China Approves 155 New Coal Power Plants

  • Date: 11/11/15
  • Edward Wong, The New York Times

In the first nine months of this year, state-owned companies in China received approval to build the 155 coal power plants

Just outside the southwest border of Beijing, a new coal-fired power and heating plant is rising in Dongxianpo, a rural town in Hebei Province. Cement mixers roll onto the site. Cranes tower above a landscape of metal girders.

When finished, the plant, run by a company owned by the Beijing government, is expected to have a generating capacity of 700 megawatts of power, more than the total of similar plants in Ohio. But whether it will actually be used to its fullest is questionable, despite the investment of $580 million.

That is because the plant is scheduled to come online in three years amid a glut of coal-fired power plants — an astounding 155 planned projects received a permit this year alone, with total capacity equal to nearly 40 percent of that of operational coal power plants in the United States.

China’s economic slowdown and the government’s pledges to use more renewable and nuclear energy make some of the country’s existing plants and most or all of the 155 new ones unnecessary, according to interviews with officials and scholars, a review of public statistics and a report released on Wednesday about the “coal power bubble” by Greenpeace East Asia. There are already too many plants, as shown by a steady decline in the plants’ average operating hours since 2013.

Despite China’s pledge to cap and then reduce carbon emissions, coal production continues to grow, creating tough choices for those who work in and live near the mines.

China’s state-controlled economy creates strong incentives for provinces to manage their own energy sources to generate jobs and revenue. Coal plants have long been the easiest, fastest way for provinces to meet their own energy needs and stimulate local economic growth.

That system has created an apparent disconnect between the provincial building boom and the country’s overall energy requirements, making it harder for China to convert to a system that is not dominated by dirty fuel.

“China already has more coal capacity than it will ever need,” Zhang Boting, vice chairman of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, said in an interview. “A few years down the road, we’ll see what a waste the plants are. We have seen this happen to the steel and cement industries.”

In the first nine months of this year, state-owned companies received preliminary or full approval to build the 155 coal power plants that have a total capacity of 123 gigawatts, the report said. That capacity is equal to 15 percent of China’s coal-fired power capacity at the end of 2014.

The construction boom — with capital costs estimated by Greenpeace at $74 billion — is a clear sign that China remains entrenched in investment-driven growth, despite promises by leaders to transform the economic model to one based on consumer spending.

It also raises questions about whether China is weaning itself off coal as quickly as it can and whether officials are sufficiently supporting nonfossil fuel sources over coal, which is championed by some state-owned enterprises. China is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and the main driver of climate change, and has some of the worst air pollution.

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