China Comment

Energy, Environment, and Economy

China’s Dirty Wind

News in the WSJ on Sept 28th reported that China’s wind farms, which as I have noted before* , have some connectivity problems in joining the electrical grid. That information is nothing new, but the rest of the article’s discussion piqued my interest.

Apparently, the Chinese government is planning to ensure ample supplies of wind (even when it is not blowing) by balancing the load not with fast-starting natural gas plants, as some US wind farms utilize to manage the load, but with slow-starting and arguably heavy-polluting coal plants.

What is not common knowledge is that producing power is not as easy as connecting a wind farm into a preexisting grid. Wind power fluctuates and varies and sometimes needs to be shut down/curtailed if wind speeds exceed say 35 mph, or blow at less than around 5 mph. Too much or too little wind on the grid can cause power shortages. (A very basic explanation of load management and peaking is HERE). A news article on the problem of variable loads being matched with hydroelectric power is HERE.

According to NERC, which (under FERC’s supervision) can assess fines and create rules to ensure electricity reliability in the US, “Wind machines “ramp up” and trail off so fast that the grid is likely to need new generators fired by natural gas that can start up or shut down faster than the ones in service now.” (NYT).**

When I read the WSJ article, I could not initially believe what it was saying. For a country run by engineers and geologists, one would think that China would be well aware of the difficulties in cycling up and down different types of power. Natural gas is a good match for wind power because it is easy to cycle up quickly. Coal, however, takes longer to cycle up. For coal to be an efficient match to mitigate the variability of wind power, coal plants will need to be on constantly.

Considering that coal is a relatively cheap source of energy, wouldn’t it be cheaper for Chinese power plants only to invest in coal and run the plants at 100% capacity rather than constructing wind plants while running coal power plants at 50% and then scaling up their use when needed? By matching coal with wind, most potential environmental gains are negated since coal’s emissions constantly flutter into the atmosphere. Still, it could be said that some reduction in carbon output is better than none at all. But the matching of coal to wind certainly drives wind power’s costs up– for China’s economic detriment and only marginal environmental gains. (It could be that China is hoping the build-out of wind power helps them when the Copenhagen environmental carbon market targets are achieved; or that natural gas can be matched to the wind farms after certain pipelines are completed.)***

Why is China using coal instead of natural gas? China simply does not have very much natural gas. (EIA) Natural gas only accounted for 3% of China’s total energy mix in 2006, compared to nearly 70% provided by coal. (EIA). And of that, only 29% was used for electric power or residential and commercial uses as of 2005. (page 4, Yang Dengwei; 32% was used for industrial fuel) This should change, however, due to pipelines that China is constructing from bordering countries that have natural gas surpluses. And of course, Liquid Natural Gas technology also raises the amount of imports that China can receive. By 2011, China hopes to “raise the ratio of natural gas in its total primary energy consumption by 1 to 2 percentage points.” (China Daily). China’s natural gas consumption rose from 50 billion cubic meters in 2005 to 76 billion cubic meters in 2008, to an estimated 86 billion cubic meters in 2009. (China Daily).

I suspect that China may eventually decide to go down the route of battery storage of excess wind power in order to better manage the loads. But battery storage technology is still a bit expensive, “costing roughly $3 million per megawatt plus millions for start-up and testing.” (Scientific American).

When China’s excess natural gas pipeline capacity comes online, the country may also begin greater utilization of natural gas to manage wind’s load, but natural gas supplies will still be dwarfed by China’s coal– and natural gas prices may rise again like they did in Summer 2008. If a majority of China’s natural gas supplies are imported (as appears likely), in order to preserve energy security, Beijing may want to discourage generators from using natural gas to provide safety from wind’s variability. Hydroelectric power could also be paired to wind power. However, hydroelectric power is mostly concentrated in China’s south, whereas much of China’s wind resources are  located in the North (Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, etc.). Perhaps nuclear could balance the wind grid like coal currently does, but most new nuclear plants are to be built on the coast and near China’s south.

It will be interesting to examine how successfully China marries coal to wind generation and what sort of effect this will have on China’s future electricity pricing.


