The in­vis­i­ble bat­tery set to power the econ­omy

A vast area in the Gobi Desert will soon sup­ply elec­tric­ity for the coun­try’s in­dus­trial heart­land, re­ports Cui Jia in the ChangjiHui au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture, Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

The fate of a strip of land in the far west of China about the size of Beijing was changed for­ever when a thick seam of coal was dis­cov­ered be­neath it. The un­pop­u­lated, arid land in the Gobi Desert in the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion is closely con­nected with the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment be­cause the cen­tral gov­ern­ment is count­ing on it to fuel the econ­omy in the years to come.

“There’s enough coal un­der our feet to support China for another 100 years,” said Xiao Ren­jun, di­rec­tor of the ad­min­is­tra­tive com­mit­tee of the Xin­jiang Zhun­dong Eco­nomic and Tech­no­log­i­cal Zone, as he stamped his foot on the ground at Zhun­dong, or the East Jung­gar Basin, about 200 kilo­me­ters north­west of the re­gional cap­i­tal, Urumqi.

The area is be­lieved to be China’s largest in­te­grated coal­field: Ex­perts es­ti­mate that 390 bil­lion metric tons of coal, about 7 per­cent of China’s re­serves, are buried un­der an area 200 km long and 60 km wide. The av­er­age thick­ness of a sin­gle layer of the coal seam is ap­prox­i­mately 43 me­ters, but it could reach 80 me­ters in some parts of the basin.

“The mas­sive coal­field was dis­cov­ered in 1978, but it wasn’t un­til 2006 that the gov­ern­ment de­cided to ex­ploit it,” Xiao said. To speed up Zhun­dong’s de­vel­op­ment, in 2012 the cen­tral gov­ern­ment named it a na­tional-level eco­nomic zone for the coal chem­i­cal in­dus­try after the Na­tional En­ergy Ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cided to trans­form re­source-rich Xin­jiang, which holds 40 per­cent of China’s coal re­serves, from a re­serve base into one of the coun­try’s five cen­ters of en­ergy pro­duc­tion

Xiao said it’s ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to de­cide on lo­ca­tions for power plants or fac­to­ries be­cause na­tional pol­icy pro­hibits any form of con­struc­tion on coal­fields, and that rules out almost the en­tire area. Wa­ter is the most pre­cious re­source in Zhun­dong, but it’s in short sup­ply and has to be trans­ported from other ar­eas. Newly built roads now con­nect Zhun­dong with Urumqi, and a new rail­way will be com­pleted later this year.

The coal­field has at­tracted more than 70 com­pa­nies and their work­ers to an area that was pre­vi­ously almost de­serted and only oc­cu­pied by an­i­mals tough enough to adapt to the hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment of droughts, high winds and ex­treme tem­per­a­tures.

The zone’s pop­u­la­tion is ex­pected to reach 450,000 by 2030, mak­ing it a small city, ac­cord­ing to the ad­min­is­tra­tive com­mit­tee. “Zhun­dong could well be­come the sec­ond Kara­may, a mod­ern city in Xin­jiang that was built in the Gobi Desert after oil was dis­cov­ered in 1955,” Xiao said. “All thanks to coal.”

The gi­ant strip mines that scar the land­scape are be­com­ing deeper ev­ery day. The deep­est so far is about 190 me­ters. Soon, the tall chim­neys of ther­mal power plants will be­gin emit­ting smoke and the coal will be pro­cessed on the spot, con­verted into elec­tric­ity or gas, and then car­ried to other parts of China via pipe­lines and ex­tra high-volt­age power lines, in­stead of be­ing trans­ported by road or rail.

A gas pipe­line to con­nect the area with Zhe­jiang prov­ince in the east of the coun­try will be com­pleted in 2017, and more power plants will be built so elec­tric­ity can be pro­vided to Sichuan prov­ince in the south­west and An­hui prov­ince in the east, ac­cord­ing to the ad­min­is­tra­tive com­mit­tee.

“Zhun­dong is like a mas­sive bat­tery pro­vid­ing en­ergy to dif­fer­ent ci­ties. Peo­ple will prob­a­bly never guess that the elec­tric­ity or gas they use comes from Xin­jiang, ” Xiao said.

To com­bat air pol­lu­tion, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has im­posed strict re­stric­tions on the num­ber of power plants that can be built in East China, and has or­dered lo­cal gov­ern­ments to use elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated in the western re­gions of the coun­try.

Xin­jiang has pro­vided elec­tric­ity to He­nan prov­ince in Cen­tral China since Jan­uary 2014. Nur Bekri, who was chair­man of the re­gional gov­ern­ment at the time, de­scribed the project as “trans­port­ing Xin­jiang’s coal via the air”, and urged the ac­cel­er­a­tion of sim­i­lar con­struc­tion projects in the re­gion. On De­cem­ber 31, Nur was named as the new head of the Na­tional En­ergy Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Yao Jian­jun, Party chief of the Eco­nomic Zone, said: “It’s clearly good news forXin­jiang, which will be­come a key new pro­ducer of en­ergy to meet the de­mand from the cen­tral and east­ern parts ofChina, be­cause Nur knows the re­gion’s en­ergy sec­tor very well.”

On the day Nur took up his new role, the Na­tional De­vel­op­ment and Re­form Com­mis­sion ap­proved Xin­jiang’s plan to build five new coal-pro­duc­tion bases, in­clud­ing Jung­gar Basin. The NDRC also urged the re­gional gov­ern­ment to pro­mote a har­mo­nious re­la­tion­ship be­tween the ex­ploita­tion of re­sources and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion.

Although main­tain­ing that bal­ance is of prime im­por­tance for Zhun­dong, it’s also an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult task. The area bor­ders the Kala­maili Na­ture Re­serve, whose arid steppes are home to rare an­i­mals, in­clud­ing the Dzun­gar­ian horse, also known as Prze­wal­ski’s horse, an en­dan­gered sub­species na­tive to the cen­tral Asian steppes, and is on the list of best-pro­tected an­i­mals in China, Yao said.

More­over, in Novem­ber, the me­dia re­ported that a num­ber of coal chem­i­cal man­u­fac­tur­ers in the area had ran­domly dumped waste di­rectly into

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