Postcard From…Beijing

Beijing is a sprawling metropolis. Avenues up to 12 lanes wide connect high-rise centers of commerce. But with size comes pollution. The air in Beijing in winter is opaque, and after a week of breathing it left me with the miserable Beijing cough. Global warming analysts point out that China is building a new coal plant a week. Automobiles, coal burned to heat dwellings, and the sheer size of the city are also major contributors to Beijing’s visible pollution.

The photo shows the power plant in Huai Rou, on the outskirts of Beijing. There isn’t much visible air pollution coming from the stack, but invisible greenhouse gasses are pouring out. The photo reveals one trivial response: the photovoltaic panels just to the right of the smokestack.

China is the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic (PV) cells, but mostly for export. China absorbs less than 3% of its PV production. Although money can be made in producing PV, the cells aren’t yet cheap enough to compete locally against coal-fired electricity. At the same time Beijing, like much of China, relies heavily on solar energy. Many dwellings both in the city and countryside are adorned with solar water heaters, a sensible investment rarely used in the United States. China has roughly 60% of the world’s solar water heating capacity. It will soon be the world’s largest manufacturer. In addition, China is planning its first large plant based on solar thermal electricity.

China is also on track to dominate world manufacturing of windmills. By the end of 2009 it will be the world’s largest manufacturer of wind generation equipment. At the same time, China relies on imports of sophisticated electronic controls and other parts for its windmills, and their overall quality doesn’t measure up to its competitors from the West.

In contrast with photovoltaics, China is installing wind capacity in a big way. Already the fifth-largest country in terms of installed capacity, with six gigawatts in mid-2008, China has an astonishing 130 gigawatts in the pipeline. But there are problems. The developers of wind farms are not well-connected to the national grid operator responsible for moving wind-power to end users. Only four of the installed six gigawatts currently get into the grid. Because wind is an intermittent resource, maintaining voltage stability on the grid gets more difficult as wind energy grows in proportion to the total. Both Europe and the United States face this problem as well and are investing in the technology to overcome it.

China is taking large steps to react to global warming, including planting large numbers of trees along the new highways and the excellent rail system. China’s planned economy is moving faster on alternative energy than the U.S. market economy. Despite the photovoltaic cells produced, the solar water heaters installed, and the wind technology market cornered, China still relies heavily on coal. And that’s not good news for global well-being.

A contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, Eugene P. Coyle is an energy economist who focuses on climate change. He has advised the governments of Brazil, Mexico, and Korea on energy policy, and testified before the U.S. Congress, the House of Representatives of Brazil, and several state legislatures.