Energy transformation on a roll

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According to the National Statistics Bureau, China's gross energy consumption in 2009 mounted to 3.1 billion tons of standard coal, confirming China's image as a real powerhouse of global energy consumption.

Although its per capita consumption is still low - the equivalent of 2.33 tons of standard coal in 2009 as compared to 10.37 tons in the United States, unfortunately China's energy composition is dominated by coal, whose utilization is currently inefficient. Then there are its other drawbacks - the scars and stresses sustained by environments during mining and burning.

Hence, changing the energy structure and getting cleaner energy on stream appear to be the priorities for Chinese sustainable development. Recently, China Today conducted an exclusive interview with Zhou Dadi, deputy director of the National Energy Expert Consulting Committee and researcher with the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, inviting him to give us an introduction to China's energy optimization plans.

High Growth, High Consumption

China is now up to advanced world levels of gross energy consumption, and, to sustain the rapid growth of its economy, will stay that way for now, explains Zhou Dadi. These conditions put it on a continuous quest for more energy resources. Such strong demand is to be expected; as a developing country, China still has many miles to cover on the industrialization journey.

On the whole, however, China consumes too much energy -- though its per capita consumption is essentially lower than nearly all the developed countries, and only one fourth or fifth that of the U.S. Strategies to whip up its economic growth and have hinged too much on industrial investment, causing a high unit GDP energy consumption. Therefore, the Chinese government has been transforming its growth mode to achieve balanced development.

China has been self-suporting on energy consumption for a long time, but is heavily dependent on coal mining and short of petroleum reserves. Naturally, the extent to which the coal option is selected has been due to the prevalence and convenience of the resource. Although abundant reserves of natural gas have been proved, the total proportion is still insignificant. In addition, viewed from the angle of global energy trading, China the consumption powerhouse is not the biggest buyer in the world energy market. Annual petroleum purchases average 200 million tons compared to the United States' 600 million tons. Japan keeps its petroleum purchases to just over 200 million tons, but imports a small sea of liquefied natural gas from other countries. Europe is well out front as the leading importer of petroleum and natural gas. From the quantum of energy trading, domination of the world's energy market is still well out of China's reach.

China, limited by its existing energy reserves, is left with a situation where coal dominates; nearly 70 percent of all energy utilization is accounted for by the black stuff. Meanwhile petroleum feeds 18 percent and natural gas only 3.9 percent. The remaining 7.8 percent is provided by nuclear, hydroelectric and wind power. All told, this configuration is glaringly different from the world's average energy consumption structure.

China has made great efforts in energy restructuring, intensifying the development and utilization of non-coal energy, especially relatively clean energy such as hydroelectric power, nuclear power and natural gas. Zhou notes that attempts to restructure energy consumption couldn't be expected to succeed on the first try; once formed, it is harder to reform. We have built up an annual consumption pattern of over 3 billion tons of coal. Finding new energy to supplant it outright is no piece of cake. Coal has been used in China for over 100 years. Hardly can any single energy source can be expected to supersede this fossil fuel soon, not even petroleum, which has been introduced and used as an important energy source for decades. Any energy shift implicates untold layers of society and infrastructure; it will take time.

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