China is dirty

Millions of jobs at riskChina's dependence on dirty coal

One of the largest solar power plants in China is located in Anhui Province, near the city of Huainan. If you want to see it, you need a boat. Because the total of around 160,000 solar modules are not on a field or a factory roof: They cover a huge lake. The photovoltaic modules are mounted on gray plastic barrels and swim around half a meter above the surface of the water.

The rickety boat is powered by an ancient diesel engine. Project planner Jiang Fan drives it across the lake, between the solar cells. A typical Chinese scene: ancient technology and high-tech right next to each other.

"Coal used to be mined here, after which a huge lake was created in the mining trough. The lake is up to six meters deep. We opted for a floating solution, because solar modules fixed on the ground only work in shallower water . "

Floating power plant with numerous advantages

The floating power plant was planned and built by the Chinese company JA Solar, based in Beijing. The German Henning Schulze is responsible for the company's European business:

"The exciting thing is firstly that there is no large area sealing. Second, the evaporation of water in lakes and reservoirs is significantly reduced."

A solar power plant floating on water not only has the advantage that, unlike a system on land, it does not take up any valuable space. The floating solar power plant can also generate more electricity. Firstly, the water cooling from below increases the efficiency of the modules. And secondly:

"It's less dusty on the water than on land. Hardly any dust or dirt is deposited on the solar panels in the water, so the panels work more efficiently. They generate more electricity than those on land."

But there are also disadvantages: Construction and operation cost significantly more than a comparable system on land. Modules and cables have to withstand more because of the stronger corrosion. And every day up to twelve workers have to go out on the lake to remove algae from the solar modules.

"If we don't remove these algae, they can cause great damage. In every gap that opens, the algae start to sprout. That threatens the condition of our system. That's why we remove the algae as soon as we discover any."

Energy transition in China too

With an output of around 40 megawatts, the floating photovoltaic power plant is the largest of its kind in the world. It can supply up to 15,000 households with climate-neutral electricity. For Henning Schulze from JA Solar, the system is more than just a showcase project:

"I quite simply think that China, with its hunger for electricity, is predestined for many projects to simply automatically become the largest in the world. So I would say that this project was not just put into the landscape, just to say: It's the largest of its kind in the world. Of course, there is also a real need for electricity. "

The demand for electricity continues to grow across China. Even if it is no longer as strong as it was ten or fifteen years ago, when the Chinese economy was still growing at double-digit growth rates. Those days are over. China's slower growth is good news for the climate. And for a few years now, the state leadership in Beijing has been on the offensive. In the medium and long term, it wants to shut down as many coal-fired power plants as possible, in favor of climate- and air-friendly solar, wind, water and nuclear power plants. This energy transition is one of the country's major economic policy projects. Seven or eight years ago, China was still considered a downright climate sinner. Li Shuo, climate protection expert at the environmental lobby group Greenpeace in Beijing.

"China was one of the villains who contributed to the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in 2009. But we have been seeing progress for three or four years. China's leadership is working with the Europeans on climate protection and also has the Parisian with the US administration under Obama Climate protection agreement pushed forward. "

In mid-October in Beijing for the start of the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communists. State and party leader Xi Jinping gives an almost three and a half hour keynote address on the strategic goals of his government.

China will play an active role in global environmental protection and keep the promises it has made in terms of climate protection, said Xi.

"We are building a green and low-carbon economy. We will promote energy-saving and environmentally friendly industries. We are driving the energy transition towards clean and highly efficient energy sources."

"What the President said: China is not only taking part in international environmental and climate protection, but is also taking a leading role. That is remarkable! Because China has always avoided the word 'leadership role' when it comes to environmental protection. It is very interesting that China's leadership is now using this term more and more naturally. "

At the world climate summit starting next Monday in Bonn, China's role in the fight against human-induced global warming will play a decisive role. Figures from the International Energy Agency prove China's leading role in the expansion of renewable energy sources: According to them, 40 percent of all new green power plants worldwide are currently being built in China, measured by the performance of the plants. If you only look at photovoltaics, the country is even further ahead: every second solar cell on this planet is now installed in China.

But the situation is not as untroubled as it sounds from these statistics. The world's most populous country is still dependent on coal.

Around half of the coal burned worldwide is still burned in China. And the country's society and economy will not come down anytime soon from this coal trip. Especially in the north and west of the giant country, coal and the heavy industry that is dependent on it characterize entire areas.

On the outskirts of Yangquan in North China's Shanxi Province. Trucks, each loaded with 30 tons of coal, thunder towards the motorway. Shortly before the toll station, many truck drivers take a short break. The 30-year-old driver Zhang, for example.

"We loaded the coal in Lüliang, four hours away, and are now on our way to Shandong Province. That is around a thousand kilometers. There are two of us and we take turns, depending on what's going on on the streets and how good we are We'll make it through in 24 hours. Today we're already behind due to traffic jams. But we're about to drive onto the autobahn and hopefully arrive tomorrow. "

Shandong is one of the highly industrialized provinces on the east China coast. The electricity there is mainly generated by huge coal-fired power plants that need constant supplies. Much of it comes from the Shanxi Province's state coal mines. China's economic strength depends on coal and therefore also on people like coal truck driver Zhang.

"I earn around 1,000 euros a month. This is how I feed my family. Who else should do it?"

The city center of Yangquan has around 300,000 inhabitants. And even if the central government in Beijing has been relying on the expansion of renewables for a number of years, everything here still revolves around coal.

