China, still the world's largest consumer of mineral and energy commodities despite lagging economic growth, appears to be have one foot in the past and another in the future as it embarks on an ambitious plan to install nuclear power stations while at the same time committing to over 100 coal-fired power plants that may never burn a single tonne of the widely-condemned fossil fuel.
The disconnect is a bit of a puzzle, but the evidence lies in a recent report by Greenpeace indicating that in the first nine months of this year, Chinese central and provincial governments issued environmental permits for 155 new coal plants. That's four new plants a week.
Greenpeace not surprisingly paints an alarmist picture of what would happen should all these plants go into production (their annual carbon emissions would equal that of Brazil) but then goes on to make the startling conclusion that none will probably get built. That's because China will have no need for the energy they would produce. According to the report, coal use in China hasn't increased in four years and coal plant utilization is declining. More than half of China's coal plant capacity is sitting idle.
So why build the plants? According to Greenpeace, it's because China in March decentralized authority for making environmental assessments to the provinces, which have an economic interest in keeping coal plants in their jurisdictions despite concerns over air pollution. The plants give provincial state-owned enterprises a guaranteed source of income, and building new ones raises local economic growth, an important measure by which provincial officials are evaluated, the New York Times reported in November. Importantly, coal-fired power plants provide a steady source of provincial tax revenue, while renewable-energy projects cannot be taxed.
The huge capital spend on new coal plants, estimated at $74 billion, is part of the Chinese economy's “addiction to debt-fuelled spending,” notes Greenpeace. Investment makes up nearly half of China's GDP. The environmental group quotes research stating that nearly $7 trillion of capital spending was wasted between 2009 and 2014 on projects with low or no efficiency. The poor investments were driven by easy access to capital and low interest rates.
It's not just Greenpeace that posits the idea of a “coal power bubble” in China. Chinese officials and scholars are also saying it's true.
“China already has more coal capacity than it will ever need,” Zhang Boting, vice chairman of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, told the Times. “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.”
Instead of coal being burnt to meet increases in Chinese electricity demand, the more likely scenario is for renewables to add to the grid. The government has stated that by 2020, only four years away, 15 percent of energy consumption will be met by non-fossil fuel sources. That brings us to nuclear.
While some nations in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 have turned their backs on nuclear power plants, China has embraced them.
China is big on Five Year Plans, and its latest one, which covers 2016-2020, has the government investing $78 billion to build seven new reactors a year from 2016 for the next five years. According to the plan, the country will reach 88 gigawatts of nuclear power by the end of 2020. By 2030 China is expected to have 110 reactors in operation and by 2050, the country will need around $1 trillion to expand its atomic capacity by up to 250 gigawatts, which would account for a quarter of the world's nuclear power, according to the International Energy Agency.
The goals dwarf China's current nuclear fleet, which includes just 27 operating reactors and 24 under construction. Will it happen? The plan certainly seems to be taking shape. The government has approved the building of six Chinese-designed Hualong-1 nuclear reactors, while an American rival has also entered the nuclear construction race. Bloomberg reports that Westinghouse Electric will, after years of delays, finally fire up its first AP1000 reactor in China in 2016. To be located in Zhejiang province on China's east coast, the AP1000 is a pressurized water reactor that will output 1,110 megawatts of electricity, ideal for baseload generation, according to the Pennsylvania-based company.
Westinghouse Electric CEO Daniel Roderick says China will decide to build 10 Westinghouse-designed AP1000's over the next 10 years.
But China isn't content to just accept technologies from other countries in its quest for nuclear dominance; the country wants to be the number one nuclear power exporter.
In October President Xi inked a deal with the UK to help build nuclear reactors in England. The agreement has the China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) acquiring a 33.5 percent stake in the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant. The GBP 18 billion plant will be the most expensive ever built, and will provide seven percent of the UK's electricity.
Argentina is also looking to China to supply technology for construction of a nuclear reactor to be built by CGN, the same state-owned company that will build the Hinkley Point reactor. In November the two countries signed an agreement that could result in $4.7 billion worth of equipment exports to the South American nation, and the construction of its fourth reactor.
More Chinese nuclear technology transfers are likely to follow. The country plans to export up to eight domestically-designed nuclear reactors including the Hualong-1, by 2020.
Forbes reports that China has an advantage over its competitors in the global race to build new nuclear power plants because it has more forges than anyone else. Forges are used to make pressure vessels, the steel cylindrical vessels that enclose the reactor core.
Forbes writer James Conca also notes that China has been able to build nuclear reactors at a fraction of the cost of western countries. For example six Chinese-designed reactors at Yangjiang, in southern China, will cost $11.5 billion, a third less than in the west, while two 600-megawatt units on Hainan Island, also in the south, are being built for just $3.15 billion.
Analysts quoted by Bloomberg say that China's Hualong-1 reactor is about 30 percent cheaper to construct than the average U.S. nuclear reactor. In May China started building its first Hualong-1 unit, in Fujian province.
By Andrew Topf of Oilprice.com
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