If you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics, or even just scrolling past memes about the Olympic games that started earlier this month, you’ve probably seen what look like nuclear cooling towers looming in the background while skiers and snowboarders hurtle through the air of the event space, located in Zhangjiakou, a mountain city in China’s Hebei province.
The scene is not, in fact, a nuclear power plant, despite the similarity to nuclear cooling towers. The Big Air Shougang venue is set up on the site of a now-shuttered Shougang Group steel mill, which “helped propel the nation into being one of the world's leaders in steel production,” according to a recent Newsweek article. The mill was the first state-owned steel plant in the country, imbuing it with symbolic significance for the host of this year’s winter Olympics.
While the stark backdrop may be a point of pride for some Chinese leaders, however, to many viewers and critics the somewhat shocking visual is as much a reminder of the capital city’s choking smog and threateningly high and growing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, according to reporting by CNN, the plant, founded in 1919, was finally shut down just about 15 years ago “as part of efforts to clear the air in the capital ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics,” in a stranger-than-fiction ironic twist.
The effort to curb air pollution for the 2008 Olympic Games was too little, too late. In fact, findings released after those games showed that particulate air pollution was at a level labeled as excessive by the World Health Organization for the entire duration of the event, far outstripped the air pollution of other Olympic Games in a similar time frame, and exceeded Chinese officials’ reports by 30% – and if the weather had not been so favorable, it would have been worse. "Considering the massive efforts by China to reduce air pollution in and around Beijing during the Olympics, this was the largest scale atmospheric pollution experiment ever conducted," Staci Simonich, an OSU associate professor of environmental and molecular toxicology stated at the time these findings were released. "This demonstrates how difficult it is to solve environmental problems on a short-term, local basis," she added.
This time around, Beijing is determined to change the narrative. China has put out a robust public relations campaign, including a nearly 70-page ‘Sustainability Report’ to brand the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022 as the first-ever “green” Olympics, and is putting its money where its mouth is by presenting the first Olympic games powered with 100% renewable electricity. In the context of this Olympics, an event whose extravagance and consumption patterns have long been criticized, this decision is both symbolically and ecologically impactful.
A detailed breakdown of the renewable energy playbook for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games published by CarbonBrief shows that the Olympic planners did not take the easy way out or fudge any numbers to greenwash this initiative. Instead, China has used the games as a platform for rolling out a new state-of-the-art “flexible green electricity grid” which will allow renewable energy to travel long distances through direct currents. “The winter Olympic games has accelerated the construction of the Zhangbei renewable energy flexible direct current (DC) grid,” CarbonBrief reports. “The Beijing 2022 games rely on this newly-built infrastructure in Zhangjiakou City, a $2bn project launched in June 2020 to distribute wind and solar power, with pumped hydro storage to regulate the variations in output.” Zhangjiakou, where all of these games’ skiing events are being hosted, contains more renewable energy capacity in one city than most countries in the world.
China already had more than enough installed renewable capacity before this year to power the 2022 Winter Olympics, even though the 400-gigawatt hours (GWh) projected to power the games equals the approximate annual electricity consumption of nearly 200,000 Chinese households. (The country generated 2,480 terawatt-hours (TWh) of renewable electricity in 2021).
The steps being taken in Zhangjiakou and as part of the “green Olympics” are just the beginning of a much larger plan that will be rolled out across China to help the country meet its ambitious twin aims to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions by just 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. Despite these advances, however, China’s coal plants also took measures to ensure a stable power supply to the Olympics in case of any hiccups in the renewable plan, highlighting Beijing’s continued reliance on coal as well as the current state of affairs with the green energy transition in general. Renewable energy is exciting, necessary, and an essential part of the future, but when it comes down to it, fossil fuels are always a very close plan b.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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