Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Thoughts on the trip to China

The trip to China is now over, and I am left looking back to see what impressions remain the most profound. I will forgo the cultural and geological and rather focus just on the items that relate to energy. But before going into that in more detail I would also like to thank my son, the Engineer. When I arrived at Shanghai Airport I was curious to see which sites I could access, given the controversy over censoring Climate Audit in Canada. So I started to check to see which sites I could access. Both Climate Audit and Real Climate were available. Anthony Watts site (Watts Up with That), Robert Rapier's and mine were not available. (TOD was). And since I had hoped to do what I did, I had to find a way around the problem. Enter the Engineer, who, for the past week has been posting my posts, after I sent them to him. Thanks again, good sir.

To return to Chinese use of energy, there are two levels to the Chinese activity that are both worth noting, and also are likely to have future impact.

The most common thing that I saw was probably a pile of bricks. Historically many of the houses in Qinghai province were made of mud brick, with mud walls being used in construction of the many greenhouses. But it seemed wherever we went, whether down a back street in Beijing, a Muslim or Salar village in Qinghai, or a Tibetan temple there were piles of fired brick, and construction of new buildings (following the shape of the old) but with the stronger brick, was going on almost everywhere. Yes, the big cranes dominating the blocks of apartments and hotels that are being constructed didn’t seem to be moving a lot, and that construction is slowed, but for individual houses it seemed to still be continuing at a steady pace.

The bricks come from largely coal-fired plants (at least in the cases I saw) with many relatively small brickyards working to provide for the demand. The houses may end up being plastered and painted, in Beijing back to basic grey, but are built along ancestral lines, with in Qinghai, the flat roofs that collect the most sun in winter to help keep the buildings warm. Solar water heaters (as opposed to solar oven types of water boiler for meals) were more common in the big cities and down at lower heights on the tops of apartment buildings with not that many on individual dwellings. The change is going to have an impact on rural life, particularly where they can get the nomadic herders and shepherds to adopt to a fixed domicile rather than wandering with the herds.

But it is the other change and construction that I found more spectacular, and will likely have at least as great an impact on the society. We left the Tibetan Plateau and Xining City on the train, and started the descent to the coast by travelling down the valley carrying the Yellow River. After a way, however, we turned into another river valley as we headed to Xi'an and ultimately Shanghai. The rail line had a companion line, and there was a road to bring access to the small villages that were found in the corners of the valleys as we moved down. Before the roads these villages would have been almost isolated, with connections achieved by whoever (and I suspect it would be mainly monks) wandered over the passes. Small isolated rural communities that live on a subsistence level are only romantic and idealistic in novels. Thus a major effort of the Central Government is to provide access to and for these folk. But it is not easy, in that railway lines and highways can’t easily make the bends along the valley that the rivers have cut. So the carriageways have to go through tunnels, or carried on pillars down the heart of the valley, in order to maintain grade.
Railway causeway set across a valley and carrying the second line (photo taken from the first) the river crosses under the line and runs along the left hillside. The train I am on goes into a tunnel as the line curves to that hillside.

The basic requirement for passage seemed to be 2 rail lines and a road, with tunnels being required in many cases to ensure that the curves were sufficiently gradual. While the above show the scale of some of the construction where the valley was wider, it did not get any easier as the valley narrowed (as it did in the top of the first picture).
Further down hill, the valley is much narrower and where all the trucks are both rail lines are in tunnels (one on each side of the river). The narrow roadway initially driven meant that whenever there was a hold-up, before long the line of trucks waiting was over a mile or two. (Very few cars).

To help solve the problem, further down stream the road is being converted to a dual carriageway. This is also a great endeavor, and will require additional tunnels as it moves up the valley, but will make it a lot easier to travel up and down the road.
Construction of a dual carriageway further down the valley, a typical village lies behind the construction. As we went downstream the houses changed from mud brick, to fired brick, to tile faced.

At the moment Qinghai is very popular in the summer, since temperatures at altitude rarely get above 70 with a good many sunny days. (As in many parts of the world they are also seeing record harvests). We were told that all hotels fill with domestic tourists in that time, and even last week we were thought very lucky to have been able to acquire train tickets.

The installation of the dual carriageway suggests that the Chinese Government anticipates that individual vehicles will become much more popular, and so roads must be provided to take the public, by car, where they want to go. In those circumstances, where the specific areas get quite remote quite quickly, it is easier to provide a road, than a rail line.

Providing fuel for those vehicles is going to require a significant volume of imports. Sales of cars in China have surged this year
auto sales have surged after the government offered subsidies to drivers in rural areas and cut retail taxes as part of a wider 4 trillion yuan ($585 billion) economic stimulus plan. The demand jump has caused GM to double its 2009 industrywide growth forecast. Combined with a 37 percent slump in U.S. auto sales because of the recession, the surge has made China the world’s largest auto market so far this year.

“Customers have to book in advance because there’s not enough stock of the bestselling cars,” said Guo Yong, information manager at Beijing Asia Games Village Automobile Exchange, which houses dealerships accounting for about 10 percent of Chinese car sales. “Fourth-quarter sales weren’t that good last year and most carmakers curbed production as they were pessimistic about sales this year.”
The Chinese Government would not be making these investments if they did not see the roads being used, and that is going to require a lot of fuel, which will be their next problem. (And this is not considering the arrival of foreign tourists, for which the country is already well prepared, even though, at present, numbers are down.)

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