An estimated 80 percent of the people in Yangquan live directly or indirectly from the coal industry. In the center alone there are three state mines, each with thousands of workers and employees. The mines are simply communist-bureaucratically called "Number 1", "Number 2" and "Number 3".

Coal miner Pan is standing in front of one of the factory gates of mine "number 3". His afternoon shift underground will begin in a few minutes. He doesn't know how long he'll have his job in the mine.

"Up until a few years ago it was still going well. But now our mine will probably close soon, they say. We have reduced production more and more in recent years. Next year it could be all over, they say. The operating company will come up with something must for us workers. "

Mine "number 3" is considered to be the least efficient in Yangquan. It is in good shape - the brick buildings and the technology look neat, the safety precautions meet current standards - but it is clearly noticeable that the government has been investing the big money elsewhere for several years. In the green electricity sector, for example. At the beginning of the year, the leadership in Beijing announced that it would invest around 310 billion euros in renewable energies by 2020. As a symbol for this, several cutting-edge wind power plants are now rotating on the hills outside the city of Yangquan.

While coal miner Pan is driving into the mine, the morning shift ends for around 40 of his colleagues. In the mine canteen they sit at long tables and sip hot noodle soup. Clothes, helmets, faces and hands are still completely black from the coal dust.

"I've been underground for eight years. Compared to the others, it's not that long. If the mine closes one day ... I have no idea."

"We'll see. We work when we're needed. And if not ... then not."

In a conversation with the miners in Yangquan, it becomes clear how difficult it will be for China to gradually reduce coal production over the next few years. The government cannot just lay off the tens of millions who make a living from coal mining and heavy industry.

"Of course I'm worried. We haven't learned anything else. I hope that the mine will at least stay open until I retire, so that I have a few more years of work. Now I'm 50. I can in five years." go into retirement."

Environmentalists have calculated that China's coal consumption has not been growing for three years, but has been declining. The emission of CO2, however, continues to increase slightly because more and more oil, petrol, diesel and natural gas are used. But even in terms of CO2 emissions, China is likely to reverse the trend at least significantly earlier than planned.

At the Paris climate summit, the Chinese government committed itself to reaching the peak of CO2 emissions, the so-called "peak CO2", in 2030. From then on, CO2 emissions will decrease. Li Shuo from Greenpeace expects China to achieve this goal by 2020 or even sooner.

China's ambitious climate and energy policy has consequences. Many coal mines will close, says Ma Jun. The Beijing environmentalist is one of China's most recognized climate experts.

"It doesn't make sense to put more money into these dirty companies. The better way is to train the affected workers and help them find new jobs. China is so economically strong that it can cushion it."

Back in the coal mine at a food stand in Yangquan. Lu Jisheng and his wife sell tasty noodle soups with vegetables, eggs and garlic here. A plate costs the equivalent of 80 euro cents. While his wife presses dough into boiling water with a noodle machine, Lu Jisheng is steaming the vegetables on a second hotplate. The two of them use coal for cooking, which comes directly from the mine next door. Even if that is actually no longer allowed.

"We are no longer allowed to burn coal here. Neither at home. That is a huge change for us! I used to buy a ton of coal for the equivalent of 13 euros directly from the mine. With that I could heat the whole winter through. Now, with my new one Gas heating at home, 13 euros is not even enough for a month. Okay, the air is cleaner now - but at what price ?! "

A whole heap of pitch-black coal is piled around 30 centimeters high on the street directly in front of the food stand. The embers glow in the two ovens. It smokes a lot.

"We normal people just prefer to use coal. It is much easier to cook and heat with it. And coal is also cheaper.

The 57-year-old Lu Jisheng used to mine coal underground, today he is improving his pension with the noodle shop. When asked about China's role as the supposed savior of the global climate and new solar and wind power plants, he just shakes his head.

"I see the new technologies as a threat. They are making people unemployed! Our mine here has not been hiring any new people for years. My son is 20. He applied to the mine after finishing vocational school, but didn't get a job. Now works he's somewhere as a security guard. Just three years ago, all the young people who wanted to get a job in one of the mines. Now a lot of people hang out at home and that's not a good thing, of course. "

In terms of structural change, the Beijing government and the numerous provincial governments will have to do a lot of work in the next few years. Open debates about the pros and cons of political decisions are not held in China. There is no such thing as a civil society. People are used to politics making decisions that they then have to implement. In the past few years this has worked reasonably silently, thanks to the enormous economic growth, constantly rising wages and better living conditions. However, the structural change associated with China's energy transition is one of the greatest challenges facing society in recent decades. Greenpeace environmentalist Li Shuo is nevertheless cautiously optimistic:

"More and more people are realizing the enormous consequences associated with the use of fossil fuels. You can see them in climate change and also in the polluted waters and dirty air in China. People today can understand better than they used to be that the turning point is heading too clean energy is a good thing. "

New coal-fired power plants are still going online in China. Statistically speaking, the country no longer needs them. Because the electricity production from renewables is now growing faster than the electricity demand. One of the reasons for this is the huge solar projects such as the floating photovoltaic power plant on the lake in Anhui province. Project leader Jiang Fan:

"Five years ago only a few farmers lived here who caught fish and raised ducks. But the sun shines strongly here too, and so we have revived this long-abandoned area."

As far as China's ambivalent role as a climate protector is concerned, the glass is more half full than half empty, according to Greenpeace expert Li Shuo. The crucial question now is how the country can get the rest of the glass full.

"It's half full rather than half empty. I think the question is how fast we can fill the other half of the glass."