Seemingly unnoticed by the rest of the world are the extraordinary strides China has made to create and use various forms of alternative energy, particularly clean sources like hydropower, solar and nuclear power.
Constantly we read of pollution caused by China’s use of coal for power, but the fact is that a considerable portion of the energy China uses every day comes not from fossil fuels but these three alternative sources.
China is the world’s largest producer of hydroelectricity, which supplies at least 17 percent of the country’s domestic power demands, or more than 720 terawatts.
The biggest hydropower producer in the world is the Three Gorges Dam project blocking the mighty Yangtze River at Yichang, Hubei province.
One measure of its size and strength is the fact that in times of heavy rain and upland flooding, this remarkable facility contains a reservoir of water stretching up to 600 kilometers upriver.
When floodwaters gushing into the dam approach its tolerance levels, the sluice gates are opened to relieve the pressure on the dam’s huge wall, and with an immense roar, water gushes out at the rate of 70,000 cubic meters per second.
Besides hydropower, China is also a global leader in solar energy. More than 400 Chinese photovoltaic companies produce energy-gulping solar panels that are sold across the globe, making a huge contribution to reducing the use of air-polluting fossil fuel.
Equally important, solar power now contributes a significant 3.5 gigawatts of power across China, a figure set to expand exponentially by 2020.
The Golmud Solar Farm in Qinghai province is the world’s largest solar power facility, absorbing a yearly average of 3,300 hours of sunshine that bombards the Golmud Desert. This year it won an award for China’s Best-Quality Power Project. Altogether there are solar panels capable of producing 870 megawatts here, and its capacity is expected to reach 1,070 MW by year’s end.
Many other solar power facilities are located across much of China, including such areas as Tianjin, Tibet, Shandong and Guangdong, with new ones being opened regularly.
With regard to nuclear power, China has always taken a cautious and conservative approach to this capricious alternative and has a relatively small total of 16 nuclear power stations in four different locations, which are mainly along its coastline so that seawater can be used for cooling.
That is less than 3 percent of the world’s total of 443 nuclear power stations. Furthermore, these 16 nuclear power stations provide only 1 percent of the country’s power needs.
With runaway industrial development inevitably came the pollution problems that still blight some of China’s biggest cities, but considerable improvements to air quality have been achieved through a wide range of measures.
According to the Beijing non-profit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, several cities are now being more open about their air quality information, including Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
“Some cities have moved forward,” said Institute Director Ma Jun. “But among all of China’s 113 cities, there are still many not making proper disclosures.”
Beijing is now releasing details of air pollutants comprising tiny particulate matter about 2.5 micrometers in size, which is a much higher standard than the PM10 measure previously used.
The following statistics underscore the seemingly permanent pollution problem in Beijing: The population has now swelled to 17 million; the number of cars on its roads is now 5 million plus, or an additional 1.5 million in the past four years; and 27 million tons of coal were burned by the capital in 2010.
On the other side of the ledger, Beijing now has 35 new monitoring locations and has become the leading city in China in its monitoring of PM2.5 data.
The author is deputy chairman and secretary general of the China Energy Fund Committee. The committee, based in Hong Kong, is a think tank specializing in China-related energy issues.