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November, 2008:

Burning Issue For Beijing

Underground coal fires are blazing out of control on the mainland, contributing greatly to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions

Tim Johnson – SCMP | Updated on Nov 17, 2008

The barren hillsides give a hint of the inferno underfoot. White smoke billows from cracks in the earth, venting a sulfurous rotten smell into the air. The rocky ground is hot to the touch, and heat penetrates the soles of shoes. Beneath some rocks, a red glow betrays an unseen hell: the epicentre of a severe underground coal fire.

“Don’t stay too long,” warned Ma Ping, a retired coal miner. “The gases are poisonous.”

Another miner tugs on the sleeve of a visitor.

“You can cook a potato here,” said Zhou Ningsheng, his face still black from a just-finished shift, as he pointed to a vent in the earth. “You can see with your own eyes.”

The mainland has the worst underground coal fires of any place on Earth. The fires destroy as much as 20 million tonnes of coal annually, nearly the equivalent of Germany’s entire annual production. The costs go beyond the waste of a valuable fuel, however.

Scientists identify uncontrolled coal fires as a significant source of greenhouse gases, which lead to global warming. Unnoticed by most people, coal fires can burn for years – even decades and longer – producing carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that warm the atmosphere.

“Coal fires are a disaster for all of humanity. And it’s only due to global warming that people are finally beginning to pay attention,” said Guan Haiyan, a coal fire expert at Shenhua Remote Sensing and Geo-engineering.

The rising demand for coal to satisfy a worldwide hunger for energy has given way to increased mining, and a proliferation of fires in coal seams and abandoned mines. The mainland, which has tripled coal production in the past three decades, has mobilised thousands of firefighters to combat the 62 known coal fires scattered across the north.

Major fires have been extinguished. However, Dutch scientists scribbling back-of-the-envelope calculations say that fires on the mainland may still be the cause of 2 per cent to 3 per cent of the world’s annual emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. They call for greatly increasing efforts to extinguish the mainland’s fires – and those in places such as India, Russia and Indonesia – as a practical step to fighting global warming.

It’s a relatively cheap way to stop greenhouse gas emissions,” said Horst Rueter, a German geophysicist who is the scientific co-ordinator for a Sino-German initiative to combat coal fires.

Dr Rueter said that mainland coal fires accounted for at least half the global emissions from coal fires around the world, making them a steady source of pollutants.

Others said that such runaway fires, while significant, paled beside overall emissions from the United States, a fossil-fuel glutton that may give off a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions.

Coal fires can occur naturally and are not a new phenomenon. Australia’s Burning Mountain has smouldered for thousands of years. An underground coal fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, began in 1962, eventually opening sinkholes that threatened to gobble and incinerate pets and children. Centralia became a ghost town, and experts say the fire there may burn for a century or more.

At the Rujigou coalfield in the Ningxia Autonomous Region of western China, fires have burned since the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Legend has it that miners who were angry over not being paid started a coal fire more than a century ago. “It was industrial revenge,” Mr Guan said.

Many coal fires begin spontaneously when underground seams come in contact with the air – either through fault lines from earthquakes or mining activity – generating a chemical reaction that can slowly heat and ignite the coal. Human activity can intensify the fires, however, especially when workers abandon dust-filled mines without sealing the airshafts, allowing temperatures to build.

The mainland’s coal fires stretch across a northern belt that runs nearly 5,000km from east to west. A cluster of them are in Ningxia and a little to the north in Inner Mongolia , at the edge of the Gobi Desert. The concentration of coal fires in the region puts it in the running for one of the world’s worst ecological disasters, and only humans can extinguish the problem.

“These fires just don’t go out,” said Anupma Prakash, a University of Alaska at Fairbanks expert on mapping coal fires.

Coal fires pollute the air with putrid smoke and wreak havoc on water supplies and above-ground ecology, creating “heat islands” where little vegetation can grow, not even hardy grasses. Wildlife flees.

“There used to be rabbits and pheasants around here, but not any more,” said Liang Guobao, who oversees a generator facility at the San Kuang coal mine in the sprawling Wuda coalfields in Inner Mongolia. His generator powers fans to clear the air in underground shafts.

Mr Liang walked with a visitor around the barren landscape, pointing out places where the ground had collapsed after subterranean coal fires ate away seams and left empty caverns.

“The mine started here in 1958, and almost immediately the fires began,” Mr Liang said.

