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Managing China’s coal power plants to address multiple environmental objectives


China needs to manage its coal-dominated power system to curb carbon emissions, as well as to address local environmental priorities such as air pollution and water stress. Here we examine three province-level scenarios for 2030 that represent various electricity demand and low-carbon infrastructure development pathways. For each scenario, we optimize coal power generation strategies to minimize the sum of national total coal power generation cost, inter-regional transmission cost and air pollution and water costs. We consider existing environmental regulations on coal power plants, as well as varying prices for air pollutant emissions and water to monetize the environmental costs. Comparing 2030 to 2015, we find lower CO2 emissions only in the scenarios with substantial renewable generation or low projected electricity demand. Meanwhile, in all three 2030 scenarios, we observe lower air pollution and water impacts than were recorded in 2015 when current regulations and prices for air pollutant emissions and water are imposed on coal power plants. Increasing the price of air pollutant emissions or water alone can lead to a tradeoff between these two objectives, mainly driven by differences between air pollution-oriented and water-oriented transmission system designs that influence where coal power plants will be built and retired.

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Fig. 1: Spatial distribution of air pollution and water stress in China.
Fig. 2: National and regional electricity generation mix in 2015 and in 2030 scenarios under existing environmental policies.
Fig. 3: Percentage changes in national total CO2 emissions, air pollution impacts (Air, population density-weighted air pollutant emissions) and water impacts (Water, WSI-weighted water consumption) in the 2030 scenarios compared to 2015.
Fig. 4: Inter-regional electricity transmission pattern.
Fig. 5: Regional distributions of changes in CO2 emissions, air pollution impacts (Air, population density-weighted air pollutant emissions) and water impacts (Water, WSI-weighted water consumption).

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Data availability

Data used to perform this study can be found in the Supplementary Information. Any further data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding authors upon request.


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W.P. thanks the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University for her graduate fellowship and the J.F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University for postdoctoral fellowship. C.D. acknowledges the funding support of the UK Natural Environment Research Council Fellowship (grant no. NERC NE/N01524X/1). We thank Y. Satoh for sharing water availability data, and K. Feng, L. Liu and X. He for valuable suggestions.

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Authors and Affiliations



W.P., F.W. and D.L.M. designed the study. W.P. performed the research. F.W., M.V.R., H.Z, M.J.S., C.D. and X.Z. contributed data and analysis tools. W.P. and D.L.M wrote the initial manuscript and all authors contributed to subsequent revisions.

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Correspondence to Denise L. Mauzerall.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes 1–5, Supplementary Tables 1–10, Supplementary Figures 1–16, Supplementary References 1–25

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Peng, W., Wagner, F., Ramana, M.V. et al. Managing China’s coal power plants to address multiple environmental objectives. Nat Sustain 1, 693–701 (2018).

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