Tag Archives: Beijing

Beijing shuts down its last coal power plant, replaces with natural gas

On Saturday, Beijing officially closed its last big coal-fired power station. The move has been welcomed by environmental groups and furthers the country’s progress towards the emission reduction targets agreed in Paris. 

It's the last of four coal-fired plants to be shut down in Beijing.

It’s the last of four coal-fired plants to be shut down in Beijing.

Back in 2013, Beijing officials promised that the city’s four coal-fired thermal power stations would be closed by this year — and on Saturday, they’ve honored that pledge. The closure of Huaneng Beijing Thermal Power Plant has been hailed in Chinese state media as Beijing is now the first city in the country with a coal-free electricity and heating supply. The city’s mayor, Cai Qi, said that “[r]eplacing coal with clean energy is not only to deal with air pollution but also a requirement of the company’s transformation.”

There’s no ‘coal’ in ‘energy’

The coal-fired generator won’t be scrapped right away but kept as a back-up in case things go south while the replacement power plant, this time burning natural gas, comes into operation. The three other coal plants have already been replaced with natural gas systems.

Huaneng said that by shutting down the generator, they’re cutting coal consumption by 1.6 million tonnes a year. So the closure is a big step towards China’s commitment to reduce coal use by 11.8 million tonnes by the end of 2017 compared to 2012. With this latest contribution, the country is some 70% of the way towards achieving that goal.

There’s an extra benefit for Beijing locals, who have had to put up with some downright terrifying levels of smog and air pollution. While natural gas plants are far from ideal, since they still produce nitrogen oxide which affects air quality, they’re way better than what coal spews out. Greenpeace China’s air pollution spokesman Liansai Dong has applauded the move away from coal, saying that the closure of the plant was just one in a series of steps Beijing has taken to combat air pollution and declaring central Beijing as a “zero coal zone.” But he also warned that there is still much to do in China.

“Beijing alone cannot fully solve its air pollution problem. Surrounding provinces like Hebei should develop more renewable energy and accelerate on phasing out coal power and other coal boilers […] If we want to solve the problem of climate change and air pollution, of which coal and fossil fuels are the cause, we should transfer to renewable energy,” he said.

“China has made some progress and we hope China can keep up this ambitious pace.”

Dong said “quite a lot” of renewable energy was being developed across China, which can boast the most solar and wind capacity installed over the last year. This is in line with China’s National Development and Reform Commission’s pledge to lower coal’s share in the energy market to 58% by 2020, while raising non-fossil to 15% or more and natural gas to 10%.

The next problem, he says, is distribution and “how to integrate clean and green energy into the energy system”.


China will force 67,000 fossil fuel-powered Taxis to switch to electric in order to cut back on pollution

Typical Beijing vista. Credit: Flickr, Kevin Dooley.

Beijing is notorious for being one of the most polluted cities in the world. Smog alerts are a common affair and last winter there were more than a dozen days when life-threatening particle matter measured in the air was 10 times over the limit determined safe by the World Health Organization. To tackle rampant air pollution as a result of China’s accelerated economic growth based on burning gargantuan quantities of fossil fuels, the local government has enacted several desperate measures. One recent mandate will force thousands of taxi drivers to switch to electric vehicles or else they risk having their licenses withdrawn.

Some 67,000 of Beijing’s 71,000 taxis currently run on gasoline, diesel, or liquefied gas. According to a draft work program on air pollution control for Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, all of these vehicles will gradually have to switch to electric.

The timeframe isn’t clear as of yet, but it the whole mandate will reportedly cost taxi companies nine billion yuan (1.3 billion US dollars). In China, the market price for a typical gasoline-powered vehicle is $10,000 but an electric car can cost twice as much. The government is lending a hand, though.

China is the largest EV market in the world with more than 400,000 units sold in 2016, January to November. By 2020, the Chinese government wants to see five million EVs on its streets and is offering subsidies that in some instances can amount to more than 70% of the EV’s market price. For instance, the two-door battery electric Chery eQ costs around 60,000 yuan ($8,655) after subsidies worth 100,000 yuan or so.

The same subsidies, however, have provided a perverse incentive for fraud. There are more than 200 EV manufacturers in China, most of them popping up in the last five years. As you might imagine, the vast majority don’t meet the strict quality guidelines required to make a Chinese EV competitive with the likes of Tesla or General Motors. With this in mind, since January 2017, subsidies at local-government levels have been capped at 50 percent of that offered by the central government.

