While energy experts see a "golden age" for growth of natural gas use in China, the outlook appears darker for consumption in the country's power sector due to the dominance of cheap coal.
China's rising demand for cleaner-burning fuel will lead the world's growth in gas use over the next five years, accounting for 30 percent of the global increase, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its Medium-Term Gas Market Report this month.
"Three years ago, IEA introduced the concept of natural gas entering a golden age. The first point I would highlight today is that the golden age of gas has arrived in China," said IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven in a web session for reporters during a conference in Montreal.
The Paris-based agency said China's annual gas demand rose 13 percent last year and forecast a further 90-percent increase to 315 billion cubic meters (11.1 trillion cubic feet) by 2019.
Based on the projections, China's average annual growth rate in gas use will be 11.3 percent, over seven times greater than the rise in the rest of the world.
Van der Hoeven cited environmental concerns and economic growth as major forces behind China's drive for more gas.
The study said China's push for pollution control will result in higher gas use in its transport, power and industrial sectors, offsetting the effects of slower economic growth since IEA's forecast a year ago.
"Gas is expected to see major growth right across the Chinese economy," van der Hoeven said.
Yet, despite strong overall growth in demand, China is expected to see relatively little pressure for more gas from its power sector, compared with world averages.
Power generation will account for 53 percent of the global increase in gas demand over the forecast period but less than 35 percent in China, according to IEA estimates.
The power sector is still expected to become the biggest gas consumer in China, using 93 billion cubic meters (3.3 trillion cubic feet) in 2019, but one reason it may not be far larger is that the gas share of power generation remains small compared with coal.
"We don't believe natural gas will play as big a role in the power generation sector of China as it does in the United States," said Laszlo Varra, head of the IEA's gas, coal and power division, in response to a question from RFA.
"In the United States, natural gas is currently around 25 percent of power generation. In China, it's around 3 or 4 (percent), and we don't think it will go over that," Varra said.
Despite the environmental drawbacks, coal easily outperforms gas on both availability and price.
"Coal is cheap because there's so much of it," said Varra. "You can mine it anywhere from northern China to Australia at very little cost."
Prevalence of coal
The prevalence of high-polluting coal continues to challenge China's campaign against urban smog, despite plans to close all coal-fired power plants in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The shift to gas-fired generation in the three largest cities seems unlikely to reduce the total volume of coal burning for power in China as electricity use grows.
The leading share of coal in the power sector is the subject of various estimates.
Thermal power, largely coal, accounted for 68.8 percent of China's installed power capacity last year, according to figures from the National Energy Administration (NEA).
But last week, the official Xinhua news agency reported the share of thermal power as 80.4 percent at the end of 2013, citing President Xi Jinping's concern that China relies too much on coal and too little on nuclear plants.
In a graphic representation, the IEA report forecast that coal will continue to provide some 62 percent of China's power in 2019.
Despite growing gas use in industry and transport, the large share of coal in power production will pose a continuing pollution problem for China since electricity is consumed throughout the country.
Advances in air quality may depend, in part, how quickly China replaces older power plants with more efficient coal-fired generation technology.
As part of a five-year action plan, the government has pledged to cut coal's share in the country's primary energy mix to less than 65 percent in 2017, but that is down only slightly from 65.7 percent last year.
Gas currently accounts for 5.9 percent of China's total energy consumption, according to Xinhua. The government has set a goal of 10 percent by 2020.
In the first five months of this year, electricity use climbed 5.2 percent from the year-earlier period, the NEA said.
Despite the small share of gas in the power sector, the rise in overall demand still makes the case that China has joined the golden age for gas growth.
In 2010, China's gas demand was equal to that of Japan. By 2019, it will have more than doubled Japan's, according to the IEA's figures.
China has invested heavily in import pipelines from Central Asia and Myanmar, as well as coastal terminals for importing more costly liquefied natural gas (LNG). It also recently signed a 30-year deal for imports of Russian pipeline gas with deliveries scheduled to start in 2019.
But the relatively high cost may crimp the share of gas in power generation, particularly if China's government continues to control electricity rates.
LNG costs in Asia are more than four times higher than coal, based on heat content, the IEA data said. The difference may make gas a hard choice for power producers unless the government closes the gap with carbon taxes, tougher environmental enforcement or new policies.
"Essentially, society will have to pay an additional investment cost and an additional energy cost in order to clean up the air," said Varra.
Repercussions from the rapid growth of shale gas in the United States have made global trends in fuel use less predictable.
In recent years, the drop in U.S. gas prices has dragged coal prices down even further, making it more attractive for export.
The result may be just the opposite of what environmentalists had hoped for, despite gas's golden age.
Last year, China's net coal imports rose to a record 320 million metric tons, adding even more of the fuel to the 3.7 billion tons of domestic production, the China National Coal Association reported in January.
World thermal coal prices have plunged over 42 percent since 2011, www.thestreet.com reported, while benchmark steam coal prices in China are down about 15 percent since the start of the year.
The glut of cheap coal has created price incentives and problems, not only in China but also in environmentally-conscious Europe, where some power producers were forced to close recently-built gas-fired plants last year due to low utilization, thanks to competition from coal and renewable energy.
"Nothing is set in stone," the IEA report cautioned.
"European gas and power companies would not have predicted in 2010 that their gas-fired plants would have to close three years later," it said.