Friday, August 20, 2004

China - An Energy Timebomb?

According to John Constable, senior UK economist for Exxon Mobil, China with a population of 1.3 billion people currently uses the energy equivalent of one 100 watt lightbulb per person per year.

"World energy demand is continuing to grow by 3% per annum, so by 2020 it will be up by over 40%. Most of this growth will be in China."

A chief executive of a Scottish engineering firm tells the following anecdote:

“When I first started coming out to China, there were four items most people aspired to: a bicycle, a small transistor radio, a wristwatch and a foot-powered sewing machine. Now, in many urban areas, the middle-class Chinese own their apartments, have a car, a colour television, DVDs and even go on foreign holidays.”

The Chinese government's planning agency has set the target of 900,000MW by 2020.

That’s a tripling of energy generation over 15 years.

Meanwhile the Financial Times reports that China plans to build the equivalent of the UK's total electricity- generating capacity in each of the next two years. In recent months, the voracious demand for energy has caused blackouts in cities and factories across the country.

Chinese environmentalist Liang Congjie's opinion is “if each Chinese family has two cars like US families, then the cars needed by China, something like 600 million vehicles, will exceed all the cars in the world combined. That would be the greatest disaster for mankind.”

At the Beijing auto show a few months ago it was reported SUVs are the fastest growing segment of the Chinese auto market. GM are investing $3 billion over the next three years to double production in China. Currently there are only 16 cars and light trucks per thousand people in China, that compares to 700 per thousand in the U.S. By 2030, China is expected to have more cars than the United States and import as much oil as the U.S. does today.

In terms of oil, 40 percent of the entire growth in oil demand since the year 2000 has been China. Considering the enormous demand expansion of China's auto fleet will make on the oil we have left is it really wise to be promoting SUV sales?

The ever increasing strain China will make on world energy resources means we should do everything possible to eliminate our own reliance on fossil fuels and develop the technology for renewable alternatives which we can export worldwide.

SUVs are fastest growing segment in Chinese market:

GM expanding in China. China auto ownership expected to more than triple in 10 years:


Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

The author of the piece is quoted as saying:

... the energy equivalent of one 100 watt lightbulb per person per year.This "per year" is mystifying.  Is each person getting an additional lightbulb every year, so they are using 5 after 5 years?  Or is it significant that a lightbulb is likely to need replacement every year, if not more frequently?

My real point is that the author is illiterate in physics, and so is the editor.  These errors ought to have long since been purged from any publication which claims to have standards of accuracy.

8:43 am, August 21, 2004  
Blogger James said...

I think he means the amount of energy it would take to run one 100watt lightbulb for a year but assumes the bulb would be replaced each time it blows. i.e. the refence is to the amount of electricty used not the number of lightbulbs.

The author of the comment is the Senior UK economist for Exxon Mobil which is the world's largest oil company. If he is indeed illiterate in physics that begs the question why are we relying on big oil companies to guarantee our future energy needs.

9:21 am, August 21, 2004  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

His expertise may be in bbl/day, but he is would clearly fail large parts of introductory physics if his words reflect his knowledge.  (The narrowness of his apparent expertise could mean that he would be incompetent to handle general energy matters.)

That still does not excuse the interviewer and editor for allowing this mistake to go to print without correction or even a note.  The public finds these matters confusing, and authoritative figures giving numbers in "kilowatts per day" and the like just muddies the waters.  For the public to get on board with energy programs, these things have to be de-mystified.  This has to begin by making the terminology clear and correct.

6:06 pm, August 21, 2004  
Blogger James said...


A bigger issue that I'd be interested in your opinion on is:

economists always assure us we will never run out of oil (and in the sense there will always be some left in the ground this is correct) because through market forces the price of oil will rise sufficiently that the switch will be made to alternative energy sources. However I'm of the opinion that if we leave it too late there will not be enough physical energy resources left to make the switch. Photovoltaic cells, wind turbines etc. all require fossil fuels to manufacture, install and maintain. Once we pass this physical point of resource depletion the monetary demand (which is essentially a fiction rather than being a physical reality) will be irrelevant.

I'm also interested in your opinion on the rest of the China post.

