China's New Energy Pioneers

Photographs and Text by Toby Smith

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Since 1953 China’s relentless and often controversial methods of economic growth have been governed and directed by 11 Five Year Plans. These are a detailed doctrine of economic guidelines for each of the regions released by the central committee and national congresses working under direction of the Communist Party of China. This clarifying and strengthening of national strategy are one of China’s most important policy tools and, with its recent elevation to the world’s 2nd largest economy, have truly international consequences.

The twelfth 5 year guideline was released in March 2011, and since early drafts were leaked in 2010, it is evident it will be the first that actually attempts to slow economic growth and address escalating energy and environment issues. Historically China has a history of chasing growths of GDP and production that are realized with horrific consequences to both the natural world and its human population. National strategies to slow GDP and cap energy consumption are of stark contrast to Europe and the Americas who desperately aim to revitalize their own growth in this period of austerity.

China has rarely buckled to the hypocritical eco-pressure of the West yet now seems to finally recognize the stagnating effect and cost of pollution and environmental degradation. Now in reference to growth and energy, China is attempting to adopt the old adage; quality not quantity. Specific targets to increase the nation’s utilization of non-fossil fuel energy sources to 15%, for example, will require an astronomic investment and deployment of renewable energy technologies. This is reinforced by an indicated cap on coal dependency to only 4 billion tonnes of coal annually.

There is also significant hope for China to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions to reach recent the targets set in Kyoto, Japan. However China’s economy has long-been built on a foundation of cheap and plentiful coal which drives turbines to produce electricity for manufacturing and is burnt directly for its heat and reductive powers in cement, iron and steel processes. Coal is a grossly inefficient, sooty, pollutive and unsustainable ingredient of China’s growth with over 3.25 billion tonnes burnt in 2009 alone.

Even with the extreme skepticism aimed at China’s historic and future chances of meeting or maintaining emission targets there is no doubt that the scale and mobilization of renewable energy technologies is unique globally. A nationwide industrial complex combined with the knack of acquiring the latest technology sees wind-turbines, solar arrays and hydro turbines generating electricity before there is even a power-grid to distribute the giga-watts produced. The Confucian mentality of the outer provinces sees them embrace the harnessing of the landscape at a speed North American or European utility companies could only dream of.

The Peoples Republic of China is home to 1.3 billion people living through 3.7 million sq miles, which makes it the most populace and 2nd largest state in the world. In 1997 it was reported that 2 new power stations came online in China every week but by 2008 that already inconceivable statistic had risen to one per day. It would be impossible to survey the entire Chinese energy industry so instead a cross-section of new and old technology of differing scales was visited at the pivotal and extreme areas of the power industry.

The Three Gorges dam in Hubei province is the world’s largest hydroelectric project yet is more associated with the controversy surrounding the displacement of 1.3 million people and long-term ecological damage than the renewable energy its 26 turbines produce (700 MW each). China has a long and aggressive history of converting water’s natural potential energy into electricity and as such now needs to explore the most testing geographical and geological environments for new schemes.

Over 3000km upstream from the Three Gorges Dam the river Yangtze divides into several tributaries that run from deep within Sichuan and the Tibetan-Qinghai plateaus. The Jalong River is over 800km of twisting, churning water that cuts its way through steep limestone karse valleys that tower over 1000m above the valley floor. The combination of fast, high volume flow down a steeply pitched gradient, in theory, are ideal for hydro-schemes, yet the fragile, steep and unstable geology have previously only allowed for the smallest of structures. The Han and Tibetan ethnic residents have seen an incredible hydro cascade scheme develop over the last 10 years in which 6 independent developers will each install 300MW plants. A sharp rise in social uprising has met the new pylons, cabling and civil engineering crisscrossing the region.

The mobilization of heavy plant into this remote landscape is only the start of the challenge. Excavation into the fragile, unpredictable geology requires concrete reinforcement at every stage and careful disposal of spoil. In one such scheme near Jiangbian an 8km, 12m wide tunnel has been excavated through a mountain. Deep underground the humidity is 100% and the noise deafening as excavation, welding and concrete spraying occur simultaneously. As dumper trucks and diggers drive uphill removing the mountains core, cement mixers and flat-bed trucks slide downwards to feed the army of welders and civil engineers that have been working seamlessly on triple shift rotation for 3 years. At the mountain and scheme’s heart lies an immense cavern housing 3 turbines, each 110MW. With no stable ground at the river’s edge every turbine, control unit and transformer must be housed here. In the shadow of the enormous dam destined to redirect the river; labour camps and their residents compete for space with aggregate and machinery.