“In the long term, this is going to help the industry to develop in a healthy way, but in the short term it’ll put pressure on even the big manufacturers,” Ka Leong Lo, Hong Kong-based analyst at Maybank Kim Eng Securities, told China Daily. 

“The reason the ministry is putting a cap on local government subsidies is mainly because it wants to weed out frauds.”

Even with this cap, the subsidies are still generous which shouldn’t be that much of a hassle for Chinese taxi companies. What will be problematic, however, will be the charging stations which Beijing woefully lacks. In 2014, when only 200 electric cabs were added to the Beijing fleet, many drivers complained queues could last for up to six hours. The 172 charging facilities in Beijing as of the end of 2015 had performed over two million charges, according to the Beijing Electric Power Company. Beijing would have to add at least 100 times more to accommodate this new mandate.



China’s smog was so bad you could barely see its skyscrapers from air

As we previously reported, China is experiencing a dramatic smog crisis – again. For someone who’s never been to China, it’s hard to emphasize just how severe this problem is. Recently, aerial photos showed that you can barely see the top of the skyscrapers in Beijing because of the smog.

Image credits: @jimsciutto/Twitter

This photo tweeted by CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto shows just how bad the smog situation has gotten and how much it has enveloped the Chinese capital. The main cause of the smog is, of course, air pollution. Last week, the concentration of PM 2.5 in Beijing was as high as 186 µg/m3, which is considered unhealthy, being almost four times over the “good” air quality.

The problem is exacerbated by weather. It’s been really cold in China recently, which caused the city to burn more coal to heat themselves. Burning coal eliminates particulate matter, which then gets trapped by the cold air like a blanket. The air in Beijing is

The air quality in Beijing is often appalling, but it gets even worse in the winter when the cold air traps the pollution in the city. In mid-January 2013, Beijing’s air quality was measured on top of the city’s US embassy at a PM2.5 density of 755 micrograms per cubic meter, which literally went off the charts. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index stops at 500.

A 2015 study found that smog kills on average 4,000 people every day in China.

“Air pollution is extensive in China, with the highest particulate concentrations observed south of Beijing (e.g. Xingtai / Handan) [..]. Extensive pollution is not surprising since particulate matter can remain airborne for days to weeks and travel thousands of kilometers. The corridor south of Beijing contains the highest pollution concentrations and, as discussed below, many of the largest sources. During this study, the southern coastal area experienced somewhat better air quality, possibly linked to greater rainfall,” the study wrote at the time.

A woman wearing a mask walk through a street covered by dense smog in Harbin, northern China, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Visibility shrank to less than half a football field and small-particle pollution soared to a record 40 times higher than an international safety standard in one northern Chinese city as the region entered its high-smog season. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Beijing wages war on smog: plans to reach clean air by 2030

The Chinese capital is notoriously polluted and frequently plagued by smog, a noxious gas mixture made of  nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, ozone, smoke or particulates. While 2015 saw cleaner air in Beijing than the year before, the current state of affairs lack in resolution, as echoed by concerned Beijing residents. With a lot of planning, hard work and a bit of luck, this situation might change for the far better as the Beijing Environmental Monitoring Center announced it plans to cut airborne pollution by more than 200% by 2030.

A woman wearing a mask walk through a street covered by dense smog in Harbin, northern China, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Visibility shrank to less than half a football field and small-particle pollution soared to a record 40 times higher than an international safety standard in one northern Chinese city as the region entered its high-smog season. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

A woman wearing a mask walk through a street covered by dense smog in Harbin, northern China, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Visibility shrank to less than half a football field and small-particle pollution soared to a record 40 times higher than an international safety standard in one northern Chinese city as the region entered its high-smog season. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Though there are many indicators that reflect air quality, the main one specialists use as a proxy for overall quality is the PM2.5 level. This is the concentration of microscopic particles with a diameter less than 2.5 microns that can penetrate the lungs and harm health. In 2015, PM2.5 fell to  80.6 micrograms per cubic meter: a 6.2% year-to-year reduction, or a bit better than the municipality’s intended goal of 5%. Beijing residents aren’t that impressed, though, and most say don’t notice the difference.

“I didn’t feel the clear improvement in air quality in the winter, and many of my friends and colleagues have coughed and experienced sore throats due to the bad air recently,” said Chen Yang, 29, who works in a printing house in Beijing.

