Prof. LING Wen:"Carbon Reduction" Responsibility Must Be Undertaken by Every Citizen 2023-11-11

Energy serves as a vital pillar in the development of society and the economy. From fire and wood to coal and steam engines, from oil and internal combustion engines to today's renewable energy sources, various forms of energy have played a crucial role in continually advancing productivity.


In an era that strongly advocates green and low-carbon practices, how should we view the development of new energy and our attitude towards coal? In the age of carbon neutrality, how can we efficiently utilize renewable energy, and does coal still have a future?


At the Antai College of Economics and Management's 2023 Strategic Advisory Meeting at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, academician Ling Wen of the Chinese Academy of Engineering discussed the future trends of new energy and coal utilization in an exclusive interview with the Daily Economic News.


"Promoting Clean and Efficient Use of Coal Resources"


In the interview, Ling Wen discussed four approaches to utilizing coal effectively: clean mining, efficient use, clean conversion, and carbon issue resolution. The reduction of smoggy days is a significant indicator of progress in addressing issues like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter emissions from coal combustion. This progress also indirectly demonstrates our significant breakthroughs in the clean and efficient use of coal.


Coal is not only a fuel for burning but also a raw material for conversion. As a deep extension of the coal industry, coal chemical engineering plays an essential role in the development of biodegradable agricultural films and biodegradable plastics inside cans. This signifies that coal is being utilized efficiently and undergoing clean conversion. Moreover, with the development of CCUS (Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage) technology, addressing carbon issues is no longer just theoretical.


Ling Wen is confident in China's ability to use coal efficiently. He mentioned that Chinese coal enterprises could solve issues related to safety, low carbon, efficiency, cleanliness, and conversion, and coal will become an eco-friendly, economical, and efficient energy source in the future.


"New Energy Development Still Has a Long Way to Go"


While coal is important, to promote sustainable economic and social development and achieve the "dual carbon" strategic goals, the development and utilization of renewable energy have gradually become a focus.


Ling Wen stated that new energy still accounts for a small proportion of China's total energy installation structure, especially in power generation. In the future, we should further enhance the efficiency of wind and photovoltaic applications, reduce costs, and expand their use. Simultaneously, comprehensive development and utilization of marine and geothermal energy should also be emphasized.


Ling Wen also highlighted that in the process of vigorously promoting energy transformation, we must not overlook energy security in favor of "speed." "Just as we need to save 'emergency funds' for living, energy also requires a certain level of redundancy to deal with unforeseen situations."


[Full Interview Transcript with Academician Ling Wen]


NBD: At the beginning of this year, the National Energy Administration's press conference mentioned that the global new energy industry's focus is shifting further towards China, with Chinese-made photovoltaic components, wind turbines, and gearboxes accounting for 70% of the global market share. How do you view China's new energy development trend?


Ling Wen: First, we should objectively assess the trend and stage of China's new energy development.


As the data shows, China's new energy manufacturing capabilities, represented by photovoltaic and wind turbine manufacturing, have already occupied a significant share worldwide. However, we must also note that new energy still has a relatively small share in China's overall energy installation and power generation structures. Last year, fossil energy consumption accounted for over 80% in China, indicating that there's still a long way to go in increasing the proportion of new energy in our energy consumption structure.


Regarding the development path of new energy, we still have several tasks to accomplish. First, we need to further enhance energy utilization efficiency, such as improving the comprehensive power generation level of photovoltaics, reducing usage costs, and continuing to focus on applications like building-integrated photovoltaics and rooftop photovoltaics.


Additionally, the increasing scale of wind power installations can impact human visual aesthetics and biodiversity. Future wind power development should not only focus on large-scale, centralized deployment but also consider small-scale, localized solutions to align better with human vision and aesthetics.


The third point is to strengthen the utilization of ocean energy. In addition to offshore photovoltaics and marine power, ocean wave energy, temperature difference energy, and salinity gradient energy can also be utilized. Researching how to develop and utilize these energy sources is also a crucial task.


In summary, in the future, we should further enhance the efficiency of wind and photovoltaic applications, reduce costs, and expand their use. Simultaneously, comprehensive development and utilization of marine and geothermal energy should also be emphasized.


NDB: How should we view the coal issue? How can energy companies navigate the transition successfully?


Ling Wen: In the past, coal has made a tremendous contribution to our country's economic development, and we mustn't demonize it. In 2022, coal accounted for 56.2% of China's primary energy consumption and remains the mainstay of our energy supply. However, our country's energy structure can be described as "poor in oil and gas but relatively rich in coal." Our coal reserves only account for about 60% of the global per capita level.


