Inner Mongolia is now China’s coal epicenter, but what has this down to the grasslands this region is known for?
“The air is really clean here,” they told me in Hulun Buir, the northeastern flank of Inner Mongolia in the far north of China. I could not refute this claim, as such value judgments are always relative and the air here is far better than in most other places in this country. But there was something that was very unsettling:
Beneath the big sky, upon the wide open green grasslands, were smokestacks — smokestacks everywhere.
I walked out into the grasslands just outside of Hailaer and found myself the centerpiece of a panorama of smokestacks. In all directions smoke was being pumped into the “clear blue sky” to mingle with the “fresh air.” The effect was disorienting. Together in the same view were magnificent rolling hills, wide open space, green fields, rivers, grazing sheep, a blue sky, herders, temples, and dozens of massive, poison spewing coal plants.
This is a region known for its beautiful environment and coal. You cannot observe one here without the other. One natural resource in conflict with another. A walk along the side of the highway into the truly grasslands means stomping over a thick layer of coal chunks and ash — the spill over from thousands of trucks rolling through, transporting the fuel from mine to power plant or shipping depot.
Inner Mongolia is sometimes simply referred to by the uber-practical moniker: The Coal Province. A quarter of all of China’s coal is mined here — more than in any other province. For scale, China is the world’s largest coal producer and consumer, and just about uses as much of this resource than the rest of the planet combined.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration showed in 2011 that China’s coal production increased 188 percent over the preceding 10 years. China now produces 3.5 billion tons of coal per year, consuming the lion’s share of it themselves. Currently, China is filling three quarters of their energy needs from coal, and though the government claims to be trying to curb reliance on this resource due to air pollution and other inherent woes, more and more coal is being mined and used through the country.
But I had to wonder why I was seeing so many coal power plants dotting the grasslands. Inner Mongolia has one of the lowest population densities in all of China, so how could they have the energy demand to necessitate so many plants?
It’s called coal-by-wire, which essentially means putting coal plants at the mouth of mines and then sending the ready-made electricity to cities throughout the country. It’s China’s ambition to arrange 50 percent of their coal powered electricity plants in this manner, which would mean that less resources, energy, and money devoted to shipping coal across the country and one way to improve air quality in many heavily populated urban centers.
The problem with this plan is that the areas that happen to have the most coal tend to be those that have the least amounts of water. To put it simply, massive amounts of water are needed to run coal-fired power plants. So much so that the aquifers of Inner Mongolia are being sucked dry by the coal plants and the grasslands are quickly turning into desert. In 2011, the coal industry accounted for one-sixth of China’s water withdrawals.
This conflict has resulted in the continuation of a scheme first dreamed up by Mao Zedong, who said “Southern water is plentiful, northern water scarce. If at all possible, borrowing some water would be good.” It’s called the South-North Water Transfer Project, and that is essentially what it is. To feed the heavily industrialized, low water north, China will ship water from the water-laden south. So rather than shipping as much coal from Inner Mongolia across the country, China will ship water to the coal plants in Inner Mongolia.
Crazy? Or a practical response to a magnificently complex set of circumstances?
That said, Inner Mongolia is also China’s epicenter for wind power.
For more on how coal production in Inner Mongolia impacts the people who live there, go to Mongolian Culture Struggles To Survive in Changing Inner Mongolia.