We Don't Need More Power; for Each Dollar of Economic Output, China Wastes 11 Times More Energy Than Japan

Newsweek International, February 6, 2006 | Go to article overview

We Don't Need More Power; for Each Dollar of Economic Output, China Wastes 11 Times More Energy Than Japan


Byline: Douglas Ogden (OGDEN is director of the China Sustainable Energy Program in Beijing and San Francisco (www.efchina.org).)

The old adage "to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" sums up how most countries deal with energy shortages. Planners race to build electricity plants--driven by coal, natural gas, hydro- or nuclear power--whenever shortages appear. This knee-jerk supply bias has been the cause of serious economic, public health and pollution problems. It sounds counterintuitive, but

the best way to meet the rising demand for energy is not to supply more. It's to modernize the appliances and equipment that use energy. The cheapest, fastest and cleanest energy resource by far is energy efficiency. China is only the most striking example of a country that ignores this.

The growth of China's appetite for energy in the last four years has been staggering. As the world's fastest-growing and most coal-dependent economy, China's share of world coal consumption in 2005 was 40 percent--2 billion tons--more coal than the United States, India and Russia combined. With its blistering pace of economic growth--over 9 percent annually for the last 25 years--China can't mine coal fast enough, triggering electricity shortages. The response of local officials has been to build the equivalent of one huge 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant every week--which adds the equivalent of Spain's entire electricity capacity each year. These are typically inefficient, 1950s-era plants that waste two-thirds of their coal. For every dollar of economic output, China wastes three times more energy than the global average, and 11 times more than Japan. China's energy waste has only been exacerbated by adding all these coal plants--160,000 megawatts were added over the last three years, and another 250,000 megawatts are likely in the next two years.

This building spree is largely unnecessary. It would have been cheaper, cleaner and more productive for China to have invested instead in energy efficiency. Making factories efficient and other demand-side investments saves more energy while costing only a quarter to one third as much as building new power plants--with zero pollution. The building spree has largely derailed China's energy diversification into alternative energy sources. Most of the new coal plants aren't running at full capacity due to underdeveloped transmission networks, antiquated market rules and protectionism that conspire against dispatching power over wide areas. …

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