Coal fuels the mainland’s roaring economy, powering its factories but also taking a human, social and environmental toll. The mainland uses coal for 70 per cent of its primary energy needs, far higher than the world average of 40 per cent. Mainland coal production topped 2.3 billion tonnes last year, equalling the output of the US, Russia, Australia and India combined, according to Yang Fuqiang of the Beijing office of The Energy Foundation, a San Francisco group that promotes energy efficiency.

Even as it provides power, coal exploitation leaves a trail of deaths.

Last year, 3,786 mainland miners died in accidents, a rate 70 times higher than for miners in the US.

Coal burning is a principal cause of air pollution on the mainland, where 400,000 people die each year from illnesses – mainly heart and lung diseases – related to that pollution, the World Bank estimates.

For those who grew up in the region, the scarring of the hilly environment from unseen coal fires is part of the landscape. Mr Ma recalled walking in the hills as a youth and discovering long, deep fissures in the earth.

“We wouldn’t know how deep they were. If we dropped a stone in, we could hear it bounce off the walls … but we couldn’t hear it hit bottom,” Mr Ma said.

As much as 40 per cent of the mainland’s coal comes from small local mines rather than big state-owned enterprises. Small operators follow a pattern when their mines catch fire.

“When they have a fire, they just leave and go to another place,” said Li Jing, the director of the Institute of Resource Technology at Beijing Normal University.

Over the past decade, Beijing has put far greater emphasis on attacking coal fires. The work is labour intensive, costly and dangerous in its initial stages. The blazes can reach underground temperatures of 700 to 800 degrees Celsius, imperiling firefighters.

“First, they shape the terrain and cool down the surface so the heavy machinery can work,” Dr Rueter said. Teams drill holes down through the burning coal in 50 to 60 spots and inject water for several months “to cool down the entire rock volume”.

Later, they may make up a slurry of sand, water, cement and some chemicals, and pour it into the holes. Once the fire is out, the entire rock area must fall below 70 degrees to ensure that the coal does not re-ignite. A layer of clay is put on top and trees planted to gauge whether the fire has begun anew.

Dr Prakash, the coal fire expert in Alaska, said she thought that worldwide efforts to combat coal fires had fallen short. “The coal exploration is more intense than the coal firefighting efforts,” she said. “In the areas I have seen – China, India, Indonesia, South Africa – they haven’t got any better.”

Beijing is sensitive to charges that it may not be doing enough to put out the fires. Fourteen months ago, it announced with much fanfare that it had finally put out the Rujigou coal fires in Ningxia that had burned for decades. A Xinhua report said the state had spent US$53 million over a decade to douse the fires.

A visit to the site, however, showed that the fires weren’t completely extinguished.

“The leaders said they’d put out all the fires,” said one miner, who preferred to remain anonymous.

There were many reasons that the work was never completed, he said. “One reason is that the investment to put out the fires was not enough. And the leaders changed too frequently.”



Seven Power Plants To Be Fined For Not Using Sulphur Filters

SCMP | 15th Nov 2008

Seven power plants, including ones operated by China Datang Group, Shenzhen Energy Group, China Power (SEHK: 2380) Investment Group, China Guodian Group and China Huadian Group, were found by the Ministry of Environmental Protection to have failed to turn on their desulphurisation equipment in certain periods last year as required. They were ordered to rectify the failings before year-end. They will have to disgorge higher power revenues they enjoyed for the periods in which they failed to operate the equipment, which filters out sulphur oxide pollutants. They will also be fined five times the extra revenue earned. Eric Ng

Green Investment Makes Business Sense

Lau Nai-keung, SCMP – Nov 14, 2008

In an interview immediately after his US presidential election victory, Barack Obama listed four priorities for his administration. The first one is, of course, the economy, then energy, health care and the environment. To him, directing more resources away from oil dependency and saving the environment are good for the economy, too. He is right on the button.

Our government, and for that matter, authorities in Guangdong, have to understand that money spent on improving the environment is not a budget extravagance that should be cut during hard times.

Instead, it is a growth area that can, first of all, employ people, including the less educated and unskilled. Moreover, it can be hi-tech. Reduce, reuse and recycle is a dirty phrase here, but there are a lot of technologies involved, including physics, chemistry, biochemistry, engineering and logistics. Doing it on a regional scale requires highly sophisticated management skills, too.

