We have all heard about China building a lot of coal plants, but the central role coal plays in their booming economy is amazing. It is a big reason they are the world’s leading manufacturer. China generates almost twice as much electricity as the U.S. China generates more from cheap coal than we do from all sources. This makes them very competitive industrially.
China has some wind power but they are smart enough not to let it get in their way (unlike us). Renewables are driving our power costs through the roof, while China wisely wallows in cheap juice.
By way of scale, not too long ago the U.S. burned about a billion tons of coal a year to make electricity. We generated about 2,000-gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity from coal, roughly half of our total 4,000 GWh. The foolish war on coal has reduced that to around 600 million tons, with further reductions scheduled.
By a strange coincidence, just the time when coal use switched from growing to shrinking, about 12 years ago, America’s use of electric power also stopped growing. It has remained at about 4,000 GWh ever since. Perhaps new energy-intensive industrial developments were all switched from America to China in anticipation of the US juice price increases that followed.
China on the other hand now generates a whopping 7,500 GWh of electricity, or just under twice what America does. That’s right, they produce almost twice as much power as we do.
Even worse, less than 25% of our electricity goes for industrial uses, while a reported 70% of China’s juice use is industrial. That is roughly 1,000 GWh in America versus 5,000 in China, or five times as much industrial use of electricity. Small wonder that China makes most of the products we use (and pay them for).
Moreover, most of China’s vast power generation is from coal. Of their 7,500 GWh just about 5,000 GWh, or fully two-thirds, is powered by cheap coal. By coincidence, they equal their entire industrial use. Or maybe it is not a coincidence; it may be how they remain so competitive in the global economy.
In any case, China is generating more electricity with coal than America is from all sources combined. That is a lot of coal juice. China’s booming economy basically runs on coal.
When it comes to wind power the story is very different. China does have some, in fact, they produce about 400 GWH from wind or around 5% of the total. This may be just a token amount, although it is growing, as are all forms of power generation.
What is most interesting is the reported “capacity factor” for wind power. The capacity factor (CF) is the ratio of how much power is produced in a year to how much could be produced if the generators ran full power all the time. The latter is called nameplate capacity, so CF equals power produced divided by nameplate, expressed as a percentage.
Because wind is intermittent its CF is pretty low, typically 30 to 35% in the U.S. But China reports a wind CF of less than 20%! The reason is an important part of China’s economic success. Unlike us, they wisely do not curtail coal fired power production just to make room for wind power when the wind happens to be blowing.
So China uses wind power if they need it, but not otherwise. We on the other hand actually throttle back our coal and gas-fired power plants, when wind power is there, which is really stupid.
China is generating almost twice as much electricity as America and two-thirds of that juice is coming from coal. The wind is a token generator at 5% and is not allowed to interfere with coal power. Anyone who thinks China is going to phase out coal for wind is simply green dreaming. Coal is central to China’s power.
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