Power stations: How grotesque they can be. The largest structures on earth though they are not the tallest.
They are something for Ayn Rand: Promethean both by psychology and by necessity. Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and “China Syndrome”. Or something from a Piranesi nightmare. Peopled by liveried, anonymous workers in construction crew safety helmets, like soldiers visible in the early morning hours, doing their morning exercises. Not allowed to communicate with non-employees. In China, a surviving echo of Maoist Uniformity or silent Collectivity, only now in red, not blue. Though most are still fueled by coal, the ones we remember best are the nuclear stations that have run amok: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and of course Fukushima, creatures of modernity so large that they literally “carry” whole cities or even national regions on their backs.
Mao Dun (Shen Bingyan) says it all when he summarizes the alien self-advertised symbols of “the city” (Shanghai): “Light: Heat! Power!” 向西望，叫人猛一惊的，是高高地装在一所洋房顶上而且异常庞大的霓虹电管广告，射出火一样的赤光和青燐似的绿焰：Light，Heat，Power！Note that they are not rendered in Chinese, for China was not then yet a growth-machine whose national stature was/could be measured by annual gains in the supply of electricity and town gas.
But these creatures are also ominous in their non-nuclear variant, particularly in the “developing” world where they defy health and pollution restraints with the blessing of the growth-obsessed Authorities. And not just by the toxins that spew from their signature smokestacks, but in what they do to the local geology as moonscapes are carved out of the surrounding prairies to keep them fed with cheap coal, draining the water table and driving back the barriers that keep desert and drought at bay. (Strangely, “carbon” emissions are always a going topic, nothing concealed, but that perhaps is because they are invisible, truly global, and nearly impossible to reduce).
The Corporatist Priority in Planning for Power – and Its post-2011 challenge
Until the very end of the previous decade, the retail urban end-consumer did not figure in the calculus of “public” satisfaction with either availability or cost of everyday electric power and centrally supplied heat. Even as updates rolled out on production and over-all consumption, while most provinces, in a doggedly Mao-ist-populist mode, continued to post figures indicating the amount of power supplied/used by the “rural” (village) sector, no data column was inserted for specifically URBAN household use, not to mention average price. (There is SOME excuse for this: “retail” consumption was and is funneled through a government end-distributor, attached to each major “condominium”). Even though rolling power outages and brownouts reached infuriating levels in 2006, a “third party” (NGO) interest did not develop to challenge the government’s mismanagement. Characteristically, there WAS a snap-of-the-fingers “solution”, which keyed to the loosening of regulations on “backyard”, cottage industry power plants, these days dismissed from the CEC stats if they have .006 MW or less of capacity (at last count, not a few provinces had as many as 300 of them). Which may have ameliorated the crisis quickly, but, like Lenin’s NEP, left a legacy of sloppy and low-efficiency collectives on the ground, which the central machine is still patiently dismantling.
It was (likewise) this corporatist orientation, favoring industrial users and esp. heavy industry, that gave rise to the “[Inner] Mongolian Syndrome”: building oversized coal fired plants at mineside to take advantage of the stripmining boom that was encouraged by the invasion of US megaminers, notably Peabody Energy (see “Magamines” post, above….). The result was an unsustainable “big dig” in that unhappy, still largely pastoral “province” (qua frontier): something close to 41 coal-fired plants went online with 1980s era technology (c/e <=33%, or about 370 kg sce/kwH) with (2008) 267 “suppliers” before rein-in began, and 41 coal-fired plants of average 1,240 MW size, very much under the 2,000-5,000 MW scale necessary for SC and USC power generation. In so anarchic a situation, while nominal coal extraction boomed to 1 billion MT/yr in 2011, low quality doomed this treasure to be frittered away in off-grid local power matrices, highlighted by the very odd low voltage “wire” strung between Togtoh and the Capital that was meant (but will not…?) to supply 1/3 of Beijing’s woefully inadequate base load, no doubt at prices that make the sale(s) unprofitable. (An even odder off-grid arrangement, for example, connects Bayanhur? sp) in central “E Inner Mongolia” with the now underpowered “old core” of Liaoning, the rather fancy footwork having been executed by one of probably many goldbrickers at last forced to flee or abandon what’s left of the once fabulously productive Fushun mining pockets, also open pit but now too deep to scavenge). And the oddest of all: Datang and its sister power holding companies aren’t doing much investing either in upgraded mining or in more efficient (meaning higher-tech) plant. So we are confronting not just a corporatist model of priorities, but one that battens on the lower political status of the only semi-Sinitic mixed Mongol/Manchu and Korean population that dominates the eastern 2/3 or so of the “self-government” AR, or Mengdong. (In an even uglier variant of the same profile, the central and “western” extension of that same “province” has become a free-wandering zone for all of the CTL and CTG gasification technologies, most wrenchingly for SNG, which has proved such a boondoggle that even Datang, its earliest and grandest promoter, has been making every effort to sell out its SNG stake….).