In fact, China is now the world’s leading producer and user of solar water heaters. DuPont’s new venture in Hong Kong and Shenzhen will put us at the forefront of solar energy technology. Electricity-generating wind turbines are sprouting like mushrooms in certain parts of Guangdong. Nuclear energy, which is back in vogue and considered clean energy worldwide, is now gaining a bigger presence in the province, with at least two new plants in the pipeline.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is too obsessed with hi-tech. If our recycling business does not join its counterparts in the Pearl River Delta, it will not survive. And, without government subsidies from both Hong Kong and Guangdong, the whole recycling industry may die as commodity prices fall.

Some 2.81 million tonnes of Hong Kong’s solid waste was separated for recycling last year, slightly less than in 2006. However, only 1 per cent, or 30,000 tonnes, was recycled in Hong Kong, compared with more than 11 million tonnes a year earlier. The remainder of the recoverables was exported for recycling. This is one area where we need co-operation between Guangdong and Hong Kong. Collaboration on used tyres or construction materials is an ideal way to start. There has been talk about recycling used tyres since 2003.

Investing in the environment is money well spent, because it can cut social costs, such as health care, and reduce hardship and suffering. These costs are estimated to total more than 3 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Carbon trading is another area of regional co-operation where Hong Kong will play a prominent role. Our power plants generate more than 60 per cent of carbon emissions in Hong Kong. Figures from last year show that the two plants generated about 28 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, and are therefore good candidates to start the ball rolling. Guangdong also has its mandatory emissions targets to fulfil.

China, on the whole, is the largest carbon trading market in the world and is the biggest beneficiary of the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism. It is estimated that, by 2012, China, which is by far the largest carbon-emitting developing nation, will occupy about 50 per cent of the multibillion-euro carbon trading market.

There is much discussion on the mainland about setting up a carbon exchange. Hong Kong is the most suitable place for this institution. It should take the initiative and approach the central government about the subject.

If Guangdong wants to be the number one province, regional co-operation in environmental protection is perhaps the only viable option. If Hong Kong wants to seek opportunities in a depression, this is also the most feasible direction. We only have to “liberate our thoughts”, as Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang has urged.

Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development

China’s Hydro Potential And UHV Transmission: John Kemp

John Kemp, Reuters – Wednesday November 12 2008

–John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own–

LONDON (Reuters) – China has two related (but somewhat distinct) power problems:

(1) The country is struggling to generate enough power overall as price controls encourage wasteful use of cheap electricity. China is unable to mine enough coal or transport it in sufficient quantities to meet demand, while the enormous volume of coal burning generates massive pollution.

(2) China suffers regional power shortages when generation drops in one province or region and the lack of long-distance power transmission capacity means that power cannot be routed in from other regions where there is surplus capacity.

The country has six distinct regional electricity grids – five managed by the massive State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC), and a sixth managed independently by China Southern Grid Corporation covering the provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi and Guizhou. Even within these grids, power transmission capacity is limited, and the links between them are weak.

The central government has made creation of a unified national grid system a top economic priority to improve the efficiency of the whole power system and reduce the risk of localised shortages. It will also enable the country to tap the enormous hydro potential from western China to meet booming demand from the eastern coastal provinces.


The main problem is voltage drop when power is sent over very long distances from one region of the country to another. But SGCC believes long distance inter-regional transmission will be possible by using ultra-high voltages (UHV) of 800kV, based on an extension of technology already in use in other parts of the world.

Following research and testing, SGCC has announced construction of the first long-distance UHV line from Sichuan, which is rich in hydro-electric potential, to the eastern load centre of Shanghai.

Shanghai already receives hydro-electric power from the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Changjiang (Yangtze) at Sandouping in Hubei province. But the new DC 800kV UHV line would enable it to receive power from twice as far west from the Xiangjiaba dam on the Jinsha river (a tributary of the Changjiang much further upstream).$file/Xiangjiaba-Shanghai_176x268.jpg

(For more details see

Xiangjiaba will have total generating capacity of 6,400 MW. When completed, the nearby Xilodu Dam will add a further 12,600 MW (about 55 percent of the size of the planned Three Gorges output), making it the world’s third-largest hydro-electric dam, ranking after the Three Gorges and Brazil’s Itaipu.

Xilodu and Xiangjiaba are two of a series of massive new hydro projects that the government plans in south-western and western China to take advantage of the massive run off from the Himalayas and the Tibet plateau.

