Coal Clogs Roads

Bottlenecks tighten as China's transport woes grow.
An analysis by Michael Lelyveld
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shaanxicoal-305.jpg Smoke and steam are emitted from a coal-fired power plant in Shaanxi province, Jan. 23, 2011.

More than a year since a massive tie-up stopped traffic on a main highway for over a week, China's coal supplies have stalled on another key road.

A long line of trucks has backed up on a 60-kilometer (37 mile) road from a major coal center in Shenmu county of northwest Shaanxi province, according to photos from the official English-language China Daily on Sept. 26.

Drivers have been sleeping in their cabs and eating meals outside their paralyzed rigs while loaded trucks stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see.

The paper blamed the traffic jam on the limited capacity of the highway, which carries 160 million tons of coal a year from Shenmu county. Trips take three days to a week from end to end, it says, suggesting speeds as slow as one-third of a kilometer per hour.

The size of the road may be an issue, but so is the volume of coal. The single county in China produces about half as much coal as the entire Russian Federation next door.

The backup on Shaanxi's Shenpan road is a symptom of the infrastructure limits that China faces with the rapid production growth of its main fuel.

In August 2010, coal trucks snarled traffic for 10 days on a 100-kilometer stretch of the Beijing-Tibet highway from Inner Mongolia, making headlines around the world.

Cost of growth

Overloaded roads and railways are part of the cost and consequence of China's energy intensive growth, said Philip Andrews-Speed, a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.

"The world's largest energy system is having to grow at 10 percent a year," said Andrews-Speed.

"It's a complex supply chain from the coal mines through the power stations to the individual electricity users. It's very difficult to keep all the chains growing in a coordinated manner at the same rate," he said.

China's coal consumption has more than doubled in the past eight years, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Production rose 12.7 percent to 1.77 billion tons in the first half of 2011 from a year earlier, the China National Coal Association said.

But China's roads and rail routes have failed to keep up with the dizzying rates of growth.

In addition to pollution, the bottlenecks are a major cause of cost for power companies that have suffered rising losses from generating electricity under government-controlled rates.

Transport costs and dealer profits can double the price of coal before it reaches Shanghai power plants from mines in Inner Mongolia, China Daily reported, quoting Xing Lei, a professor at the Institute of China Coal Economy of the Central University of Finance and Economy.

China's five top power companies lost 18.1 billion yuan (U.S. $2.8 billion) in the first seven months of the year, the China Electricity Council said.

Poor planning

Part of the transport problem is the result of distance and economic differences, Andrews-Speed said in a recent book, "China, Oil and Global Politics," co-authored with Roland Dannreuther.

China's energy resources are concentrated largely in the north and west, while its economic centers are in the east and south.

Despite efforts to spread development more evenly, "the country is condemned for the foreseeable future to rely on an essentially inefficient and dirty fuel (coal) and on the need to transport energy over large distances," the authors said.

But the problems have also been the result of government choices and policies.

China Daily noted that members of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference had proposed a new railway through coal-producing provinces to carry 200 million tons per year, but the line was never built. Such plans date as far back as 2004.

Andrews-Speed said China had the chance to push the coal route as part of its 4-trillion yuan (U.S. $625-billion) economic stimulus program in 2008-09, but officials preferred showcase projects like bullet trains.

Focusing on fuel transport would have been more beneficial for energy costs and the environment.

"The sudden shift to building these high-speed passenger trains would seem to be purely a political decision rather than anything based on sound economics," said Andrews-Speed.

China could also cut traffic jams by building more power plants near the mines instead of trucking coal to distant eastern cities. The World Bank urged that approach in the early 1990s.

"It's certainly cheaper to transport electricity than to have all these coal trucks sitting around," Andrews-Speed said. "Electricity transportation has to be better than having lots of railways and roads."


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Oct 03, 2011 08:08 PM

A heavy-duty double-track rail line needs to be built immediately into the coal mining area. These trucks are causing terrible pollution! Further, it takes two or three employees to operate a one-mile long coal train. The railway is efficient, effective and costs less. Just consider the wasted fuel alone required to operate hundreds of trucks, when a train can be pulled by a few engines. We need to make economic sense with our decisions. The passenger routes are most definitely needed, but so are the freight railways.