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China ramping up geothermal energy investment

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A geothermal geyser in Yellowstone National Park
A geothermal geyser in Yellowstone National Park

Pictures from Sunday's smog enshrouded Beijing Marathon did little to enhance China's reputation as one of the world's most polluted nations. While such characterizations are well-founded, Party officials in the nation's capital are not idly sitting on their hands waiting for the next sky-blue day, even if reforms are seen by many as too little, too late.

In a new move aimed at cleaning up the air across China, state-owned energy behemoth Sinopec (中国石化) has announced it is diving into the Middle Kingdom's almost untapped geothermal energy reserves. Development of this economy is expected to be concentrated in Sichuan, Tibet and Yunnan, where geothermal activity is at its most abundant.

Generating sustainable electricity from superheated underground water is a concept that has been around for more than a century. However, less than 30 countries currently employ the technology used to harness subterranean steam and heat most often associated with hot springs and geysers and turn it into energy. China is one of these, but until now, production has been on a minuscule scale.

Following its establishment of dedicated geothermal entity Star Petroleum, Sinopec has invested a reported one billion yuan (US$163 million) in ten experimental power generation facilities on the east coast. Plans are now underway to considerably expand operations. Zhou Zongying, an employee with knowledge of the research, told South China Morning Post:

So far, geothermal energy's development has been limited by the high initial investment required, but as more local governments are imposing restrictions on coal-fired heat and power generation, geothermal energy will have more room for development.

The geothermal sphere of China's economy is barely in its infancy despite lofty goals announced nearly a decade ago. Statistics compiled by the Geothermal Energy Association for 2013 show China produced only 27 megawatts of electricity from this type of energy — 0.008 percent of that harnessed by world leader, the United States in the same year. Growth is initially expected to be strongest in the radiant heating sector — replacing some coal use — with high-capacity electricity generation coming later.

Sinopec has not unveiled any concrete plans for expanded geothermal electricity generation in western China, but Yunnan should stand to benefit. The province has 706 hot springs — second only to Tibet — and thermally heated water often tops out at 250 degrees centigrade in the province, or 100 degrees hotter than that needed for standard electricity production.

Image: Bestourism

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