Upstream similar developments are already commissioned with perilously little compensation water left to flow down the river’s natural course. Along the cracked and fractured road tracing the river’s unstable edge the altitude climbs quickly to over 3000m and close to the river’s snowy source. Upon the edge of the snow-line traditional Tibetan villages lie abandoned, as residents have been relocated in programs of national urbanization to larger settlements.
Shandong province on the Eastern seaboard of China is a flat populous region dominated by industrial scale cotton and wheat production. The area is irrigated by the Yellow River delta that is controversially both an important habitat of migrating birds and oil production. Cotton here is grown on an incredible scale for China’s textile industry and once the fibrous bud is picked the stalks lay abandoned in the field. They are eventually removed and either discarded for local burning or animal bedding.

The region has relatively poor infrastructure and coal reserves that make for a viable test-bed to adapt existing thermal technology to burn biomass. Biomass on Chinese emission quotas, despite its obvious carbon dioxide release, is classified as carbon neutral. A comparatively small 15 MW prototype plant was constructed in the small-town of Boxing and has a huge fuel yard with over 30 days of stock drying in the harsh sun. A new market for an otherwise discarded agricultural waste product is now flourishing with farmers actively stockpiling cotton stalk before wholesale to the power company.

The cotton stalk is dried in the fuel-yard before being pulverized and burnt in a modified boiler to generate steam and electricity. The investment in the power-station has attracted neighbouring industries of a paper-mill and oil refinery; both use the waste steam and heat of the power station to reduce their own energy costs.

The province of Guangxi, in the very South-West, has grown dramatically in finance and shipping sectors. The Beibu Gulf Economic zone utilizes both its proximity to Vietnam and a natural harbour to operate as the largest sea gateway in South China.

Disconnected from the black-belt of Chinese coal-mining in the North, the South-West is seeing an explosion in energy demand without the transport infrastructure to provide the necessary fuel. Perhaps mirroring the province’s ambitions of high-technology, it is here on reclaimed land that Fangchenggang Super-Critical power-station burns coal in a newly developed efficient boiler. Super-critical processes operate at pressures and temperatures far exceeding older coal-thermal stations.

Once installed, running costs are comparable, but yield over 40% improved efficiency in both heat output and carbon dioxide emissions. The increase in temperature allows integration and more effective scrubbing of harmful nitrogen and sulphur waste gases before they can reach the atmosphere. China aims to reduce the emission of these gases by 8% over the next five years both by a switch to super-critical but also retrofitting of flue gas scrubbing technology. The pulverized coal required for super-critical needs to be of the upmost quality and is only found in mines of Indonesia, Canada, Poland and South Africa.

The coal is so rich in reductive carbon that from the moment it is unloaded from the ships it will chemically and physically degrade from black anthracite to a more crumbly brown ore. Fangchenggang is supplied with coal on contract from Indonesia via its own private bulk-ship and dock but ‘live coal’ is also purchased ‘at sea’ dynamically from other known sources capatilising on the unpredictable price fluctuations.

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal with over 3.6 billion tonnes burnt annually. Much of it is being sourced in the arid Northern regions promoting an infrastructure crisis point in which water is needed in the North and energy in the South. Symptoms already include national highways, clogged with coal trucks, and dramatic water pipeline schemes under construction to solve an industrial drought.

Although small illegal underground mines still operate, the local government in Inner Mongolia now favours immense open-face mines or modern privatized deep-face seams. Near Ordos but 33km underground, employees from the Shenhua Corporation, China’s single largest producer, operate a state of the art hydraulic cutting face. This fully automated system has increased safety and productivity within a sector notorious for horrific safety standards. Directly connected to a thermal power-station, rail artery and coal-washing plant the mine typifies modernization of this sector.

Coal washing is a process in which the raw minerals are heated and dressed using large volumes of fresh-water and reductive chemicals to increase the quality before combustion in super-critical plants. Although once delivered this washed-coal does represent efficiency improvements, the process itself is costly, polluting and places unsustainable demands on the local water-table. Put simply the efficiency is not improved across the sector merely spread across two separate plants.

With the astronomical peak in oil prices observed last decade of almost USD $100 per barrel, the city of Ordos is also home to Shenhua’s most controversial development. Coal-to-liquid technology on a massive scale maybe economically viable but it sees 80% higher carbon dioxide emissions per barrel of oil because much of the energy is spent ‘cracking’ the hydro-carbons to a lighter product. Ironically it is the economics and scarcity of fresh-water that may thankfully deem this fledgling industry unviable.