SGCC plans to bring a single pole of the Xiangjiaba-Shanghai line into commercial operation within two years (2010) and the second pole a year later (2011). SGCC plans to complete a total of 10 UHV projects by 2015 and 15 by 2020 (see

In most cases, these will bring power from massive new hydro facilities in south-western China to the industrial and residential centres of the east.


China has massive untapped potential for generating hydro-electric power. The government’s official survey data show the country could theoretically generate 694 GW from hydro sources, of which about 541 GW is technically feasible and 401 GW is economically feasible (see table

By end-2005, the country had installed 130 GW of hydro capacity. But there was still another 270 GW of capacity which would be both technically and economically feasible to develop. Untapped economically feasible hydro potential is equivalent to 4.5 times the peak summer power demand of Guangdong province – the site of China’a massive export-oriented and often foreign-invested manufacturing hub.

Two-thirds of the untapped hydro potential is located in the two neighbouring provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan in the south-west, which could each generate an additional 87 GW of power from hydro sources. The key point is both provinces could be linked by UHV transmission lines to the major load centres at Guangdong on the south coast and Shanghai-Zhejiang on the east coast.

Dams and power lines are already under construction. Provided both technologies can be mastered, south China’s power problems could be solved within the next 4-7 years.


There are much smaller amounts of untapped feasible potential in the far west in Xinjiang (13 GW) and Qinghai (10 GW), though both provinces are largely empty and a long way from either industry or population centres.

The biggest hydro potential of all is in Tibet which could theoretically generate 201 GW alone but where conditions are so challenging that only 110 GW is technically feasible and only 8 GW would make any economic sense.

The untapped potential in the rest of China is much more limited – amounting to no more than 66 GW in total. Some 22 GW is located in other southern and central provinces – leaving about 40 GW of untapped but feasible potential across the rest of northern and north-eastern China.

Northern and north-eastern China relies heavily on thermal generation from the local coalfields. But the skewed distribution of untapped hydro resources suggests the country has substantial capacity to bring on new clean and cheap power in the south, while northern China will remain reliant on increasingly expensive and polluting thermal generation.


South China from the Changjiang valley down to the South China Sea was the first part of the economy to liberalise in the 1980s and 1990s and is home to much of the country’s most modern and often foreign-invested manufacturing industries. Northern and north-eastern China’s older industrial base has fallen behind, remains focused on the domestic economy and has suffered relative decline.

Top officials have repeatedly urged northern provinces to make greater efforts to modernise. But the distribution of hydro reserves suggests this divide could be reinforced in future. It is the northern provinces, not the south, that have been plagued by coal shortages and power rationing this summer.

It seems likely the cost of power will need to rise substantially over the medium term (2-5 years) to curb wasteful consumption and slow the rate of growth in electricity demand. In theory, the government could raise power costs by a similar amount across the whole of China in the interests of inter-regional equity.

But given that the power shortages are already in the north, while much of the new hydro potential is in the south, it is possible that energy charges will rise further and faster in the north, accentuating the existing regional imbalances further.

Beijing Defends Energy Policy After Scathing Report

Agence France-Presse in Beijing | Updated on Oct 28, 2008

Beijing on Tuesday defended its energy policy a day after three influential green organisations criticised its dependence on coal.

“The Chinese government attaches great importance to the development and exploration of clean energy,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

“It has been making great efforts to increase the share of clean energy in the energy mix.”

A report commissioned by Greenpeace, the Energy Foundation and WWF on Monday said China’s dependency on coal was creating hidden environmental and other costs worth more than seven per cent of its annual gross domestic product.

The unaccounted costs equated to an estimated 1.7 trillion yuan (US$250 billion), and would be even higher if the impacts in terms of climate change were included, according to the report.

China depends on coal for about 70 per cent of its booming energy needs, which is one factor in its huge increase in greenhouse gas output in recent years.

Ms Jiang said China had implemented a range of policies to tackle the problem.

“We have reissued a renewable energy law and encouraged development of all sorts of renewable energies, including green energy, solar energy, water and hydro energy, thermal energy,” she said.

“We also attach importance to the clean use of coal, and we have done a lot to control the emission of pollutants produced in burning coal.”

Still, China ranks alongside the United States as one of the world’s two biggest emitters of the gases that are blamed for climate change.

Ms Jiang said China would continue to step up efforts to develop renewable energy.

