China, Coal, And Electric Automobiles


China is suffering from intractable issues with poisonous smog, particularly in larger cities like Beijing and Tianjin. China’s explosion as a manufacturing powerhouse over the past three decades has come courtesy of a massive investment in coal fired electrical plants. When China made the decision to transition from a managed economy to a market economy, it needed prodigious amounts of cheap electrical energy. At the time, coal was the answer.


But the law of unintended consequences has come back to bite China….hard. The air over most of its cities is actually dangerous to breathe. Today, the number one consideration for Chinese families when deciding where to live is not a short commute, a stunning view, or great schools. It is finding a place that where you can breathe clean air.

For the past five years, China has been aggressively promoting electric cars, either plug-ins or battery electrics. It has lavished tax incentives and rebates on people who buy “new energy” cars, which it defines as hybrids, plug-ins, electrics and fuel cell cars. It wants to have 5 million new energy cars on the road by 2020. The market for such cars quadrupled last year and is expected to double every year for the foreseeable future.

But a new study by prestigious Tsinghua University, (China’s president is an alumnus) challenges the government’s electric vehicle strategy. Right now, 90% of the electricity in Beijing is made from burning coal. All electric cars do is transfer some emissions from the tailpipes of conventional cars to the countryside, where the electric generating plants are located.

As reported by Reuters, the study claims electric vehicles produce two to five times as much particulate matter and chemicals that contribute to smog than cars with internal combustion engines do. Hybrid vehicles aren’t much better, the study says. “International experience shows that cleaning up the air doesn’t need to rely on electric vehicles,” says Los Angeles-based An Feng, director of the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation. “Clean up the power plants.”

The conclusion of the Tsinghua University study is that the government should clean up the power grid first. Until that objective is accomplished, adding more electric cars will only make matters worse. Once China has an abundance of clean, renewable power, then it will be time to increase the number of electric cars on the road. The report says it will take China at least a decade to get its energy house in order.

China, to its credit, has not been sitting idly by while the poisons in the skies above increase. It is pursuing a massive effort to install solar energy sytems. Some of them in the Gobi Desert are so large they can be seen with the naked eye from the International Space Station. It is shutting down coal fired generating plants as fast as possible as the renewable energy comes online.

China is truly a world leader in the effort to transition to  a carbon neutral environment. It plans to cut carbon emissions by 69% by 2020 — one of the most aggressive goals of all the world’s nations. But such changes take time. Environmental science professor Huo Hong of Tsinghua university says the goals of clean power and pollution free cars will be “really difficult to achieve.”

Qin Lihong, president of startup electric automaker NextEV, said cleaning up the electrical grid is the quickest route to clear skies. “It’s much easier for society to make hundreds of power plants better than change the hundreds of millions of cars in thousands of cities,” he said.

China’s problems are the world’s problems. As China’s economic growth has slowed, that has had a ripple effect on the world economy as well. That’s why the US stock markets is down about 1,500 points since the start of the year. From one perspective, all those well stocked shelves at Walmart, all those millions of shipping containers shuttling across the world’s oceans , and all those electronic devices assembled by Foxconn have been made possible by cheap electricity made from coal in China.

Clean energy is a world problem. China is shouldering its burden. It is time for other nations to do the same. That means the paid political puppets who vote to gut the Clean Air Act and the Clean Power Plan need to be replaced as soon as possible. Something to keep in mind when election day rolls around later this year. The world can’t have any patience with people who would put their own personal greed ahead of society’s needs.


About the Author

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it’s cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key, Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.

  • James Rowland

    China is also ripping it up building new nuclear plants – which is actually a much better idea than most people credit, even with old technology.

    They’re also aiming to lead the world with advanced reactor development – and of course to capture all relevant IP for themselves.

    • Syl

      Totally agree. Latest nuclear plant designs are much better and safer than people know. Biggest issue is public ignorance of the many design improvements over the last 30+ years. Renewable energy concepts are great, but plans should include nuclear to meet large scale requirements. Coal plants should be shut down everywhere.

  • bioburner

    Putting pollution controls on power plants doesn’t sound all that expensive. Seems like its the fastest way to clean up the air in the big cities.