Across Inner Mongolia coal-mines are ramping up production and over 600 million tonnes were produced in 2009. Daqing Shan open-cast-pit typifies the intensity of production in the Baotao area. Trucks, excavators and miners clog the network of twisted, frozen access roads that snake towards the black, wretched, scarred landscape. By any-means possible over a 1000 trucks, each over-loaded with 80 tonnes of coal, clog every artery leading to the exit and dozens are found queuing patiently for hours at each weighbridge.

One of their destinations is the Baogang Iron and Steel Corporation in Baotao. Established by the first and second Five Year Plans, it took the vision and mineral report of a single geologist to rapidly mutate a sleepy, remote outpost into the Iron and Steel nucleus of the Chinese industrial revolution. Employing over 50,000 people, this titanic complex uses brown-coal, coke and lime in 6 primeval blast furnaces to reduce bauxite into pig-iron. This molten liquid is further refined into steel products ranging from girders to plates only millimetres thick. Much of the steel is used locally in the weapons and munitions factories surrounding the town and total production is estimated to be close to 10 million tonnes annually.

40km to the north of Baotao a vast frozen reservoir supplies the fresh-water for the thermal-power stations, aluminum smelters and mineral refineries that typify this region. Economic pressure has thankfully ensured that the almost all of the water in the largest plants is recycled. The surplus water that is needed is piped directly from the Yellow River basin 16km to the north. The surrounding agricultural areas struggle under layers of grey coal-ash and battle the frozen conditions in plastic lined, insulated hot-houses.

The road leading North from Baotao to Bayan-Obo is studded with police check-points at short intervals and there is an unusual tension in the air. Bayan-Obo, as the freshly installed monument proclaims, is the “The Rare-Earth Home Town of the World.” The landscape is dominated by an acidic dust whipped up from the toxic tailings of iron-ore refineries that supply the furnaces of Baotao. On the horizon behind a patrolled razor-wire fence lays a spoil-heap over 120m high and 6km long that still contains traces of Rare Earth.

Within this highly restricted landscape lies a twin-open-cast mine responsible for 97% of the worlds rare-earth export. In truth China only holds half of the world’s deposits but this near monopoly belies the economics of exploiting areas with high concentrations and low environmental legislation.

Rare Earth metals occupy a strange island at the base of the periodic table. Their unique properties of crystalline structures and ability to modify the physical properties of steel alloys put them at the heart of almost all hi-tech industries. Growth in global consumption has averaged 10% per year and has tripled from 40,000 tonnes to 100,000 in less than a decade. The emerging green-automotive industry and renewable energy sector are chiefly responsible for this surge but every LCD screen, therefore cell phones and computers, every power-cell, solar panel and modern piece of military hard-ware depends on Rare Earth. They hold and offer unique chemical, magnetic, electrical, luminescence and radioactive shielding properties.

Between 1960 and 1990 China ramped up production from Bayan Obo, surpassed US output, flooded the market and squeezed out all of its competitors. On September 19, 2010 China restricted rare earth exports overseas and sent a shockwave of price-rise and panic particularly among the US and Japanese markets. Japan needs almost 10,000 tonnes simply for our Toyota Prius hybrids and the US military complex needs rare earth for radar components in cruise missiles, precision munitions and reactive armour.

A crash program of investment is reactivating the mothballed mines of Nevada and Australia with new prospecting also taking place across Northern Ontario, Canada. Even if these companies can overcome the economic and environmental problems of production overnight China has a 6-10 year head-start.

Separating Rare Earth metals demands capital-intensive and toxic processes. By-products can be radioactive, extremely harmful and even cancerous. The tailings surrounding Baotao are an arid, poisonous dust-bowl. Wind-turbines can contain up to 150kg of Neobydium in their electromagnets forged, and ironically now installed, in this very landscape beg questions of sustainability not in energy production but the manufacturing of the structures installed as transducers.

Rare Earth is separated and refined from its mineral components through 3 stages. The first, mineral-dressing, is only viable in proximity to the source as extracted material is at best only 2% rare-earth oxides by weight. Massive quantities of ore are crushed and processed in giant centrifuges before being separated physically by weight using froth-flotation, magnetic and gravity separation. This product, now at 10% concentration, is attacked chemically in the second phase. Heat roasting, salt or caustic fusion, high temperature sulphation and even acid leaching are required to allow the rare earth elements to be dissolved. This phase is particularly harmful to human-health and often the resulting crystals are a startling bright blue indicating oxide of Neobydium.