The last big smog events in November and December when Beijing issued a smog red alert — the highest in a  four-tier pollution alert system — may have had something do with it. Before smog blanketed the capital at the end of the year, Beijing had managed to cut the PM2.5 daily average readings by 20 percent year-on-year, said Zhang Dawei, head of the Beijing Environmental Monitoring Center.

To fight smog last year, Beijing cut 12 million metric tons of coal consumption and switched over 300,000 households in Dongcheng and Xicheng districts from coal-fired boilers to electrical heating. Now, the State Council (China’s Cabinet) wants to lower  PM2.5 readings to 60 by 2017, which is the the national safety standard. By 2030, the state hopes to lower PM2.5 to 35.

London - December 1952 during the Great Smog. Photo: History.com

London – December 1952 during the Great Smog. Photo: History.com

Frankly PM2.5 of 35 sounds extremely unrealistic at this point, but not impossible. After all we have a precedent.

One of the most smog plagued cities in history used to be London. In December 1952, a streak lasting days smothered the British capital with a  toxic fog. The Great Smog as it remained in history killed an estimated 4,000 Londoners, but even before the Great Smog London used to have frequent smog events, albeit much less severe. Following a government investigation, however, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act of 1956, which restricted the burning of coal in urban areas and authorized local councils to set up smoke-free zones. Homeowners received grants to convert from coal to alternative heating systems. The UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), senior scientific advisor for air quality Emily Connolly points out that the city’s average PM2.5 level is now 20. “And for us that’s serious,” she says. Someone from Beijing might laugh in her face though, having lived through days of PM2.5 of 600 micrograms per cubic metre in January, 2013.

In all events, London servers as an example from Beijing, though the scale the Chinese authorities need to tackle seems grander and, perhaps, more challenging than what the British capital had to face in the ’50s and ’60s.

State of emergency in Beijing after city issues smog Red Alert for the first time

Talks are in full force in Paris at the COP21 climate change conference, but meanwhile in China, Beijing is going through one of its hardest smog events ever. The mayor of Beijing announced on Monday  its first red alert for pollution, showing that Chinese smog is still a huge problem.

Beijing smoga

Image: Pixabay

Beijing uses a  four-tier pollution alert system, with red being the highest. Just so you can get an idea of the state of affairs here in Beijing at the moment, last week the mayor issued an orange alert for smog when life threatening particle matter measured in the air was 10 times over the limit determined safe by the World Health Organization. Now, the government  shut down schools, stopped outdoor construction, and implemented a restrictive car usage law that only allows odd-numbered licence plates to drive in a single day. Even-number licence plates drive the next day.

China is the biggest polluter in the world, and Beijing is one of the dirtiest places on Earth in terms of pollution, surpassed only by New Delhi in India. The haze is so strong that you can barely see a couple tens of feet in front of you. Beijing residents rarely go out without a mask, especially during the winter. Just a regular day of living in a coal mine Beijing.

The ‘red alert’ announcement, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that things are much worse than they have been. Previously, equally bad or even worse smog events plagued Beijing. “The issuing of a ‘red’ pollution alert means, first and foremost, that the Beijing authorities are taking air quality, and related health issues, very seriously,” Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer, the representative of the World Health Organization in China.

So, effectively, we’re seeing more acceptance at an official level that smog is a serious problem to its citizens. Beijing is stepping-up its game, and it’s about time too. New research on the health impacts of outdoor air pollution suggests that smog is responsible for more than 3 million premature deaths around the world each year and that this number could double by 2050. China suffers the most, accounting for more than 40% of air pollution-related deaths worldwide – more than 1.3m each year.

During the 2008 summer Olympics, the thousands of westerners who flocked to Beijing were ‘disappointed’ to see that there was no smog. The government cleaned the air in advance by suspending or restricting the operations of 12,255 coal-burning boilers, factories and cement-mixing stations scattered among seven provinces. That sounds impractical now, but it does show that the problem can be solved. After all, smog used to be a day to day reality in the early days of industrialized Europe. Remember London’s great smog?

What China  hopes to achieve in the near future is move most of its heavy industries like steel mills in less populated areas of the country, coupled with a serious shift to renewable energy. Ten years from now, Beijing will hopefully have clean air all year long — not just during military parades.

Smog in Beijing reduces life expectancy by 15 years

Image via The Guardian.

The effects of urban pollution in China are started to get out of hand, and by now, it’s pretty safe to say that they are dealing with a major pollution crisis – the smog in Beijing particularly is so severe you can easily see it from outer space. Now, a new study has concluded that the smog alone is so damaging that it reduces the average life expectancy in Beijing by about 15 years.