It is clear that for a considerable time to come, coal's role as a primary energy source in China cannot change, and this is an objective reality. Therefore, the challenge we face is not about whether to use coal or not, but rather how to utilize it effectively and responsibly. This is a task for our scientists and engineers.


Utilizing coal well can be approached from four aspects: clean mining, efficient use, clean conversion, and solving carbon issues.


Clean mining involves addressing issues related to the earth's surface, water, and environmental protection during coal extraction, making the method more advanced, safer, and more energy-efficient. Currently, our coal enterprises are performing very well in these respects.


In terms of clean and efficient use of coal, the problems caused by emissions from coal combustion, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter, have been well resolved. In 2018, we calculated that although coal-generated electricity increased compared to 2013, the emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter decreased by 93%, and smoggy days significantly reduced.


From the perspective of extending the industrial chain, coal is both a fuel for burning and a raw material for conversion. Therefore, coal chemical engineering, or deep conversion of coal, is crucial. The biodegradable agricultural films and biodegradable plastics inside cans that we are currently developing are very friendly to humans, and these are also deep extensions of the coal industry.


The last issue is solving carbon problems. In CCUS (Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage) technology, especially in CCS, we have made a lot of efforts and trials. In 2011, we conducted Asia's first carbon sequestration of 100,000 tons, storing a total of 302,600 tons of carbon dioxide over three years without any leakage. Currently, we are working on the Shengli Oilfield's 1 million ton CCUS project and planning a 3 million ton CCUS project in the Ning coal base.


All these actions demonstrate our solid support for coal enterprise transformation and real progress in addressing carbon-related issues. In the future, carbon can be captured, stored, and utilized. In summary, I can confidently say that Chinese coal enterprises will definitely solve issues related to safety, low carbon, efficiency, cleanliness, and conversion, and coal will continue to be an eco-friendly, economical, and efficient energy source.


NBD: In the process of energy transition, affordability is also a crucial topic. How can we better balance the sustainability and affordability of energy?


Ling Wen: Currently, China's energy pricing system is relatively reasonable. Although energy costs might increase in the future with the development of carbon taxes, carbon reduction, carbon peaking, and carbon neutrality, I believe there are two ways to address the cost issue.


Firstly, from the supply side of energy, there is a long way to go in improving efficiency and reducing costs.


More importantly, we need to enhance the public's awareness of carbon reduction. Addressing climate change and reducing carbon emissions is a collective responsibility of all humanity. To achieve sustainable development for all, we need to persuade everyone to accept the idea that every citizen must bear the responsibility and cost of carbon reduction. We are not only consumers and users of energy but also providers.


Our team is advancing the BIPV project, which involves generating electricity on buildings. Data shows that if a building is surrounded by photovoltaics, it can meet 30% of its internal electricity demand, meaning a 30% reduction in carbon emissions. This way, the building users are "generating electricity" while consuming it daily, thus placing the responsibility of carbon reduction on every citizen. We are beneficiaries as well as contributors.


NBD: You and your team first proposed the concept of the "Super Energy-Computing Network." What is the background behind this concept?


Ling Wen: Currently, there is a significant disparity in energy resources between the eastern and western regions of our country. The western region is rich in wind and solar energy resources, with abundant and cheap electricity available when utilizing renewable energy. In contrast, the economically developed eastern region requires a lot of computing power, which in turn needs electrical power support. We have calculated that by 2030, all our computing power will consume 2% of the national energy consumption.


In this context, we proposed the concept of the "Super Energy-Computing Network," pairing the energy network with the computing power network. This pairing helps us enjoy the benefits and efficiency gains brought by computing power while controlling carbon emissions of the energy network, using green electricity to support a green “network.”


Thus, we also proposed the concept of "Four Greens," which includes green energy, green computing, green data, and a green network. This combination of energy and computing power networks requires national coordination and proactive cooperation from enterprises.


NBD: What issues should we be mindful of while vigorously promoting energy transformation?


Ling Wen: The government has already done a great deal in promoting energy transformation. In the future, market mechanisms and technological innovation will become significant drivers of this transformation.


Currently, a positive sign is that new energy operations are increasingly less dependent on government subsidies. As technology advances, efficiency improves, and costs decrease, the scale of new energy applications will grow exponentially, and costs will decline significantly. Therefore, I am confident that new energy will become our main energy source in the future.


However, it is crucial not to pursue speed blindly, as ensuring energy supply is vital. We have learned from past experiences where insufficient backup energy and the closure of old power plants led to power rationing in some areas. This is a lesson we must heed: we should dismantle the old only after establishing the new.


Energy redundancy is a critical metric. Just as we need to save "emergency funds" for daily life, energy also needs a certain level of redundancy to handle unforeseen situations.