*In my older post I perhaps noted China’s wind connectivity problems a bit too harshly given that the US also has some grid connection problems regarding wind since even more so than in China, a great deal of US wind capacity is far from its citizens and will require long transmission lines to provide wind. This transmission problem helped lead to the demise of part of the Pickens Plan for a massive wind farm in Texas.

**At the very least, “[b]atteries or flywheels, both of which can store energy, may be needed to smooth out the production of wind farms, which stop producing power when the wind stops, or when the wind goes faster than the turbines can handle.” (NYT) [which leads to patents like THIS.]

*** Interesting fact. Due to the need for wind to be matched to more reliable sources of power, wind farms are not 0 carbon emission investments. One study reported that;  “Increasing the capacity of wind energy on the Austin Energy grid causes increased usage of these less efficient peaking units. In other words, as more wind energy is generated, there is a drop in the overall efficiency of fossil fuel based energy on the grid, resulting in greater carbon emissions per unit of energy from the nonrenewable sources. . . For purchased wind energy from Austin Energy, with a 20 percent capacity of wind energy, each megawatthour of electricity would increase the emission from the fossil fuel sources by 60 lb of CO2 . While this CO2 emissions rate is lower than the current UT plant emissions of 694 lb/MWh, it is also not zero. Instead of the purchased wind energy being 100 percent carbonfree, the reserve offsets result in 91 percent carbonfree energy” (Is Wind Energy Hot Air?, UT)

5 October, 2009 Posted by | China Energy | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Natural Gas – Development

Beijing continues its quest to fill its increasingly high energy needs since demand is up 8.6% in 2006, which is a staggering amount compared to global growth rates of under 2%. To mitigate the problem, Beijing plans to ambitiously expand natural gas supplies.

China’s natural gas industry is growing at a rapid pace. 2007 saw 23.1% growth and this year, Natural Gas output will “likely hit 76 billion cubic meters,” on around 15% a year growth!). 

International agreements signed from 2003-2005 are finally coming on-line, and new agreements are being made. Below, I examine what this can this mean for China’s energy security and future geopolitical purposes.

First, for orientation purposes; 1,200 cubic meters of gas equals about one ton of oil (People’s Daily); or a conversion rate of 8.3×10-4.  (Conversions will vary between sources depending on how oil companies rate the density of materials, but for simplification purposes, all numbers below are approximations.)

In 2006, China received 69.6% of its energy from Coal (1.19B tons of oil equivalent in 2006, but 2.5B “natural” tons of coal are expected to be consumed in 2007)^, 21.1% from Oil (350M tons; 183.7M produced domestically, around 47% imported), 5.8% from Hydroelectric, 2.7% Natural Gas (55.6B cubic meters- in 2007 this rose to 69.8B cubic meters), and 0.8% from Nuclear Energy [data from: Rosen (17), and China Daily (2006)]

To make the data easier to compare, cubic meters have been approximately converted into tons:

Tonnage and Percent of Energy Mix (2005-2006)







Natural Gas                                



 * Roughly converted into tons, thus is estimated down from the 69.8B cubic meters as per the formula explained above. Also, Natural gas data is for 2007.

^ 1 m.ton of coal = 4.879 barrels of crude oil equivalent (Source)
(Chart Data from Rosen and China Daily; 2005 and 2006 numbers except as stated.)

(2009-2010) – New Sources of Imports Coming on line

The Chinese government hopes to double use of Liquid Natural Gas from 2.5% of the energy mix (as of 2005) to 5.5% of the energy mix by 2010, and expects to utilize 200B cubic tons a year (166M tons, or roughly half of current oil consumption) of LNG by 2020 (IHT).

China is fast approaching its goals. In order to facilitate foreign imports, pipelines are being built, and China National Offshore plans to build an additional 10 LNG (Liquid Natural Gas)-capable ports (CER).

In August 2007, PetroChina and Chevron agreed to develop the Luojiazhai natural gas fields in Sichuan. The fields are believed to hold 2.03 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves (57,483,144 cubic meters or roughly 48M tons.) (CER).

In July 2008, PetroChina proclaimed “Sulige Gas Field in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region” can now produce  4.5 billion cubic meters (steres) a year (3.8M tons). By the end of the year, Petrochina hopes to increase output to over 7 billion cubic meters (steres) annually (5.9M tons) (China Institute).