In most Chinese cities, concentrations of PM2.5 (particulate matter with aerodynamic diameter over 2.5 micrometers) are still far above the level recommended by the World Health Organization’s guidelines on air quality. For example, in Beijing, the level is over 4 times that recommended.

Beijing is surrounded by a heavily industrialized area which relies mostly on coal, which is a very dangerous pollutant. Aside for the ever increasing population and the higher density of cars, the general geography and wind patterns don’t help either, and you end up with a complex ambient pollutant mixture with the potential for combined toxic effects from many constituents.

Yuming Guo and his team obtained meteorological data on daily mean temperature, relative humidity, and air pressure from the China meteorological system’s data sharing service and examined the correlation between the so-called years of life lost (YLL).

Years of life lost is more informative for quantifying premature deaths than mortality risk, which weighs all deaths equally. Increased YLL are associated with increased air pollution.

For each monitoring site, they calculated 24 h mean concentrations from non-missing data, and correlated them with estimated YLL, and found that air pollution, and most noticeably smog causes a reduction of life expectancy by a staggering 15 years. People aged up to 65 years were more affected by air pollutants than those older than 65 years in terms of years of life lost, probably because their mortality rate was higher. The study suggests drastic needs for a reduction in the pollution emissions, and it highlights just how much damage air pollution does in Beijing.

Read the full study here.

The largest stone carving lies on the descent from the raised platform of the Outer Court, heading north towards the Inner Court, behind the Hall of Preserved Harmony.

How to build Beijng’s Forbidden City with 100-tonne stone blocks tens of miles away


(c) Wiki Commons

This “How to” may not be that relevant in modern times, but in the XIV and XV century, I could think of a few civilizations that would have loved to learn how Chinese engineers moved huge volumes of rock from quarries tens of miles away. Such blocks of stone, weighing at least 100 tonnes, were used to build the splendid Forbidden City, which resides in the traditional Beijing center. There were no high power machines during that time, and using brute force alone meant that construction would take forever. Instead, historical documents and a recent computation made by scientists at the University of Science and Technology Beijing, show that raw material for the palace was brought  on wooden sledges along ice roads. Basically, the Chinese engineers took advantage of natural lubrication conditions.

One of the biggest attractions at the Forbidden Palace is the “Large Stone Carving” that graces the stairway to the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Impressive and beautiful figurines and decorations are littered throughout the stone, however the huge monolith is one single block, and it weighs no less then 272 metric tonnes. How on earth did they move this kind of material, considering it came from tens and tens of miles away? Maybe even farther.

The wheel was invented in China well before that, since the 4th century BC actually. Even in the late 1500s, however, Chinese wheeled vehicles could not carry loads exceeding around 86 tonnes, says Thomas Stone, a fluid mechanicist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and a member of the team that performed the study. For great loads,  the use of wooden sledges was required.

Imagine whole tree trunks the size say of a telegraph pole lined up one after the other. The stone, pulled by many men and burden animals, would slide along these tree trunks. In practice, however, this theory is met with a lot of challenges. This would only work on smooth, hard surface to prevent the rollers from becoming mired.  So, again, how did they do it?

Building a palace one (big) stone at a time

Photo by Jakub Hałun.

Luckily, the Chinese kept a lot of documents for their projects be them agriculture, arts or, of course, construction. The researchers found a 500-year-old Chinese record claiming that in 1557,  112-metric-tonne stone was transported over 28 days to the Forbidden City from a quarry by ice sledge. This quarry was located 70 kilometers away from Beijing.

The team of scientists decided to test this historical documentation and they computed the friction, power and delivery time for the same amount of load under various scenarios. Dragging a 112-tonne sledge over bare ground would require more than 1,500 men, however the   same sled across bare ice or across wet, wooden rails would require 330 men to pull. Here’s the interesting part, though: when a thin film of water is poured on top of the ice during the winter when most transports would take place,  fewer than 50 men would be needed to tow the load. Lubricated in this fashion, the stones would have slid along at a stately 0.18 miles (0.29 kilometers) an hour, the analysis finds.\

“I’m not surprised. If you get enough people, enough rope, and enough time, you can move just about anything,” says archaeologist Charles Faulkner of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who was not on the study team. “And they had a lot of time. And a lot of people.”

And certainly, we couldn’t have expected anything less from the people who built the Great Wall of China. Findings and results were reported in a paper published in the journal  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .