China axes 103 coal-fired power plants, citing smog, overcapacity

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Beijing smog

Beijing smog

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During negotiations for the Paris Climate Treaty signed last fall, a major concern among critics was whether the carbon emissions of China's sprawling and inefficient energy sector could be reined in.

With China, the U.S., and dozens of other countries signing the agreement, the world's most populous country committed itself to decarbonizing its growing energy consumption.

Now, more evidence of its willingness to meet that commitment has emerged.

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Last week, a directive from the country's National Energy Administration canceled more than 100 planned or partly-built coal generation plants, totaling 120 gigawatts of capacity.

As noted by The New York Times, the 103 plants include several dozen located in China's northern and western provinces, which have huge coal deposits.

To be fair, the cancellation is not solely due to China's commitment to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases under the Paris treaty.

Coal, by Flicker user oatsy40 (Used Under CC License)

Coal, by Flicker user oatsy40 (Used Under CC License)

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The other reason for canceling the coal plants, of course, is the pervasive and hazardous air pollution in most of the country's major cities.

National and state governments are increasing concerned that the health risks and the quality-of-life damage from frequent photochemical smog—which is so bad that it leaves stains on clothing and partially blocks sunlight—increasingly pose a risk of domestic unrest from unhappy citizens.

Canceling coal plants and replacing them with renewable sources helps to address that worry for the country's leaders.

ALSO SEE: Coal in China: huge problem for clean power, climate efforts

China's use of coal for power generation actually began to decline in 2013, but state-owned grid operators in the country remain powerful politically and often favor coal plants.

Coal generation is steadier than peaky renewable sources, which may require large energy-storage facilities to store and buffer the power they deliver.

The cancellation also reduces rampant overcapacity in the country's generation sector as a whole—and equally important, it should enable China to meet a near-term commitment to cap its coal generation at 1,100 gigawatts by 2020.

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

BYD e6 electric taxi in service in Shenzhen, China

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The U.S. produces less than one-third that amount from coal.

U.S. utilities retired more than 13 gigawatts of coal capacity in 2015 alone, largely replaced by natural gas and renewable sources. Less than 1 gigawatt of new coal generation capacity is now underway in the U.S.

CHECK OUT: Even In China, Coal Consumption May Be Peaking (Mar 2014)

Canceling the coal plants also aligns with two goals of the country's government-industrial complex: to lead the world in use and sales of renewable generating technology, and to become the global leader in battery and electric-car technology.

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