Air pollution is a major issue in China. A recent study by Berkeley Earth links polluted air in China to 1.6 million deaths a year. (Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentrations and Sources) Other studies indicate that two-thirds of China’s cities don’t meet its own air emission standards. And only 1 percent of China’s 560 million urban residents breathe air that is deemed safe by European standards. Most of this pollution comes from the exhaust of fossil-fueled motor vehicles and the burning of coal for power generation.
One of the steps being considered by China is banning the sale and production of cars fueled by conventional gasoline and diesel. While no specific date has been set, China may well follow the schedule announced by France, Germany, and the UK, all of whom will ban sales of all gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. Actually several other countries have set even earlier dates. The Dutch Parliament is proposing 2025 as a date ending all gasoline and diesel car sales while India is targeting 2030 for all electric car sales.
In the meantime, China is promoting the expanded use of electric vehicles (EVs). China’s electric vehicles sales in 2016 topped 500,000, 53% higher than the previous year. This compares with EV sales in Europe of 222,000 and 157,000 in the U.S. China has 150,000 charging stations compared to the paltry 16,000 in the U.S. with plans for a nationwide network of charging stations to support 5 million EVs. This is still only a small percentage of the 200 million cars on China’s roads. However China is proposing that electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles make up at least 12% of domestic automakers sales by 2020. There are dozens of electric car companies in China and over 200 start-ups hoping to take advantage of available subsidies and build their own EVs. This could pose difficulties without some standardization that is so far lacking.
As shown in the following graphic, China and the US lead in electric vehicles:
Interestingly, of the above countries, Norway, at 29% of all on-road vehicles, has the highest percentage of electric vehicles.
A down side to China’s aggressive implementation of electric vehicles is the fact that most of China’s electric power supply is based on the use of coal. A recent article published in Scientific America (Coal-Powered China Electric Car Surge Fuels Fear of Worsening Smog) concluded that without massive changes to China’s electric generation supply away from coal to renewable fuels, electric vehicles in China would produce 2 – 5 times more smog-forming particle matter and chemicals than conventional gasoline-fueled cars. China does have plans to convert its electric grid to renewable fuel or clean coal technology in order to cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2020.
Another step being taken by China to reduce air pollution from fossil-fueled vehicles is an implementation plan for expanding the use of biofuel ethanol blending into gasoline. China’s National Development and Reform Commission together with its National Energy Board and 15 other departments expect the blending of ethanol in gasoline nationally by 2020. Currently E10 (10% ethanol blended in gasoline) is made available in six designated Chinese provinces and 30 other designated cities. China is the 4th largest ethanol producer behind the United States, Brazil and the European Union. (see below Figure)
While this new policy should help in curbing some of the pollution created by automotive exhausts,
it is also a means that China is drawing down its large quantities of corn stocks, which have been ageing in state warehouses because of cancelled government program to support Chinese Farmers. These excess corn stocks are estimated at 200 million tons: equivalent to one year’s corn demand.
Output from China’s existing corn-based ethanol plants is about 2.5 million metric tons/year (~840 million gallons/year). With Chinese annual gasoline consumption at approximately 130 million metric tons per year, blending at 10% ethanol would require 13 million metric tons of ethanol, more than 5 times China’s existing ethanol production.
Based on a yield of 3 metric tons of corn to produce a metric ton of ethanol, there is more than enough Chinese excess corn stocks to produce the additional tons of ethanol if the production facilities were available. To provide enough corn-based ethanol for blending in all of its gasoline would require a massive building of ethanol plants by the Chinese in order to meet their announced timetable of 2020, just a little over two years away, assuming the blend level of 10% ethanol is the desired goal.
Even though China has been known for its remarkable achievements, it seems highly unlikely that their projected timetable will be met. It may mean that China will need to import ethanol until the required facilities are built and up and running. This could mean good news for the world’s two largest ethanol producers; the U.S and Brazil.