China down to 12 days of coal stocks
18:18 23 April 2008
NewScientist.com news service
China's booming economy could be running out of steam – literally.
At the end of a cold and stormy winter, the country has just 12 days of coal reserves at most power stations. Some provinces, including Hebei, bordering Beijing, have less than a week's coal left. This is a record low, the state electricity regulatory commission revealed on Tuesday.
China relies on burning coal for 70% of its electricity. Even though Chinese coal production in the first quarter of this year was up almost 15% on the same period last year, it has apparently not been enough to meet rapidly growing demand.
Coal imports, which started last year, have also failed to meet the difference between supply and demand. Such is the demand for power from an economy that has been growing by 10% a year for more than two decades.
The International Energy Agency says China increased capacity at coal-fired power stations by 100 gigawatts in 2006, the most recent year for which figures are available.
It is often claimed that China builds a new coal-fired power plant once a week but the IEA figure suggests that it in fact builds two, assuming a typical plant size of one gigawatt.
Even that is not enough to meet soaring demand. The deputy head of the Chinese electricity regulatory commission, Wang Yeping, said the country is likely to be short of 10 gigawatts of electricity generating capacity by this summer.
That will cause brownouts and power shortages, particularly in southern provinces such as Guangdong, where the spread of air conditioning systems is competing with industry for power.
The coal mining industry, and the rail network needed to bring the coal to the power plants, are both struggling to keep up with the drive to build ever more generating capacity. The strains raise questions about how much longer China's breakneck industrialisation can continue.
Last year, by most calculations, China exceeded the US to become the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter – though its emissions per head of population remain far lower. Both countries are heavily reliant on coal for their power, which produces more CO2 per unit of energy than other major fossil fuels.