Developing Countries & Global Climate Change: Electric Power Options in China

With annual releases of over 918 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the People’s Republic of China takes center stage among developing countries in the climate change debate. If China could achieve significant emission reductions from the business-as-usual scenario, particularly within the electric power sector, it could be considered a major advance in addressing climate change. Yet the task is daunting. Decision-makers must have a better understanding of the paths that are possible for electric power investment in China, and the impacts of these investments.

This report is designed to improve that understanding. It describes the context for new power sector investments and presents five alternative policy scenarios through 2015. The report presents concrete policy strategies that could enable China to meet growing electricity demand while continuing economic growth, and reducing sulfur dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.

The principal drivers of the technology choices for the next fifteen years are:

  • Growing awareness that under a business-as-usual path, carbon emissions from thermal plants will increase from 189 million tons in 1995 to 491 million in 2015, and sulfur dioxide emissions from 8.5 million to 21 million due to the heavy reliance on coal-fired power generation.
  • Increasing demand-side energy efficiency by 10 percent from business-as-usual projections could reduce carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions by 19 and 13 percent, respectively, in 2015, while lowering cost to 12 percent below the baseline.
  • Expanding the availability of low-cost natural gas through market reforms could reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide in the power sector by 14 and 35 percent, respectively, and increase cost by only 4 percent relative to the baseline.
  • Accelerating the penetration of cleaner coal technologies could help China reduce sulfur dioxide and particulate emissions, but the associated impact on carbon emissions would be minimal and would increase costs by 6 percent relative to the baseline.

Developing Countries and Global Climate Change: Electric Power Options in China is the fourth of a series commissioned by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions to examine the electric power sector in developing countries, including four other case studies of Korea, India, Brazil, and Argentina.

Executive Summary

China plays a leading role among developing nations in the field of energy and climate policy. The nation now ranks second in the world in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The electric power sector alone could consume as much as one billion tons of coal in 2015, and emit 300 million additional tons of carbon per year. Chinese decisions affecting energy development and emissions mitigation will significantly impact world climate. However, China currently has no formal plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions for their own sake.

China has changed dramatically since the country adopted economic reforms in the late 1970s. The nation’s economy has grown and living standards have improved for over two decades. Although income per capita remains far less than in industrialized countries, its gross domestic product is large enough to affect the global economy. As the country’s economy improves, China’s influence will continue to grow.

China has fueled this robust growth with plentiful supplies of domestic coal. In 1997, the country consumed nearly 1.3 billion tons of coal, (accounting for three-quarters of all commercial energy demand), the highest in the world. Heavy reliance on coal has also caused severe environmental problems, including acid rain in southern China, deadly particulate levels in most cities, and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere. Yet, for two decades energy use has grown only half as fast as the economy. According to official statistics, China has recently been far more successful than the United States in improving energy efficiency.

The power sector currently accounts for more than one-third of China’s annual coal consumption. Coal-fired thermal power plants generate over 75 percent of the nation’s electric power and are among the largest sources of air pollution in China. Continued growth in economic output and living standards implies that electric power demand will grow rapidly in the foreseeable future. How to meet demand at least cost — including local environmental impacts — is a topic of great concern for decision-makers in government and the power industry.

This analysis, which explores China’s electric power options, has three primary goals:

  • Assess the current and future state of the power sector
  • Determine the least-cost combination of technologies to meet projected power demand through 2015 under various scenarios
  • Evaluate policies that could minimize both economic and local environmental costs.

This report begins with a brief review of China’s economic and energy situation, then turns to a detailed account of the nation’s electric power sector. The paper assesses available energy resources and generation technologies, and results of regional electric power demand forecasts through 2015. Results are presented from an analysis using a linear programming model to determine least-cost combinations of power supply technologies that meet projected power demand in 2015. The authors constructed a baseline and five policy cases to test economic and environmental policy measures, including sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide controls, natural gas reform, clean coal investment mechanisms, and increased energy efficiency. The model simulated these scenarios by applying emissions caps, fees, cost reductions, increased fuel availability, improved plant performance, or lower demand estimates that then influence the selection of alternative technologies.

The authors conclude that without a strong environmental policy, China’s electric power mix will become even more coal-dependent, with dramatic increases in emissions of sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, particulates, and carbon dioxide. These emissions would have serious effects on human health, property, and ecosystems.

