Chinese Sustainable Energy Program

China, with it’s billion and a half citizens, faces a huge challenge. For them, it’s not just a matter of maintaining the status quo, it’s a matter of having a huge population desiring to enjoy a modern lifestyle.

They intend to attain that for their citizens by quadrupling the gross national product and doubling energy consumption by 2050 over what it was in 2000. They are presently depending upon coal to generate 75% of their electricity. Their target is to reduce that to 38% by 2050. Presently electricity demand is increasing 15% per year and coal fired plants are the fastest way for them to meet that demand. Chana is installing more than one 1000 MW coal fired plant per week at present.

The pollution generated takes a huge toll on not only the health of Chinese citizens, but also on food production. The haze generated by burning all of that coal reduces net sunlight at ground level by more than 1%, with an attendant reduction in food crops. Presently, there is more than 250 GW of coal fired generating capacity under construction or in the pipeline. Already, over 40% of China’s rail capacity is dedicated to hauling coal, pollution aside this trend can not continue indefinitely.

China is planning on transitioning towards renewable sources, small scale hydro, biomass, wind, and solar among them. China also tends to make use of nuclear fission and in addition is aggressively pursuing a fusion research path aimed at bringing fusion online commercially.

To gain an understanding of just how aggressively the Chinese are pursing fusion power, consider this. The rest of the world is contributing to the twelve year construction of what was to be the worlds first superconducting tokamak fusion reactor, ITER, to allow sustained operating at commercial power levels so material issues such as how the diverter would function long term and engineering issues like heat load and neutron embriddlement could be worked out. The US contribution to this project over a 12-year period amounts to less than what we spend on imported oil in two days.

By contrast, the Chinese started construction of a superconducting fusion test reactor in February of 2006, it say first plasma in September of 2006. I’m going to lay odds that they will have fusion power online commercially before ITER is fully constructed.

China intends to build an additional 30 nuclear fission reactors for power production over the next fifteen years and by 2050, China intends to have a total of around 150GW of nuclear capacity online. This equates to about 150 nuclear fission plants if a gigawatt design is used, presently domestic plants are of a 300 MW and 600 MW size.

The Chinese are also having great success with wind power. While electricity produced by coal fired plants is averaging around 8¢/KWh, electricity produced by wind is averaging about 4.5¢/KWh. As one might expect, that is making wind power look like a very attractive investment, however, it can not be scaled up presently as fast as coal can and consequently coal still leads new power production. I suspect though that the economics of wind power will drive a rapid acceleration in the rate of wind power production.

China is also exploring advanced high temperature nuclear fission reactor technology. Conventional boiling water reactors or pressurized steam reactors operate at low temperatures with resulting poor thermal conversion efficiency. However, South Africa has produced and is operating gas cooled pebble bed reactors which can operate at far higher temperatures with an attendant improvement in efficiency.

China has demonstrated the inherent safety of a 10 MW pebble bed reactors by shutting off cooling while the reactor was operating at full power and demonstrating it’s ability withstand that without damage or radiation release. Pebble bed reactors use fuel pellets about the size of billiard balls that contain fuel inside of a graphite ball, and in some designs that is in an outer casing of silicon carbide. In my opinion the latter is a much better design because silicon carbide is not reactive with oxygen so even if the containment vessel cracks a silicon carbide encased fuel pellet will not allow radioactive materials to escape where a graphite pellet could potentially burn in that situation.

Pebble bed reactors are safe and thermally efficient, however, they are not efficient in their overall use of fuel because their operation is inherently one-pass meaning less than 1% of the uranium fuels potential can be extracted. The spent fuel is difficult to extract from used pebbles and so at present no reprocessing technology exists and the fuel can not be reprocessed.

Those are some of the things happening in China. I think it’s worth while viewing how other countries are addressing their energy needs and environmental concerns. For the time being China’s dependence upon coal is catastrophic for the environment but they are working on transitioning from coal which I see as a positive step.

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