This week’s Bloomberg Businessweek had an article titled On China’s Electricity Grid, East Needs West, that explained the mega cities of China’s east coast are consuming resources from the coal rich areas in the country’s far western provinces resulting in lengthy transmission lines and growing instability among the minority ethnic groups there.
One of the biggest problems with having cities so far removed from the natural resources that power those cities is transmission. In China, freight railroads and river barges are already overloaded and overcrowded. This led party leaders to push for development of interior regions of the country and build high voltage transmission networks called the West-East Electricity Transfer Project. By 2020 the total capacity of this project is projected to equal 60 Hoover Dams.
The second problem with this large-scale coal driven buildup is the lack of water resources available to produce steam in these plants. Many of these planned coal plants are located in water scarce regions including Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia and has led to tensions with ethic Mongolians and Uighurs who depend on farming and herding for their livelihood. By tapping already stressed aquifers and wetlands, there could be a larger problem looming.
Coal currently generates 80% of China’s electricity and the country is responsible for half of the annual consumption of coal worldwide. Following the traditional model of building coal plants located far away from the end users is simply not the answer. While high-voltage transmission lines are more efficient that shipping coal by rail or barge, much of the electricity produced is still lost in transmission.
A better idea would be harness China’s production capacity of solar PV cells and adopt a domestic policy of distributed generation. DG is sited near the end user of the electricity and therefore less vulnerable to losses during transmission. PV cells can be placed vertically up the sides of the country’s many skyscrapers eliminating the need to clear land for ground-based systems. Smart building design is another idea that could drastically reduce demand for electricity and save the country from building expensive, inefficient, centralized power plants.
China’s massive infrastructure build out has been nothing short of extraordinary. Now it has the opportunity to leap ahead of other developing nations by committing resources towards building the next generation cities. Distributed generation, microgrids, and smart integrative building design can all help to make this idea a reality.