When policy measures such as fuel availability, technical performance, and full-cost accounting are considered, however, the mix of electric power generation technologies — if not necessarily the fuels — changes significantly. The six scenarios produced the following results:

Baseline case. Power generating capacity and power consumption are expected to nearly triple by 2015 from their values in 1995, requiring some $449 billion in total costs. In the baseline scenario, coal then provides 85 percent of power, and coal use for power generation alone would reach 1 billion tons per year. Emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide from the power sector would reach roughly 20 million tons and one-half billion tons per year, respectively. This scenario assumes that the current environmental policy remains the same, which appears increasingly unlikely.

Sulfur emissions control case. Annual sulfur dioxide emissions from the power sector could be cut to 12.7 million tons by 2015 — a 40 percent reduction from the baseline level — by imposing fees ranging from $360-$960 per ton of sulfur released. Total costs using the sulfur fees would rise by 4 percent. Sulfur control policies would reduce total coal use very little but greatly increase coal washing and flue gas desulfurization. These options cost less in China than alternatives such as nuclear power, hydropower, and advanced coal technologies that reduce sulfur emissions by a comparable amount. Achieving sulfur reductions would also require stricter regulatory enforcement. However, greenhouse gas emissions would change little as a result of stricter sulfur dioxide emissions control.

Carbon control case. This scenario tested the effect of reducing carbon emissions in the power sector by 10 percent, or 50 million tons per year, by 2015. The study simulates these reductions by assuming the construction of new, less carbon-intensive power plants; it does not consider alternatives to lower emissions in existing plants. A 10 percent reduction from the baseline would add an additional $20 billion to total costs by 2015, an increase of about 4 percent. Greater reliance on washed coal, hydropower, nuclear power, and fuel switching to natural gas would be the cheapest ways of reducing emissions. Moderate carbon taxes were also tested in this analysis, but they were not found to be particularly effective in encouraging fuel switching. Only very high taxes — over $75 per ton of carbon — produced significant emissions reductions.

Natural gas case. China currently uses very little natural gas for power generation. For change to occur, the government would need to establish new policies and reforms to increase the availability of natural gas. This scenario simulates the impact of policies to boost gas use in the power sector. Increased availability of low-cost natural gas in the power sector — combined with improved turbine efficiency and a $300 fee per ton of sulfur dioxide emissions — could cut carbon and sulfur dioxide emissions by about 14 and 35 percent, respectively, from the baseline. Natural gas power in this scenario is cheaper than coal-fired power only along the coastal regions (where coal is relatively expensive), but gas would need to be available for $3 per gigajoule. This value is lower than some forecasts, but still higher than gas prices in Europe and North America. The power sector would consume approximately 65 billion cubic meters of gas, accounting for roughly half of China’s total gas demand in 2015.

Clean coal case. A set of scenarios tested the effect of reducing the cost of advanced coal technologies such as integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) or pressurized fluidized bed combustion (PFBC) to help them capture additional market share relative to the baseline. A 40 percent reduction in capital costs for IGCC and PFBC, combined with a mid-level sulfur dioxide emissions fee of $300 per metric ton, would reduce carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions by 9 and 75 percent, respectively. However, approximately $140 billion in additional investment — perhaps through international cooperation on technology transfer and clean development — would be required to subsidize the cost of building these plants.

Efficiency scenario. This scenario tested the effect of reducing electric power use by 10 percent compared to the baseline. Such a reduction would lower carbon and sulfur dioxide emissions by 19 percent and 13 percent, respectively, in 2015, and save $55 billion in investment and fuel costs by postponing the need for 52 gigawatts of coal-fired generation capacity. The analysis did not consider the required policies or costs to lower power demand.

These scenarios revealed two important findings:

1. Policy options exist to reduce carbon emissions substantially in the Chinese power sector at relatively low incremental cost. Emissions reductions of more than 10 percent compared to projected baseline emissions in 2015 can be achieved for less than 5 percent of the total cost of power. Continued improvement in demand-side efficiency is a particularly attractive option to lower carbon emissions.

2. Not all of these reductions will be achieved for reasons that are in China’s own interest, such as reducing sulfur dioxide emissions. Consequently, cooperation with other countries would be required to achieve more dramatic results.