Gassed! Beijing’s Lethal Public Heating Grid(s)

Since late 2012 Beijing has acquired notoriety as the world’s most unbreathable capital city. Officially reported deathcounts and hospitalizations from malair asthmas are so high that statistics are constantly juggled to soften the blow to amour propre. But, on the flip side, the negative publicity has had a positive effect: much too long-delayed action to close down some if not all of the city’s hazemakers – its coal-fired electric power nexus – and replace them with natural gas has leaped ahead and already one is reading of a coal-free Metropolis not too far down the road.

But that gruesome greyblack shroud up-deposited from coal-burning is not the first encounter the city has faced with coal smog. Coal can be a much more direct killer: when it is burned to produce power and heat, one intermediate outproduct is “coal gas”, chiefly carbon monoxide, which is difficult to re-process into carbon dioxide except when purpose designed hi-temperature reactors and catalysts are designed into the system. Even in so-called “modern” US cities and suburbs, carbon-monoxide or methane – rich “town gas” gas is a remembered danger: the supplying gasworks were (are?) obliged to inject sulphur gases whose obnoxious smell substitutes for the legendary canary. In the older plants, not yet retrofitted with end-phase “gasification” (methanation), that miner’s nightmare – invisible toxic gas (meiqi zhongdu as a verb) – can be particularly dangerous when/where the steam-heat conducting pipes are undermaintained, since the steam itself can then easily become the container for carbon monoxide leaks to pass into housing units. That category of “death by public utility” seems to have been particularly problematic for those more fortunate immigrant laborers whose housing, (construction workers lacked this benefit) , was often a kind of afterthought – dormitories pegged onto the compound where their daytime labor was carried out. One such dormitory compound is the set for the film, “World”, (2004: dir. Jia Zhangke.).

The heat (steam) generated by such units is distributed via a closed grid of underground broad-diameter ducts mounted on the ceilings of halls and passageways, the heat being released in stages as the steam cools in flux.

Fig. 1 Steam-pipes from inside the “World” Theme Park’s sub-basement (adjacent to costume-changing Green room, where the cinematography begins with Xiaotao wandering in search of a bandaid 创可贴, “stick it over a wound” ).

film world underground heat ducts

In terms of energy capture efficiency, such systems are a great improvement over local coal-stoves. But they are a good deal more dangerous. When/where the steam-heat conducting pipes are undermaintained, raw coal gas often leaks into them, whence the steam itself can then easily become the container for carbon monoxide leaks to pass into housing units. That category of “death by public utility” ironically is a byproduct of relative privilege within the urban underclass: most construction workers [the bottom rung] live in self-constructed shantytowns that have no heating at all; they are thus almost homeless, waiting to be shunted to some other neighborhood once their current job is finished.

The subset of “non-resident” labor foregrounded in the film is, however, better off: it is housed in purpose built dormitories for Park workers. At the top end, the housing gets even more luxurious though available only to owners-investors: entrepreneurs profiting business-wise from The Park, summarized in/by the character of Liao Qun the show-costume seamstress, can if lucky find a housing unit apartment on the market as a kind of condominium, whose purchase not only translates into more commodious living but gives the owner a fat gain in capital return when resold. But since district heating comes with the ownership package, “condo” living can be just as dangerous as dorm living. Or at least equally exposed, since the municipality and not the owners’ collective handles the utilities, presumably with kickbacks in all directions.

It is the “dormitory” class however that lives closest to the razor’s edge. Heroine Xiaotao . … and off-and-on paramour Taisheng are its up-close representatives, and Tao’s too-often quoted recollection of spending her first days in Beijing on the threshold, getting used to a hard bed and no kang, no hot water, and making do with her plastic raincoat as a kind of tent-within-the-tentcity surrogate for “a room of her own”, keeps us aware of her peculiar class or social stratum: run-of-the-works para-artist (wenyiyuan) who will never be anything but an anonymous fixture, a klieg-lighted ghost in outrageous extotic dress.


Jia Zhangke’s award-winning “Shijie” (“World”) takes its name from a very loaded historical reference. The first ancestor is as ever a Shanghai [re]creation, a modernist (for then) take on the shopping arcade cum World’s Fair/Expo complex imported ultimately from Paris. [There is possibly a third line of heredity even predating the famous Shanghai World arcade: , though it is a forgotten one: the Beijing “newtown” of the 1910s, 新世界商场, (see, akin to Shanghai’s in that it doubled as an amusement park and as a planned open-ended larger shopping mall – in those times what we would call a “department store”, though there was no single owner or franchise subordinating the encased stores or even a linking thoroughfare running up the spine.