Turkmenistan will be able to export Natural Gas to China, starting in 2009. Under an August 2006 deal, China plans to purchase 30 billion cubic meters in 30 years; averaging to 1 billion cubic meters, or around 833,000 tons a year. 

In June 2008, China signed a deal with Qatargas Operating Co. for delivery, starting in 2009, of 2 million metric tons of LNG annually (CER).

TOTAL: (2009) 8.9M tons yearly
Sulige Gas Field (5.9M yearly) [2009] (Inner Mongolia)
Qatar (2M yearly) [2009]
Turkmenistan (833,000 yearly) [2009]
Luojiazhai Fields (43M reserves) [~2010] (Sichuan)

Long Run Forecast

In July 2008, Kazakhstan started a natural gas pipeline (IHT) that should be “completed by June 2010.” When finished, it will carry 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year, or around 38M tons.

Sinopec also has high expectations for the Dayi Gas Field in Sichuan. They claim possible natural gas reserves of 100 billion cubic meters (85M tons) (China Institute).

China also, in June 2008, signed a cooperation agreement on natural gas extraction and transportation with Myanmar, which has over 5.7 to 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (283,168,199,078 cubic meters; or 238M tons) (China Institute).

In a July 10, 2008 statement, “Russia plans to export 68 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China annually by 2020 [58M tons], the president of the Russian Gas Union said. Valery Yazev, who is also deputy chairman of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, said that Russia planned to supply up to 30 million metric tons (220 million barrels) of crude oil to China via a branch line of the East Siberia – Pacific Ocean pipeline (ESPO)” (China Institute).

TOTAL: (2020) 96M tons yearly
Kazakhstan (38M yearly) [2010-2015]
Russia (58M yearly) [2015-2020]
Dayi Field (85M reserves) [2010-2012] (Sichuan)


Geopolitical Security

Future pipelines from Kazakhstan will carry imports that equal half the amount of LNG consumed by China this year. As a result, Central Asian security will become more integral to Beijing’s foreign policy. The pipeline from Kazakhstan crosses Uzbekistan and goes through China’s sometimes-volatile Xinjiang province. New pipelines originating from Central Asian countries will require more People’s Armed Police patrols to guarantee safety, which will tie down a modest amount of troops since the lines present an energy security vulnerability. Anti-terror crackdowns  will  increase in Xinjiang, and possibly Islamic Mosque worship will be more restricted. (Children under a certain age are not allowed in Mosques; although when I visited, it appeared this practice was not entirely enforced.)

Also, Beijing will strengthen ties with the SCO (Shanghai Cooperative Organization) economic and defense grouping of Central Asian states, perhaps attempting to marginalize the United States’ regional influence. Beijing already surpasses the US in trade partner significance to several Central Asian States, trading $12 billion in 2006 (CRS, 71) with the region, compared to 2006 US trade of slightly over $2.3 billion with the region.  (Data from HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE for exports; HERE for imports)

With a future pipeline to Myanmar, Beijing might increasingly coddle that regime, like France and Russia at times did to Baghdad in the leadup to the Iraq War.  However, given Myanmar’s undeveloped economy, it may be years before they practically exploit their natural gas. An Indian and a South Korean company are also involved in the explotation. The Myanmar issue will prove to be a complicated one, geopolitically.

Ultimately, Natural Gas is but one of several sources for China’s energy, and it will only account for 5.3% of Beijing’s energy mix by 2010. Coal is currently, and will remain the most important piece of Beijing’s energy plan for the next twenty years. And oil will remain the most vulnerable part of Beijing’s energy plan, since over 47% of China’s oil demand is imported.

Still, the importance of LNG will cause Beijing to bring in foreign experts (such as Shell, and Chevron), and will increase its influence in the Central Asian states. It will be interesting to see how relations and rights negotiations develop over the next two to ten years, given energy prices’ recent fluctuations.

 * Some conversions attempted using this chart and this one. Also of note. “Steres” is another word for “cubic meters.”

Also of Note: Daniel Rosen and the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ AMAZING analysis of China’s Energy Future –

* China’s Nuclear Power, Wind Power in China.

14 July, 2008 Posted by | China Energy, China Future | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment