Note: We are sorry for not having updated the website earlier. We have been with very bad internet connection (or no connection at all) since we left China.

Note 2: The videos of the previous posts (North Vietnam, and YunNan) have been uploaded. Finally!!

On Monday 23rd December, we were kindly invited by Shu Chen, Vice Director of the Southwest University and Technology; and Mengjun Chen, Vice-Chair. Both are also professors in the field of solid waste treatment and resource recycling. Professor Chen gave us a quick introduction on the energy situation in China although we then focused on waste since it is their field of expertise. Even if we had some communication barriers we were able to talk numbers, which is an international language.

Brief energy outlook of China. China is the most populous country in the world, the largest emitter of Green House Gases (GHG) and the greatest energy consumer. For that reason, China is very influential in the world energy market. However, China’s energy consumption and GHG emissions are still far behind some of the developed countries, per capita. Furthermore, it is estimated that about one third of the Chinese emissions are due to manufacturing exported goods. Primary energy use (petrol, gas, coal) grew by 40% and electricity use by 70% between 2004 and 2009. Energy import was also three times bigger in 2009 compared to 2004 (source: IEA). China is building about two power stations every week.

China is the largest producer and consumer of coal: it accounts for half of the world’s coal consumption! 60% of that coal is imported. China is also a great consumer of oil, and stands as the second largest consumer behind the USA. Production of the Chinese largest oil field have now peaked, therefore the country is focusing on the untapped reserves of in the western provinces and offshore fields. China is now importing half of its need in petrol, mostly from East Africa. There is also a pipeline in construction to link Middle-East, through Pakistan. Chinese electricity is mostly generated from coal (70% from coal). However, Chinese government has made the expansion of natural gas-fired and renewable power plants a priority. Transmission was also a priority as part of the Township Electrification Programme. China is now electrified at a rate close to 100%.

The Three Gorges Dam hydroelectricity plant is the most famous infrastructure in China; it is the great dam in terms of capacity but not in terms of production. The Itaipu dam, at the border of Brazil and Paraguay, has a greater yearly production due to the strong debit of the Parana River. China is the world’s largest producer of wind turbine and solar photovoltaic panels. Currently, China has 15 nuclear power units, which account for 1.9% of the country’s total electricity output. This share is meant to increase since China has 32 reactors under construction and plan on a 400 GW capacity by 2050.

Air pollution. It is a great problem and big health threat in China. Lung cancer and cardiovascular disease are increasing because of factory, vehicle (which number has exploded recently) and tobacco smoking. Particulate matter (PM 2,5 and PM 10) are causing smog which often makes the headlines, especially in Beijing. Smog from mainland China has already reached California in the past. During some of the record smog daily PM level were 50 times higher than the recommendation by the World Health Organization. It is to be noted that sulphur dioxide emissions are now decreasing due to adaptation of sulphur reducing technology by power plant. Therefore, there are now less acid rains.

E-waste. In recent years, the amount of electronic wastes (e-waste) has increased a lot, creating important quantities of disposable products that end up in developing countries, where poor people without safety gear cat and bum out valuable materials, spilling contaminants into their water, air, and lungs. In the world, Waste of Electrical and Electronical Equipment (WEEE) represents 3-5% of the total waste, and most of it goes to China. About 60% of the e-waste is processed in informal centres by unskilled and badly equipped manual labour. A new US legislation banning the importation and requiring proper disposal of indigenous waste has recently been introduced. This is a very good start since China is China was used to receive pollution from both ends of the supply chain; during the production and recycling processes. However, this law has been criticized as being insufficient and susceptible to fraud. Research is currently done in China on how to recycle the e-waste. According to some US studies, only the issue of recycling the used batteries is worth 7 billion dollars. A new technology is starting to be used: they reuse industrial waste to produce heat, then steam. The steam is used to unwield the electric and electronic equipment to be recycled. The advantage is that it reuses waste heat, the temperature is quite low, around 250ÂșC and so should not destroy the boards (organic proteins), and also it’s a closed system, so in case of release, it is easily retreated.

Photovoltaic waste. It is more and more common to use a Life Cycle Analysis when designing a product. It shows the environmental impact and energy consumption of the product over its entire life, from cradle to grave. An interesting figure to look at, when it comes to photovoltaic and sustainability is the energy payback of the modules. Nowadays, PV modules have an energy payback between 3 and 4 years. It means that during these first years, a PV module has needed more energy to be produced, than it is producing. This figure is quite high although it is meant to decrease in the future. In Europe, photovoltaic modules are considered as E-waste, under the Waste of Electrical and Electronical Equipment (WEEE) directive. Solar modules contain dangerous and toxic materials such as cadmium, selenium, sulphur hexafluoride (a GHG gas), etc! Because the PV modules have a lifetime of 20-30 years, no PV modules have yet to be recycled. Therefore, there are no collecting and recycling infrastructures anywhere in the world. The research on recycling of solar panel is usually called the “next decade’s problem”.

About rare-earth elements. China is currently producing 90% of the rare earth elements. These are needed for many applications, such as batteries, magnets (including wind turbine’s magnet), fluorescent lamps, lasers! Rare earth elements are a finite resource. Rare earth elements were on the headlines recently because China decided to lower its export, officially for protecting the environment. Mining, refining and recycling of rare earth have serious environmental consequences. The EU, USA and Japan confronted China over these restrictions but China continued to lower its export quota. The unofficial reason for China to “Slashing their exports of rare-earth metals…is all about moving Chinese manufacturers up the supply chain, so they can sell valuable finished goods to the world rather than lowly raw materials.” (source, the Economist). E-wastes contain a lot of rare earth element and technologies are now being developed to recover them. The recycling of the rare-earth elements is just a matter of meny. If it is cost effective to recycle, then it’ll be done.