Counting the Sins of Chinese SynGas

Heavy water use, threats of tainted groundwater, and artificial earthquakes are but a sampling of the environmental side effects that have tarnished North America’s recent boom in natural gas production via hydraulic fracturing or fracking. No surprise then that in European countries such as the U.K. that are looking to frack for cheap domestic gas, the environmental protesters often arrive ahead of the drill rigs.

But countries seeking fresh gas supplies could do far worse than fracking. So say Duke University researchers who, in today’s issue of the research journal Nature Climate Change, shine a jaundiced spotlight on China’s plans to synthesize natural gas from coal. Nine synthetic gas plants recently approved by Beijing would increase the annual demand for water in the country’s arid northern regions by over 180 million metric tons, the Duke team concluded, while emissions of carbon dioxide would entirely wipe out the climate-cooling impact of China’s massive wind and solar power installations. Continue reading “Counting the Sins of Chinese SynGas”

Chinese Bullet Trains’ Worrisome “Black-box” Controls

In August we brought you disquieting news that Hollysys Automation — the supplier of a control system implicated in China’s deadly bullet-train collision this summer — also provides controls for China’s nuclear reactors (which are multiplying just as fast as its high speed rail lines). The Hollysys story now looks darker after informed speculation reported in the Wall Street Journal that the company may not fully comprehend how the control systems work. Continue reading “Chinese Bullet Trains’ Worrisome “Black-box” Controls”

Nuclear Safety Implications in China’s Bullet Train Wreck?

The hand-wringing over China’s high-speed train wreck last month may have just begun if the government’s current explanation for the crash proves out. At present official fingers are pointing to a failure in the trains’ signaling system. The firm that installed them, it now appears, provides similar equipment for the nuclear reactors that China is building just as fast as it is adding rail lines. Continue reading “Nuclear Safety Implications in China’s Bullet Train Wreck?”

Fukushima Inspires Change in Germany & China

Amidst the stubbornly disappointing string of news emanating from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, there are signs that its melting nuclear fuel rods are inspiring some important and long-overdue developments in global power systems. And there’s good news for both nuclear supporters and critics.

Hopeful spinoff number one: Berlin is getting serious about upgrading the balkanized and inadequate transmission grid that represents a serious liability for Germany’s renewable energy ambitions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision last month to shut down Germany’s oldest nuclear reactors and temporarily scrub life extensions for the rest was widely seen as a sop to voters in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Well, Merkel’s Conservative Democrats lost the state to the Green Party, and she hasn’t looked back. Last week a document leaked from Germany’s Economy Ministry and reported by Bloomberg revealed plans to revamp the power grid–a precondition to replacing nuclear energy with solar, wind and other renewable power sources. Continue reading “Fukushima Inspires Change in Germany & China”

WSJ Calls China’s Electric Bicycle Craze a Killer

Mainstream media have finally noticed the electric bicycle craze that’s swept China — where there are now 120 million e-bikes on the road — and is now making inroads in Europe and North America. This weekend the New York Times examined what it called China’s “accidental transportation upheaval”, and the Wall Street Journal devoted a coveted cover slot to China’s e-bikes in January. The latter, unfortunately, paints an unduly dark picture of this energy-efficient and relatively affordable urban transport option.

“Because they are so silent, fast and heavy they’ve become a traffic menace,” says WSJ China correspondent Shai Oster in the video that accompanies his piece on e-bikes, unwisely shot while riding one through Beijing. Oster says this is why there is a “new backlash” against e-bikes, with various levels of Chinese governments trying to squelch the e-bike. What I see is ongoing harassment that China’s e-bike community has endured for the past 6-7 years.

Early on the official complaint was that rapid replacement of the lead acid batteries most Chinese e-bikes carry  fueled pollution (According to the Times a typical Chinese e-bike uses five lead batteries in its lifetime, each containing 20 to 30 pounds of lead). Today the complaint is that deaths have “soared” from 34 in 2001 to over 2000 in 2007 (not too surprising given that e-bike use was exploding exponentially over that period). My take — reinforced by alternative-transport and urban design activists in China — is that these complaints are a smokescreen for car-oriented industrial and urban planners. Continue reading “WSJ Calls China’s Electric Bicycle Craze a Killer”

China’s Grid-Limited Wind Energy Potential

China’s wind power industry barely noticed the international financing crisis, doubling installations in 2008  for the fifth year in a row. Readers of Carbon-Nation shouldn’t be surprised, as we have already documented the state and market share-driven industry’s insensitivity to quaint financial targets such as profitability. What may ultimately check China’s seemingly unstoppable wind power surge is the capacity of its power grids to absorb the resulting energy.

China wind capacity-factor projection. Credit Michael McElroyThat conclusion emerges when one examines a report in Science last week by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Beijing’s Tsinghua University, which combines meteorological and engineering models to predict that wind farms could meet all new electricity demand in China through 2030 at reasonably low cost. My coverage of the report, published yesterday by MIT’s Technology Review.com, concludes that China’s grid is the key hurdle to realizing this bold prediction, noting hopefully that China is already leading the world in the development of high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission technology — the sort needed to share variable renewable energy sources such as wind power on a trans-continental scale, thereby minimizing the power supply’s vulnerability to regional weather patterns.

Analysts, however, doubt that China can build such renewables-ready supergrids fast enough to replace anticipated additions of coal and nuclear power, as projected by the Harvard-Tsinghua report. Caitlin Pollock, who prepares Asia wind market forecasts for Cambridge, MA-based consutancy Emerging Energy Research, says grid challenges make the growth level proposed “unfeasible and unlikely.” She notes that grid integration already lags wind-farm installation: “While China’s wind market has indeed doubled for the past two years, approximately 30% of this new capacity remained unconnected to the grid at the end of each year.” Continue reading “China’s Grid-Limited Wind Energy Potential”

China’s Wind Surge Ignores Financial Mess

The global wind power industry is bottoming out thanks to the global financing crisis. Everywhere but China, that is, according to a research update issued this week by consultancy Emerging Energy Research (Cambridge, MA).

EER adds up the impact of “a steady flow of wind industry CAPEX reductions, project postponements, order cancellations, and corporate downsizings on a scale never seen before in this relatively young segment of the energy sector.” They forecast a 24% decline in megawatts installed in the US this year over 2008, and a 19% decline in Europe.

Then there’s China, which EER calls “the only major market left standing in the face of the crisis.” EER projects a 59% jump in megawatts added there in 2009 — enough to make up for the U.S. and European losses.

Carbon-Nation readers will recall our June 2008 reporting on China’s wind sector that was already, then, notable for (a) its “endurance in the face of below-cost pricing” and, (b) low quality assurance that had even its trade association calling for slower growth. Looks like its too late for the latter.

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate