China well-placed to power its future through green technology advances

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Global Times, January 31, 2017

China has been moving toward a more sustainable future based on electrical power. Even so, China has invested in new highly efficient coal-fired power stations to the dismay of those clamouring for a “green” future – though it is rapidly removing old inefficient generators from its production mix. Greens also dislike China’s investment in nuclear power even though that source of electricity hardly pollutes: they state it creates too much radioactive waste plus later, a decommissioning conundrum. The problem besetting most nations is that demand for electrical power nearly outstrips their capacity to generate.

The globe must rely on fossil fuels for several years and coal usually offers the cheapest source. China, through its massive investment in this source is well placed to also offer its newer power stations for comparative at-scale experimentation on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) of polluting flue gases that cause global warming. Other nations have not progressed along the CCS route, and some, like the UK, have lost millions in sunk costs as its government has withdrawn CCS development subsidies. China therefore might be our future savior via this technology.

All fossil fuels have a limited future being non-renewable. The conventional oil-field is weakest: the International Energy Agency (IEA) said we passed peak oil in 2005 after which few new oil-fields would be discovered. In their 2017 annual report they note that “… another year of low upstream oil investment in 2017 would risk a shortfall in oil production in a few years’ time and cause potential market-place issues from 2020 onwards.” They continue: “… almost all of the projected growth in oil demand to 2040 comes from freight, aviation and petrochemicals, sectors where alternatives are scarce.” Even if total vehicle numbers almost double, fuel demand for passenger vehicles falls because of fuel efficiency gains, use of biofuels and greater numbers of electric vehicles – though we must remember the latter’s “fuel” has to be generated somewhere by some means.

China’s decision makers have invested in high voltage direct current (HVDC) electricity distribution grids, which for transmissions of over 800 kilometers is superior to the alternating current alternative. China has constructed many HVDC lines from fuel sources (often in the remote regions which are fossil-fuel rich and wind-power rich: the autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang or Yunnan Province) where electricity is generated to supply distant consumers in homes, offices and factories, often in the coastal regions: the Pearl River, or the Yangtze River manufacturers. In the future, HVDC grids will aggregate and distribute all sources of electricity generation – from fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables. Direct current will be the force supporting inter-state electricity flows allowing a true market east/west, north/south to guarantee our demand for power as the sun rises and falls.

China is supporting the use of electric vehicles in towns. Soon there will be reduced car ownership through both sharing and by the increasing use of Uber-style autonomous taxis – we expect traffic density and exhaust pollution to fall making cities much less stressful. Electric trucks complete the story.

However Professor Ni Jun (of Michigan and Shanghai Jiaotong universities) stated in a 2008 SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) that undue reliance had been made upon the R&D of global vehicle manufacturers like Ford, Fiat/Chrysler, Renault or the VW Group. These global players have left a niche for over 200 Chinese electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers to show their intrinsic versatility. However the government has recently said that EV firms must pass effectiveness tests relating to safety and battery range so as not to disappoint buyers. Overly cheap EVs are poor designs they say, and while much cheaper than foreign EV cars they do not represent value for money. Such foresight is especially important looking forward to the new relationship with President Trump’s re-jigging of US manufacturing, trade deals, and their renegotiation with respect to overseas investment in China.

Several cities in China are developing eco-clean low speed maglev links – in their metro systems, or connecting airports to cities. These new transport systems as well as the deployment of high speed maglev will eventually be the long-distance backbone for trade to and from China along its One Belt and One Road initiative. Already inside China, new townships are coalescing at hubs near high-speed rail stations. These hubs are usually supported by a new regional airport as well as good long-distance road systems so attracting rural-to-urban migrants before they overwhelm the already developed coastal regions.

Even higher speed systems are being developed. Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, revealed a test track in 2014 demonstrating a super-maglev that could travel at 2,900 kilometers per hour within a partial-vacuum tube utilizing high temperature superconducting magnets. This is similar to the Hyperloop proposed by Elon Musk (of Tesla car fame) which will be further developed in Toulouse, France. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) announced the new French research facility in January 2017, as well as plans for tracks in Bruno, Czech Republic and in Abu Dhabi. Such developments are of interest to the EU as they potentially strengthen Europe/Asian trade through the traditional Central Asian corridors. These technologies will depend on HVDC backbones being in place to supply all their energy needs.

It is expected that technological diffusion will flow along the Belt and Road initiative into regions far from China, thus re-developing Central and South East Asian towns as trading posts in their own right, and providing route maps for the re-development of Africa and the Middle East. This will offer a seamless continuum of trade and people flows, good living, and intellectual exploration in the future era without oil. This will take time to achieve – China is well-poised to advance the future.

The author is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community. Horasis hosts the annual Horasis China Meeting – the 2017 edition of the event will be held in Sheffield, UK.