Command and control
Energy use is the core of economic development—and in China's case that means more coal but also finding ways to use it more efficiently and cleanly.
The NDRC oversees the country's rapid growth as well as, more recently, efforts to voluntarily reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and negotiations at international gatherings like this year's meeting of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP16) held in Cancún, Mexico. The NDRC also effectively sets energy prices—ranging from the price paid for coal mined in Shanxi to the fee paid to operators of wind farms in Inner Mongolia as part of its mission "to maintain the aggregate balance and overall control of important commodities." And the NDRC manages the mandates—such as shutting down old, small, inefficient boilers in favor of larger, more modern ones or shifting heavy industry from city centers to industrial parks—that literally determine the color of the sky over Chinese cities or the contours of the surrounding landscape.
Just as the smokestack defined industrial development starting in the U.K. and on through the U.S. to China's neighbors Japan and South Korea, so too does the smokestack symbolize modern China. And the smokestack remains a conduit for the same fuel that kicked off and sustained the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century—coal. In Dandong and most Chinese cities, the taste of coal is in the air, the smoke from the burning of eons-old swamp forests.
"In this particular phase of economic development in China, our economic structure is more focused on industry," explains Zhang, who is also director of China's recently created National Energy Administration, via a translator. "We have only developed the economy for three decades and now we face great pressure from the international community [to clean up]. That is unfair."
Coal accounts for more than 70 percent of all of China's energy—from electricity to giant chemical plants that turn the dirty, black rock into liquid fuels. China uses more coal than the U.S., Europe and Japan combined—three billion metric tons in 2009, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And, even as China adds wind farms, nuclear power plants and other electricity sources at a pace that surpasses anywhere else in the world, coal accounts for more than 80 percent of its electricity, the main reason that China has passed the U.S. as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
"China is confronted by the great challenge of emission reductions," Zhang says. "Therefore, it is necessary for us to allocate for the use of clean-coal combustion technologies."
The quest to burn coal cleanly has been a boon for chemistry. First, acid rain necessitated adding giant chemistry sets that use a slurry of limestone and water to catch the sulfur dioxide that would otherwise billow out a coal-fired power plant smokestack. The Huaneng Group—one of five quasi-governmental private energy companies in China—added such technology to the Dandong Power Plant in 2009.
"The government subsidizes 0.15 renminbi (0.02 cent U.S.) per kilowatt-hour for the power produced by units with desulfurization," says Dandong's Shi via a translator. "So we make a profit," and save the forests, lakes, rivers and countries downwind of the power plant from acid rain.