China: New emission standards for power plants

Photo: dbgg1979/ CC BY

China’s new emission standards for power plants are comparable to, and in some cases even stricter than, current standards in the EU and the United States.

As of 1 January 2012, newly constructed power plants in China must achieve tougher emission standards for sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). For existing power plants, the new standards will take effect as from 1 July 2014. Moreover, starting in 2015, all power plants (new and existing) will be subject to mercury emission standards.

The new Chinese emission standards for air pollutants from thermal power plants were adopted by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in July 2011, and they replace standards that had been in effect since 2003.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the very high – and continuously increasing – burning of coal for power generation in China has caused severe air pollution problems. Levels of air pollutants are high in cities throughout the country, with 90 per cent of those assessed as failing to meet the health-based air quality recommendations by the World Health Organization. There are also acid rain problems across large regions of southern China.

The new emission standards are differentiated by fuel type, and plants using gas or oil have standards at least as strict as those for coal-fired plants.

Specifically for coal-fired power plants, China’s new standards are generally stricter than the binding minimum standards currently in place in the EU, both for new and existing plants. In many cases they are also stricter than the standards in the United States. A comparison of emission standards has been published by the World Resource Institute (WRI), and is summarised in the table.

In addition, nine key regions in China with the most severe air pollution problems will face even stricter emission standards than those set out in the table. In these regions all existing and new coal-fired power plants will have to achieve emission limit values for SO2, NOx and PM of 50, 100 and 20 milligrams per cubic metre (mg/m3), respectively.

It has been reported that China has raised electricity prices for industrial users in order to pay for the investments needed for air pollution abatement. WRI concludes that this increase in the price of coal-fired power is expected to encourage energy efficiency and improve the competitiveness of renewable sources of energy.

Coal combustion is currently responsible for close to half of the global anthropogenic emissions of mercury into the air, and cutting these emissions is a matter of urgency.

The Chinese emission limit value of 30 micrograms of mercury per cubic metre (µg/m3) is a first step in this direction. As this emission level is likely to be met as a result of applying emission control technologies needed anyway to meet the standards for SO2, NOx and PM, it is not expected to give rise to any significant extra costs.

For comparison, the emission standards of the new Mercury Air Toxics Rule (MATS) in the United States were set on the basis that by 2016 all plants shall achieve a mercury emission performance in line with the 12 per cent best performing plants in the country. This rule is however currently in the process of review by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a final decision by the EPA is expected by March 2013.

By contrast, the EU currently has no legislation setting binding mercury emission limit values for large combustion plants. But it may consider introducing mercury control as a result of the ongoing review of the BAT (best available technique) reference documents for large combustion plants under the Industrial Emissions directive.

Christer Ågren

Source: China adopts world-class pollutant emission standards for coal power plants (June 2012). World Resources Institute.

Table: Air pollutant emission standards for coal-fired power plants in China, European Union and the United States (mg/m3)

1) 400 for four provinces with high-sulphur coal
2) 500 until end 2015; 200 as from 2016
3) 160 for plants built 1997-2005; 640 for plants built 1978-1996
4) 100 for plants built 2004-2011; 200 for plants built before 2004
5) 117 for plants built after 2005; 160 for plants built 1997-2005; 640 for plants built 1978-1996
Source: WRI (2012)


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