    • Steve Hanley

      If you listen to the Repugnicrats in Congress, you would think it is contrary to the Constitution and Hammurabi’s Code!

      • Frank

        I think you should remind republicans of their core values, when they have strayed, or failed to keep up with current events. Republicans are supposed to be about what is “good for business” and people earning a living and all that, right? So wind and solar have become by far the lowest cost option. That’s good for business. Combustion of fossil fuels causes health problems, which cause people to miss work, which is not good for business. If the glaciers over greenland melt, we are going to loose huge parts of Florida, which will also be bad for business. Wind power prices have dropped 66% in the last 6 years, and solar more than 80%. That completely changed what is good for business, even with short term thinking. Time to wake up to the new reality.

        • Steve Hanley

          Stop making sense, Frank!

  • Peter Egan

    I suspect it is also closing small old coal fired plants in favour of larger scale plants with exhaust scrubbers to remove non-gaseous emissions. Coal fired plants in the West were given scrubbers decades ago.

    We have likely seen peak coal in China with the big drop-off in the cost of coal and iron ore. As China is a major steel producer and exporter, I assume we have seen peak coal in the world.

    China is still investing heavily in its energy sector. We should see radical change in their energy mix over the next 10 years.

    It would not surprise me if we see the auto industry looking like the smart phone industry in a decade. Silicon Valley companies develop the software, Japanese and South Korean companies produce high-tech parts and the vehicles get assembled in China from local and imported parts. However, vehicle bodies are bulky and this favours local assembly, or assembly where you can just load train after train of vehicles and deliver across a continent.

    • Steve Hanley

      Hmmm…..are you Peter Egan, or are you THE Peter Egan? Your comments are appreciated in any event.

      The emissions impact of delivering cars to customers is something few people are talking about, but it’s a factor that should be discussed.

      • Peter Egan

        I’m certainly not the actor Peter Egan. Until more recent times, I have mainly commentated on transport issues in my home state of NSW Australia.

        • Steve Hanley

          Was thinking more of Peter Egan the automotive writer for Road & Track. He was and is my inspiration.

          I have a son and family in Sydney and will be visiting them next January. Perhaps we might hoist a pint of Toohey’s Old some day!

          • Peter Egan

            He must be a distant relative. Always up for a beer. Automotive writer – would have loved that job. Alas I only learnt to two finger type when email became a business tool. In the days when I regularly read auto mags, I was a construction engineer – roads, water pipes, building frames. Building stuff leads to thinking about what the stuff is for.

  • RobSez

    I would like to see more studies on this. I don’t think we have definitive evidence pointing to BEVs making smog worse. I saw a report a couple of years ago by a group or electrical engineers and more recently by The Union Of Concerned Scientists concluding BEVs pollute less. Basically, they both say BEVs ultimately produce as much pollution as a 90+ mpg ICE vehicle. So, which is better for the environment, a 30 mpg ICE or a 90 mpg ICE? We know there is pollution from refining each gallon of gasoline before any is burned. Is that being factored into China’s numbers? I feel we need more information .

    • Steve Hanley

      The Tsinghua University study was pretty clear. But it was only looking at the issue in China’s major cities like Beijing, where 90% of the electricity comes from burning coal. There are very few places in the US where that is true – West By God Virginia and Mitch McConnell’s hometown.

      Keep in mind this study is specific only to China and that China is pushing as hard as it can to stop its reliance on coal. But it is still going to take a decade to make the switchover complete.

  • Nikola Tasev

    I can’t find any info on the “90% of the electricity in Beijing is made from burning coal” part. It feels weird, because 2014 coal was used to generate 78% of China’s electricity and since then closed 3 coal plants in Beijing and plan on closing the last remaining one this year. So the coal share in Beijing should go down, not up.
    I read the reuters article, it gives no link or even year of the studies. Do you have any additional details on the topic?

    • Steve Hanley

      No, I don’t. I took that information directly from the source article. I have no second source for that statistic.

      You skepticism seems appropriate, yet Beijing has suffered from crippling smog on many days this past year. I regret I am not better informed about conditions in China.

  • smartacus

    let them eat coal 🙂