Editor’s note: Choke Point China is a series of vivid and detailed dispatches by Circle of Blue—a US-based non-profit—and the Woodrow Wilson Center's China Environment Forum which examine the connections between water scarcity and energy demand in the world’s largest country. In this edited excerpt from the series, Keith Schneider considers an ambitious pipeline project in northern China. Read the whole, unedited series here.
Last November, as government leaders considered energy goals for China’s upcoming 12th Five-Year Plan – which was adopted in March – 60-year-old geographer Huo Youguang took the podium at an academic meeting about water scarcity and coal production in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, north-west China, one of the driest inhabited areas on the planet.
Over the next half-hour or so, Huo described a first-of-its-kind transcontinental pipeline that he believed could be a breakthrough in developing more fossil energy from Xinjiang and China’s other northern coal-rich regions, while conserving scarce freshwater reserves.
His proposal: drop a pipe into the Bohai Sea in China’s east, draw more than 340,000 cubic metres of seawater a day into a complex of coastal desalination plants, and then pump this water 1,400 metres uphill for more than 600 kilometres to Xilinhot, where it will be used for coal mining operations.
By the time Huo finished his presentation, he’d ignited a national engineering debate surrounding the cost, practicality and feasibility of using vast amounts of purified seawater to produce more coal for China’s modernisation, while simultaneously easing northern China’s water shortage. By suggesting a giant project that some authorities considered daffy, Huo also confirmed just how vulnerable China’s powerful engine of growth is to deepening water scarcity, particularly in the energy-rich northern and western provinces, now the primary focus of China’s development and modernisation.
Xilinhot, an Inner Mongolian city of 177,000, lies atop a mammoth and, so far, untouchable coal reserve. Chinese authorities estimate Xilinhot’s proven and unproven coal reserves to contain 1.4 trillion tonnes. At China’s current rate of coal consumption—more than 3 billion tonnes annually—the Xilinhot reserves alone could power the country for the next 425 years.
If the first US$6 billion stretch of the Bohai Pipeline were to perform as Huo anticipates, it could be expanded and sent an additional 2,800 kilometres from Xilinhot—crossing the rest of Inner Mongolia and through northern Gansu Province -- all the way to the western province of Xinjiang, where Chinese geologists say even larger coal reserves exist. Leaders are pressing the region to double current coal production capacity to 200 million tonnes of coal per year by 2015.
As China rushes deeper into the second decade of the 21st century, the nation’s energy production and consumption trend is a steep, increasing line. It is that vector— fast-rising energy demand confronting water scarcity—that is proving so difficult to resolve.
Huo Youguang, a professor in the Center for Environment and Modern Agriculture Engineering at Xi’an Jiaotong University in Shanxi province, is convinced a transcontinental pipeline will help.
Back in December, Huo said that the rapid transformation of the growing and modern desert cities of Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Xinjiang, Ningxia and Shanxi provinces are endangered by their diminishing freshwater reserves.
These regions contain the nation’s largest proven and unproven coal reserves. But developing coal reserves, along with the power and processing infrastructure to consume coal, uses tens of billions of gallons of water each year—water that isn’t available in a region that receives just a few inches of rain annually and where climate change is reducing snow pack.
“We need water, and the sea can provide it,” Huo said, noting that he had first proposed an across-the-north route for a pipeline from the Bohai Sea back in 1997.
In 2002, a separate academic team from Peking University proposed a similar route, but further to the north. However, both pipelines—which would transport water more than 3,400 kilometers (2,100 miles) to Xinjiang—are seen by a number of Chinese engineers as impractical.
And even if the pipeline were built, say critics, would it really be capable of slaking the big thirst of northern China’s coal sector?
From 2004 to 2009, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, Inner Mongolia lost 46.8 million cubic metres from its total freshwater reserve, or a drop of 15%. During the same period, Xinjiang lost 95.5 million cubic metres.