The third phase is often conducted in restricted laboratory conditions where precision centrifuges separate the rare-earth elements from each other. China’s monopoly of export serves to control the price of the commodity but more importantly irresistibility lures hi-technology companies who manufacture rare-earth based components to within its borders. This enables China to gain the intellectual property, as it did with high-speed rail and nuclear reactors, and sell finished goods on the international market with a research advantage. This is illustrated starkly by Magnequench Company, a General Motors subsidiary, relocated to China in 2003. It previously manufactured magnets using neodymium-iron-boron in Indiana but upon closure the US economy lost 400 jobs and the ability to self-produce an important component of smart bombs.

In stark contrast to its fleet of smog belching factories Baotao is also home to the one of the three manufacturing centres at the heart of China’s renewable energy metamorphosis. Jilin province to the North East, Inner Mongolia to the North and Gansu to the North-West bear witness to the revolution of wind-turbines and deployment of solar panels on a scale not mirrored anywhere globally.

In the renewable energy production base of Jiuquan one of three wind-turbine manufacturers claims to produce over 2400 blades annually. This production base is rapidly expanding and attracting a growing work-force already at 40,000. The highways and service-stations straddling this vast province are chock-full of turbine blades, nacelles and towers en-route to installation.

The Gobi Desert is made arid and inhospitable by the rain-shadow of the Himalayan Mountains and extremely low temperatures. Intense, unsustainable agricultural pressure from earlier five-year-plans has meant desertification is expanding this marginal land across vistas once occupied by lush grass-land and forest. With an annual temperature range of -40C to +30C and often a daily range above 30C this sandy expanse is incessantly blown by seasonal winds. It is these winds, and otherwise worthless real-estate which has encouraged the installation of over 4,000 MW of wind turbines in the last decade.

This installation is far-from complete as the world’s first 750KW super-grid is poised to connect this energy nucleus to the hungry manufacturing and industry bases to the south. The development here once benefited from Spanish and German technology, has now been adopted and superseded by the local Chinese firms who operate at a cost per unit rate which slams the door to foreign competitiveness. CNOOC Ltd (China National Offshore Oil Corporation) is investing heavily in the area in the hope of diversifying their portfolio away from the dwindling Chinese Oil and Gas deposits at sea.

Despite the light filtering dust and snow storms, the Gobi desert receives some of the highest insolation rates in Asia of almost 3,000 hours annually. A gigantic solar-energy installation in Dunhuang is only 5% of the planned operational capacity for this area. Two 10MW solar plants, costing $18m, already generate electricity in the bright -25C weather with a field of fixed point solar-cells that are eerily silent. Even the glazing of the control room uses German technology to generate wattage whilst filtering the harsh UV wavelengths. On location the operational manager states with clear, modest certainty that the project will be at 280MW capacity within a year and will be the world’s largest.

Changchun is the capital of Jilin province in the extreme northeast of China as the cradle of the auto-industry it is nick-named “China’s Detroit”. The lounge of the 5-star Shangri-La hotel is as thick with representatives from the US motor industry as the air outside is clogged with exhaust fumes. 60km to the north the traffic, urban and manufacturing sprawl gives way to frozen grass plains punctuated by jack-pumps tapping the area’s rich oil reserves. These agricultural plains are an important bread-basket of the Chinese economy producing both wheat and animal feed for national consumption. Further north lies the Korean and Mongolian influenced town of Qian’an. Huge and often abandoned grain silos indicate the area’s rich agricultural heritage which now, with a change in climate, is struggling on the wind eroded grass plains.

At the edge of town, as a metaphor to the energy and determination of the renewable sector’s rapid growth, local labourers fight the freezing conditions around the clock to install wind-turbines into the frozen ground. With temperatures as low as -30C the ground must be thawed before excavation and the concrete bases insulated against the cold so that the concrete mixture sets rather than freezes. From a central control area that is simultaneously accommodation, canteen, service and control base an engineer surveys stage 1 of a planned 4 stage 100MW development. The energy industry here is pioneering in every sense of the word. With encouragement from the central government China is exploiting still young technology in the extreme of its geographic areas at a scale never seen before in this world.

This feature was shot in November-December 2010.

Full edit of 175 images available on request.