3:16 am, August 22, 2004  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

The USA has close to 200 years' supply of coal in the ground at current rates of consumption.  Coal is already used to supply electricity directly (more than 2/3 of all fossil-derived electricity in the US came from coal in 2002; see the EIA's stats.).  There are well-understood technologies for converting coal into gases, motor fuel and feedstocks for other processes.  There just is no way that we can run out of physical (even fossil) energy all at once.

I think we've already left things too long to forestall many unwelcome consequences of our dependence on oil (9/11 being just one), but the end-of-civilization scenario when the last drop of oil suddenly bubbles up just isn't realistic.

You might want to check my blog, The Ergosphere.  I'm researching a conversion scenario and it will either appear there or there will be a pointer to it.  With luck, this week; if not, late next month.

7:55 pm, August 22, 2004  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

Blogger is still not showing my last comment, even after 10 minutes or so.  I am nonplussed.

As for my opinions regarding the remainder of the piece:  I think the comment about China attempting to expand electric generation capacity to 900 GW (approximately the same as the US, but only about 1/5 as much per capita) is also significant.  China is not going to obtain the fuel for those generators from the Middle East, so there will be substantial demands on other sources of supply.  Supply of what?  Coal is a certainty (China has domestic supplies and mines which can be modernized), and there is undersea gas relatively nearby.

What this means for atmospheric CO2 levels isn't in doubt.

8:50 pm, August 22, 2004  
Blogger James said...


I agree with you that there is no way we are going to run out of fossil fuel energy all at once. I do not share the extreme pessimism of SOME people who subscribe to the peak oil model who suggest we will run short of fossil fuels (with this I agree) and that it's too late to do anything about it other than head for the hills (which I disagree with)

e.g. - this site interestingly is selling an ebook. However if the scenario the excerpts seem to predict are true, money will be essentially useless.

It is likely that we run short of oil & gas long before there is a shortage of coal. As you note the USA has close to 200 years of coal AT CURRENT RATES OF CONSUMPTION. However with increasing energy usage and converting coal-to-oil it could get used up a lot quicker. Also it should be pointed out that the USA is the Saudi Arabia of coal. If oil & gas are in short supply, it's doubtful resource poor nations will accept a dip in their energy rich lifestyles quietly. Politicans being what they are, are more likely to blame an external "enemy" for their lack of energy rather than a lack of foresight or action on their part.

If we are going to use coal to produce fertiliser as well that means it's going to be depleted even quicker. I'm interested in knowing your opinion on how many people (the so-called "carrying capacity) the world can support if readily recoverable supplies of oil & gas were to run out.

4:57 am, August 23, 2004  
Blogger James said...


I'm glad you posted a link to your blog:

I usually check out the blogs of people who post comments. May I suggest that you (and anyone else posting comments) make your profile public on so your name links to your profile and therefore your blog (if you have privacy concerns the settings allow you to manage the amount of details given).

I've quickly scanned through your blog and already have several things I want to comment on which is a good sign (how about enabling comments?). When I have the time I will read it in more detail.

5:16 am, August 23, 2004  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

The question of "carrying capacity" depends on too many what-ifs to be answerable.  At what level of technology?  At what levels of consumption?  Do you allow for beamed power from orbit, or extensive use (or even colonization) of the ocean's surface?  You get the idea.  I'm not ready to even speculate about that yet.

Yes, anything which increases the demand for coal will cut the time the reserves will last.  But the question was whether the world would survive the end of oil, and that is certainly a "yes".  Increased demand for coal would raise the price; combined with rapidly improving solar and wind technologies, this would push renewables and improve their profitability immensely.  The USA uses about 100 quads of fuel a year, or about 3.3 terawatts thermal.  After conversion losses, our actual consumption of useful energy is probably closer to 1.5 TW.  The average wind power available from North Dakota alone is about 140 GW, or nearly 10% of that; see here for a list of wind resources by state.  Combine that with the radical improvements in the pipeline for solar, and it appears that they could supply all national energy requirements if storage and transport can be managed (big IF).  However, if the political and economic demand existed, I'm sure that the advances wouldn't stay in the laboratories for long.

(I haven't opened comments on my blog because I can't find the option to enable them; Blogger is either hiding this option or it is not available for my account.  I do solicit mail and I will be happy to post correspondence as updates.)

8:20 pm, August 23, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very Good Job and keep up the good work Carl.

1:27 pm, June 02, 2006  

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