China’s goal is to meet energy demands, save water and use the one fossil fuel that it has in abundance. The nation is pursuing multiple paths for assuring its coal supply—generally from existing mines—with the water it has. But new northern coal reserves can’t be developed without more water, say coal industry executives and academic experts.
In the mountains and deserts of Inner Mongolia, the deep mines of Ningxia and Shanxi provinces, the buckled roads of Shanxi, and the jammed railway lines of Hebei, China is pursuing its coal-based economic strategy with a fervour unmatched by any other nation.
More water needed
Still, underlying northern China’s expanding coal sector is a growing need for more water in a region where access to freshwater is getting steadily more difficult.
By 2020, according to government projections, total national water use will rise to 670 billion cubic metres annually—up from 599 billion cubic metres in 2010—and the coal sector’s share of national water use will rise to 27% from 22% in 2010.
Much of the increase is due to the growing need for more coal—and more power plants to burn it.
The US Energy Information Administration estimates that coal use in China’s energy sector will almost triple from 2007 to 2035.
Next to agriculture, the production and consumption of coal is the largest industrial user of fresh water. Last year, the coal sector used 132 billion cubic metres, or more than a fifth of the 599 billion cubic metres of water that China used nationally, according to the Ministry of Water Resources. All that water was devoted to mining and processing coal, cooling power plants, powering cement and steel plants, and turning an estimated 470 million tonnes of coal into fuels, chemicals, synthetic gas and other products.
China’s big 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power plants use upwards of 3,800 cubic metres of water per hour for operations and cooling. This equates to 76,000 cubic metres a day, or 26 million cubic metres a year.
China’s electrical generating capacity from coal was 750 gigawatts in 2010, and is heading toward 1,250 gigawatts in 2020, according to government projections. In other words, even with the new fleet of efficient plants, China’s coal-fired power plants alone will use roughly 34 billion cubic metres of water annually by 2020.
The growing coal-conversion sector will also increase water use. Depending on the product—diesel fuel, chemicals, natural gas—for every tonne of coal converted, three to 15 tonnes of water is used. China’s coal conversion program is currently consuming more than 5 billion cubic metres of water annually, according to engineers, and will continue to expand.
Lastly, the increasing level of technology and sophistication of China’s power plants are requiring a higher quality fuel. More coal than ever before, as a result, is being washed with water to remove impurities.
Wu Ying—the senior engineer at Beijing Huayu Engineering Company, which supplies the industry with technical advice—said that 55% of all coal is now washed, up from 30% a decade ago. Washing coal takes 0.11 to 0.15 cubic metres of water per tonne of coal, or 178 million to 238 million cubic metres of water annually.
Wu and other authorities say China is intent on providing energy with its own domestic supplies, which is why China is counting on ever-increasing coal production from the dry north.
Chinese officials bolstered that point when they announced that the provincial government of Inner Mongolia is following the trend already set by Shanxi province, the country’s second-largest coal producer. Inner Mongolia will, over the next three years, shift the scale of mining operations from many smaller mines to a small number of large mines. Inner Mongolia counts 353 mines currently. That number could be reduced to 20 large-scale coal mining companies by 2013.
Experts said the restructuring would benefit the regional coal industry because the larger companies will be more efficient in using financial and water resources. Additionally, the Inner Mongolia government said that a number of the new and larger coal companies will have the capacity to produce more than 100 million tonnes annually, which makes access to water essential to the government’s plan.
In Xi’an, geographer Huo Youguang considered these new coal production trends in laying out the case for the Bohai Pipeline, which he argues is essential to China’s modernisation. Huo said he is working with a desalination company and the Xilinhot government on a feasibility study for just the first 600-kilometre section.
“The project is technically feasible and necessary,” Huo said. “I’ve thought about China’s water problems for a long time; building this pipeline solves that problem for this century.”
Keith Schneider manages the Circle of Blue news desk. He was a New York Times national correspondent for over a decade, where he continues to report as a special writer on energy, real estate, business and technology.
Homepage image from Dv Yang shows a power plant in Xinjiang.