The second is the now long forgotten Curtainraising Pageant (kaimushi) for the Shanghai Fashion Expo of 2001 (?), the cultural-diplomatic event that first brought to prominence the choreographer then set-designers Wang Chaoge and Zhang Weiya. (A third lineage that possibly influenced the second is from the Shenzhen [Guangdong] SEZ which has mounted its own “world’s fair” on stage (in 1996 I think) as stage-spectacle “A Window on the World”, to capture “the world” for Chinese fabrics and garment exports as visual commodity: it was in fact from starlet Zhao Tao’s reminiscences of the experiences of her dance-school troupe’s year as a line-dancer in that “spectacle” that the film takes its material).

Layer on and layer over layer: the meaning turns on the cross-linguistic pun “[da]xiu” or 大秀 – or something like carnival spectacular, or “grand dazzle” as a performance (and advertising) tool, something almost instinctively inherited as tinsel remnant of the Greatest Show of All, East is Red (1964), whose “Dance of the Peoples'” finale keeps restaging itself more often than not in Mongol or Korean cliche (costume). Panoramax dance might be a better term, since the form thrives on the rotation of costumes, festishing material fabric in the manner of the French cabaret line-dance. It is a kind of peep-show, but in the version proposed by Zhang Jiake insists, meaningfully, on the “expo” connection: if the material is fluff and/or appearance only – and such it is doomed to be in the giant metaphor of the movie – then that is ironically fitting since worlds fairs are parades of exteriors or at most shopping malls in their original form, not meant for transaction but as catalogues for the presumptive but never forthcoming buyers, whose pleasure comes from possibility not culmination. Pace Benjamin!

As the now somewhat faded but never quite forgotten school of “Shanghai modern” -ist writers and their biographer(s) – Liu Na’ou/Mori Ogai and the peddlers of “sensation” – were so engrossed in or with. Baudelaire’s flaneurizers, their Japanese respondents of the 30s, Tanisazaki and of course Kawabata.

Captive Overscale: The Strange Anatomy of China’s Wannabe #1 Power Producer, Datang Power

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….).

Fig. 1 The Control Station of the Toktogh Megaplant, China’s Largest (4,800 MW) and soon to be larger still..
1155736254390906780Toktog Coltrol Cdenetr and plant 1

Fig. 2 The 8 Togtogh Turbine Plants, end-day View (outskirts of Hehhot/Ordos Municipality, Inner Mongolia
1291125718188731615Toktog Megalith

Fig. 3 Satellite Image of the Turbine Array, Nearly 1 km long….
Togtoh Station saltellitye

China’s Precarious Energy vs Pollution Situation: Target Shortfalls and Wishful Thinking?

Energy squeeze and energy-infrastructure expense, not to mention (more recent) pressures from within and without to bring down atmospheric pollution strangling China’s major cities, have for the last several years started to cut into economic growth as well as political legitimacy. How to (or even can?…) the two be reconciled and at what cost to the mantra of high growth, upon which so much has been staked since the ’80s, has become a permanent undertow issue, as should be evident from the endless stream of energy and pollution “side-effect” control rulings that now pours (and re-pours) from the new regulatory summit, the National Development and Reform Commission (hereafter NDRC, fagaiwei. ) since 2003 when its consolidation of central economic power(s) was finalized.

Something like a flashpoint in the regulatory nexus was reached during the end-Dec. 2012 crisis over urban air quality, coming at the transition between Plan 11 and Plan 12. An event (since become background noise) that literally “brought home” (to the capital) the non-carbon garbage that had for some many years been spewed and parked “somewhere else” (as CO^2 still can be). The brake on growth was no longer invisible or intangible: “netizens” could see and cough it, and “underage-expectancy” deaths began to be reported in the multiple ‘000s per year. may not be alone responsible for economic deceleration (see below) but it surely exacerbated it. A new stress-point has been added to planning and achievement reports: gains in efficiency of overall energy use and in the generation of electric power. (Table 1, Lines 10-11). The startling plunge after 2012 Q 1’s 8.9 YOY gain surely has a lot to do with resource expenditure tightening however much it also reflects “lower property investment, dwindling credit growth and weakening industrial production” – though the two are not anywhere presented in tandem.

Figs 1-2 .1 Declining Growth Trend – Seeking a New Mean +/- 7.0%