Power to generate irrational thought

China constantly shakes many of the world's beliefs, for better or worse, from its economic growth to trade to human rights. There is no doubt that China will become before not too long the world's dominant economic power. It also provides an additional, if inadvertent, benefit to the world. In many ways the country's single-minded devotion to leapfrogging into the 21st century helps Western societies mired in political correctness and recurring social engineering.

China will simply not play along with some people's notions of how life should be. In the process it can create tremendous new trade, shipping and commerce, practically overnight. The New York Times ran a story on 21 November entitled ‘Importing coal, China burns it as others stop'. The starting point was simple: China has emerged as one of the world's largest importers of coal.

One would think that this should be expected. China, flush with cash, buys all the energy it can gets its hands on. Why not also coal? In 2009 China consumed 3.47 billion tons of coal while it produced 3.36 billion tons, both amounts by far the largest in the world, about 50% of the totals. In the ten years 2000-09, China's consumption increased by 180%1.

The 2009 situation is new because China went from an exporter to a net importer of coal (114 million tons), still just 3% of its consumption but expected to grow considerably in the future.

Coal occupies a prominent position in China's economy. More than 74% of the country's primary energy derives from the fuel, a share not seen in the West since the 19th century. From total electricity generation of 3446 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) produced in 2009, 82% came from coal. (The second is hydroelectric with 529 billion kWh, also the world's largest.)

But coal's role in China and therefore its importance to the rest of the world which so much depends on a healthy Chinese economy, was not the crux of the New York Times story. The shock value for the writer was the origin of the coal, namely environmentally aware (astute, conscious, devotees) Australia, Canada and the US, worse yet and horror of horrors, the states of Colorado, California and Oregon. So while these locales have restricted, cancelled and tried to ban coal outright, they are exporting the same coal to the Chinese.

The piece did not hide the main point of the story and it did not make any bones in presenting a lamenting tone narrative; nothing of the detached and clinical writing just to inform there. It went like this: there is an inconsistency and perhaps a hypocrisy that we in the West are in the process of stopping using the dirty stuff only to sell it to the Chinese. If the reason for cutting coal use is for a greener tomorrow and, especially, reducing CO2 emissions, how is Chinese combustion instead of US or Australian combustion going to alleviate global climate change? It is just one atmosphere.

Of course the article failed to address the fact that the US draws 50% of its own electricity generation from coal and many European nations, ostensibly more environmentally sensitive in public mythology, have seen a resurgence of coal use.

It was not surprising that the first person to be quoted in the New York Times story was from the Sierra Club. Now there you have a balancing act. There is no real energy project that the Sierra Club will like and will be proud of all it helped to cancel.

What the article, like so many more before it, did not do was to seriously examine the collapsing nonsense of 1) manmade global climate change and, if that is too serious a task, 2) what to do about it. China will take no real position, other than platitudes, on the first because it never intends to do something about the second.

A frequent refrain of other recent articles, some in the same newspaper, is how China has been developing its renewable energy sources and how it has ‘overtaken the United States' in green technologies. Both of these claims, other than expressing the wishful thinking of social engineers to shame us into action, are nonsense.

First, China has installed 16,000MW of wind generating capacity by 2010. However, even after ignoring the fact that a purported 25% is not linked to the system, using a worldwide average load factor of less than 20%, the installed useful wind capacity of about 3000MW represents one-month's worth of currently being installed importance and coal power plant capacity. Second, the overtaking of the US in green technologies is not something unexpected. China manufactures everything else to sell to the US. Why not wind turbines and solar panels?

Does anybody really believe that there will be economically extractable fossil fuels anywhere in the world that would not be produced and consumed just because the US, Australia and Canada impose carbon constraints? A morally charged (which religion is hard to fathom) Sierra Club-induced economic hara-kiri can certainly cause irreparable harm to these countries. China and the rest of the rapidly developing world will move on, buying all the energy sources they need, including from the US, and laugh all the way to the bank and our treasuries. OE


Michael J Economides is a professor at the Cullen College of Engineering, University of Houston, and editor-in-chief of the Energy Tribune. 

The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect OE's position.

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