources Power Holdings, that the ministry previously shot down because they were too dirty. Three such projects were approved in Inner Mongolia during the period.

A ministry official who participated in the initial assessment of the ChinaCoal and CR Power projects said they were not approved because they failed to meet central government standards. The ministry refused to approve the projects in March, just before it handed out the environment assessment authority, due to concerns about air pollution, said the official who asked not to be named.

But officials in Shanxi thought otherwise. The government of the province, which is rich in coal, has actively promoted plants that use waste from coal mining to generate electricity in recent years as a way to boost economic growth. When the province was handed the power early last year to determine the environmental feasibility of plans for power plants, it gave the green light to the two facilities and others.

"The central government's measure, originally designed to decentralize administrative power and improve efficiency, has been used as an opportunity for local governments who are counting on  the coal industry for higher GDP growth," one environmental expert said.

Missed Message

Some of the power plants in question use by-products of coal mining called gangue, slime and middling, a method environmental experts say results in great amounts of emissions. Provinces like Shanxi have been keen to build more of the facilities in recent years as a way to use their large stores of the materials, and most of the new electricity plants approved in Shanxi use coal gangue.

Official data showed that the country produces more than 300 million tons of coal gangue, slime and middling every year, but only about 100 million tons are used by existing electricity facilities. The remaining gangue and slime cover some 13,000 hectares of land, a number local officials would like to see cut.

And storage of the materials creates harmful gases and pollutes soil and water. In November 2011, the National Energy Bureau issued a notice that said the country should stop developing this portion of the coal-fired power plant sector.

Despite this, in June 2013, the bureau allowed the Shanxi government to draft plans to build plants with a capacity of 19.2 million kilowatts in a bid to use up some of the materials. By October that year, the province had approved a number of projects and submitted their plans to the central government for review. However, as of March 2015, many of the projects still had not won Beijing's approval.

The ministry official said using coal gangue to generate electricity indeed cuts waste from mining, but the ministry is concerned about the projects because burning the material results in greater amounts of dust and sulfur dioxide emissions than do plants that consume higher-quality materials.

"The northern China area has no more room for more emissions," the official said.

The environmental ministry said it rejected the ChinaCoal and CR Power projects just before it gave local governments the right to approve plans in the hope that its decision set an example.

The ministry's message did not get across. Said the official: "All of a sudden the projects were approved."

Green Data, a non-government environmental organization, said that work on most of the newly approved projects has started since October.

Way Too Much

Making matters worse is that the plants are being built despite the fact the country has excess electricity. The environmental ministry said that from January to September last year, 155 new coal-fired power plants with total generation capacity of 12.3 billion kilowatts were approved for construction across the country.

That works out to four-fifths of all projects approved by the central government from 2012 to 2014. Most of the new projects are in Shanxi; Inner Mongolia, which is also in the north; and in the western region of Xinjiang.

A November 2015 study by Yuan Jiahau, a professor at the North China Electric Power University in Beijing, shows that Shanxi is expected to generate 21 million more kilowatts than it needs by 2020, and the figure in Xinjiang is 15.5 million. And one official said that if no limits are put in place the country will have a severe oversupply of electricity generated by coal-fired plants by 2020.

Zhou Dadi, former director of the an official energy research institute, said the country "should stop or at least slow construction of coal-fire power plants as soon as possible, especially in the next three years."

(Rewritten by Han Wei)

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