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.


Steve Hanley

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.