Power Producers Fined For Air Pollution By Coal-fired Plants

Bloomberg | 6th Nov 08

Four of the mainland’s five biggest power producers, including China Datang Corp, were fined for emitting excessive amounts of sulphur dioxide last year, the government said. Seven coal-fired power plants operated by companies including Datang, China Guodian Corp, China Huadian Corp, China Power Investment Corp and Shenzhen Energy Group released more sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere than permitted, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said yesterday. Shenzhen Energy is partly owned by Huaneng Power International, a unit of the mainland’s biggest electricity generator.

Energy Law Shows Way To Combat Global Warming

David Chan – SCMP | Updated on Nov 05, 2008

On October 1, National Day, an important piece of legislation known as the Civil Energy Act came into effect.

The law has six chapters and 45 articles detailing the country’s vision of how to deal with the effect of global warming. There are chapters on energy savings for new and existing buildings, savings that may be achieved through the energy supply system, and legal liabilities for non-compliance.

The legislation seeks to promote energy savings and increase efficiency in the use of energy in buildings. The provisions are all-encompassing and include residential, commercial, service, educational and health-care buildings. It also seeks to encourage the development of solar, geothermal and other alternative energy sources.

National state offices will be established for long-term planning, co-ordination, standard setting and implementation of policies, while provincial offices will be responsible for supervision and exploring financing options.

The law provides tax breaks and possible changes to tariffs to promote energy savings and also imposes penalties for violations.

Chapter 2 deals with new buildings and promotes the use of new technologies and state-of-the-art materials. It restricts the use of materials with high-energy consumption. It also has provisions for building design, including penalties for designs that are not energy-efficient, and compulsory use of better thermal materials, heating and cooling systems and lighting.

Chapter 3 details how existing buildings must make necessary changes in a co-ordinated manner and empowers local governments to make assessments on whether energy-saving systems can be retrofitted. All governmental buildings are to draw up feasibility plans while old private residential buildings are encouraged to make low-cost improvements.

In Chapter 4 the law provides regulations to monitor the operation of large public buildings and record annual energy consumption.

Due to the increased sophistication of building systems, the training of technicians should be enhanced and improved. Targets will be set by respective city governments for individual public buildings.

The new regulations will have an impact on developers and investors in the country’s property market. They need to keep themselves abreast with pertinent provisions of the law, especially on the available technologies and which are applicable and advantageous to their properties.

It will be interesting to see whether the new law will have a huge impact on the country’s air pollution problem and energy consumption.

The legislation may also see in the near term a commitment in other areas of building sustainability. It may also lead to a change in the voluntary rating system for building sustainability or the three-star labelling system which was introduced in 2006, into something mandatory.

This could encompass areas such as water efficiency, use of sustainable materials, waste and pollution reduction, and ecology.

For Hong Kong, the passage of the new law should put pressure on the administration of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to also address issues pertaining to energy use and building design. At present, the city has no mandatory building energy code, although a proposal is likely to be sent to the Legislative Council next year.

A task force of consultants has been created to advise the Hong Kong government on the technicalities of such a legislation. While one hopes the scope of the bill will be comprehensive, the likely result would cover only energy consumption based on the current voluntary energy codes.

From a practical point of view, the legislation could encompass areas such as light pollution, that may raise controversies. Would locals and tourists alike prefer to see Hong Kong Island’s bright advertising lights dimmed to achieve cleaner air? Nonetheless, I’m sure all building users would welcome a reduction in management fees from lower electricity usage.

The proposed Hong Kong legislation is only targeting commercial buildings, or about 20 per cent of the city’s building stock.

While a phased introduction – that is, targeting larger energy-consuming buildings first – is desirable, we must not exclude residential buildings that account for 50 per cent of our building stock.

Many of Hong Kong’s residential buildings were built decades ago and will need significant upgrades, which means added cost, to make them compliant to even very basic energy standards.

Many of the new residential towers that are rising in the city have little or no energy-efficiency features.

As such, any new legislation on energy use in Hong Kong is likely to be less comprehensive than the mainland counterpart.

Still, a watered-down energy legislation is better than none at all, as it is still a significant step towards developing sustainable buildings. We could also assume that the Legco will pass the bill speedily as many members have publicly indicated their commitment to the environment.

The government can promote the issue of efficient energy use by engaging the community in an active and intelligent discussion of the issue.

The bill should provide government departments with the tools to effectively manage those who will be directly affected by the legislation, namely, developers and landlords, building management companies and building owners.

It is our hope that through such a legislation and its implementation, Hong Kong will do its bit in reducing global warming.

David Chan is an architect and a director of an international property consultancy