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The New China Syndrome – An Energy Resource Gambit

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Alan Rozich's picture
Director, BioConversion Solutions

Providing quantitative sustainability insights using sound technical analyses with a management consulting approach to craft strategies that address the mega-trends that are occurring in the...

  • Member since 2017
  • 61 items added with 45,580 views
  • Mar 2, 2022


The China Syndrome is a movie released in 1979 that chronicles events at a fictitious nuclear power plant where an investigative news team uncovers flawed safety practices that may cause the installation to have a meltdown. A nuclear meltdown is a scenario where the reactor heats up uncontrollably to the point where an explosion may occur resulting in egregious release of radioactivity to surrounding environs. The term, meltdown, now popularly connotes a seemingly sudden and catastrophic occurrence that transpires in political or financial entities. Such a technical economic scenario is arguably gestating in today’s China being driven by government directives that seek to increase the country’s middle class. The government mandates, while potentially beneficial, are evidently not sensitized to the interlinkage of economic class and resource consumption, particularly concerning energy resources. Attempting to transition 400 million citizens from one level of societal functionality to another en masse has huge resource implications, especially concerning energy consumption and supply.


The 21st Century version of the China Syndrome is a potential meltdown that is economic in nature and unrelated to nuclear power.

It is, however, largely driven by the government goal to increase the current middle-class population of about 400 million to  800 million making it about 60% of the total population. Unfortunately, the plan appears to be mortally stricken based on resource realities.

By knowing the number of people that are to be transitioned to a middle-class economy and understanding the relationship between energy footprint and economic class, one can estimate the additional energy requirements that are needed to accomplish this economic transition. This information can then be utilized to project the number of new energy production installations or power plants that are needed to meet this goal.

Relationship Between Energy Footprint and Economic Class

The goal of lifting large swaths of economic classes from lower to higher levels of societal functionality ultimately requires a substantial increase in resources that are needed by newly ordained members of the middle class. Although it is intuitively obvious that economic class has a significant impact on rates of resource consumption, the “devil is in the details.” To use this parameter as part of a sustainability engineering effort, consider the work of Dr. Earl Cook who in the 1970s was able to quantify the relationship between economic class and energy consumption (Cook, E., “The Flow of Energy in an Industrial Society”, Scientific American, September, 1971). A graph based on his data is shown below.

Estimating China's Energy Requirements for Transitioning the Population to a Middle Class Economy

Using the thinking of Cook and the chart above, one can estimate the increase in energy supply needed to transition China into a middle-class economy. First, we need to determine how many people need to be transitioned to middle class. China's current middle-class population is about 400 million and the government goal is to increase this class by about 400 million to a new middle-class total of 800 million making this economic segment about 60% of the total population. It is feasible to suggest that the EU average energy footprint of 123,000 kcal/cap/day is the design target that is representative of a middle-class energy footprint. It is assumed that the populations that are to be transitioned are currently functioning at the poverty level. The criteria for energy poverty provides the base energy footprint which is 1,300 kcal per capita per day.

The increased energy needed to propel 400 million people to the middle class is the difference between middle class and poverty level energy footprint ((123,000 - 1,300) kcal/capita/day). This difference is multiplied by 400 million capita which allows us to calculate the amount of energy increase per year needed to accomplish the transition.

The analysis indicates that the Chinese will have to provide an energy increase of about 57 QUAD per year to transition 400 million people into the middle class. This results in a 42% increase in China's energy consumption based on 2019 energy consumption of 135 QUAD/year.

Implications of China's Energy Requirements for Transitioning the Population to a Middle Class Economy

Increasing energy consumption by 57 QUAD is a daunting task. The enormity of this undertaking is perhaps better appreciated by estimating the number of power plant installations that are required to meet this goal. Using QUAD production factors for coal and nuclear, China would have to install either:

  •   114 dams the size of Three Gorges (0.500 QUAD/year/installation)
  •    33,333 500 MW Coal Power plants (0.015 QUAD/year/installation)
  •    8,333 2,000 MW Nuclear plants (0.060 QUAD/year/installation)

Of course, one could also deploy a combination of these systems that meets the 57 QUAD/year goal. However, it is clear that China must consider significantly raising the level of its energy imports to provide the significantly increased level of energy required to meet President Xi's goals. Additionally, it is prudent to consider adding natural gas and/or RNG (renewable natural gas) to the energy supply quiver given the proximity and availability of natural gas suppliers in the region and elsewhere.


China’s goal is admirable, but the underlying technical constraints are grim, if not outright foreboding. There are no magic wands that are available. Unless there are radical and unforeseen technical breakthroughs, China must be prepared to provide significantly larger supplies of energy to meet President Xi's initiative. This objective alone will drive and control the overall economic transformation initiative. Furthermore, because of this reality, the Chinese also need to consider diversifying their energy mix portfolio given the huge energy consumption requirements that are pending. Specifically, it is prudent to consider adding natural gas to the mix because it can be generated in country (as RNG (renewable natural gas)) as well as imported gas from both regional and other exporting countries. Given the mammoth energy requirements that will be imposed by the transition, the transition planners must prioritize the increased supply of energy as one stand-alone initiative.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 2, 2022

Alan, meeting the needs of China's exploding population with either coal or natural gas would be an environmental disaster, and hydroelectric power is unscalable - the best locations are already taken.

That leaves nuclear power as the sole source from which China can meet its energy needs, without initiating climate Armageddon. With an estimated 200 years of known uranium deposits worldwide, and hundreds of times more which can be bred by abundant thorium, the supply of fuel is, for all practical purposes, unlimited.

Building 8,333 2GW nuclear plants wouldn't be as much of a problem as connecting and dispatching them all to meet demand. That's why I believe microreactors will be the primary means for generating electricity in the next century - nuclear reactors that can power a single village, community, or home.


Michel Lamontagne's picture
Michel Lamontagne on Mar 4, 2022

It's not a surprise that doubling the middle class increase the energy demand by half, is it?

Why build coal and nuclear plant when it is already cheaper to build renewables?  And in the process reduce the energy demand significantly by increasing efficiency?  Because all the cars for this new middle class will be new as well, why not electric cars and general transportation?  As most of the electrical demand could be renewables, why plan on a demand that includes plants at 40% efficiency and less rather than renewables?  I agree that natural gas is probably the cheapest solution for backup.  But I wonder if the basic premise is correct.  The west is saddled with heritage infrastructure and conversion costs are daunting, but if it's new infrastructure, I would expect it to be significantly more efficient.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 5, 2022

"Why build coal and nuclear plant when it is already cheaper to build renewables?"

Because renewables don't work all the time. When most people flip the switch, they want to be reasonably certain the light will turn on.

"Because all the cars for this new middle class will be new as well, why not electric cars and general transportation? "

Because renewables can't even provide one-eighth of the country's electricity now, much less electrify transportation.

"I agree that natural gas is probably the cheapest solution for backup."

Then you disagree with climate scientists, who say the cost of dependence on fossil fuels, by 2100, will be rendering one in four species on Earth extinct.

"I would expect [new infrastructure] to be significantly more efficient."

I would too, but efficiency is no substitute for clean energy. Efficiency improvements are limited; electricity generation is not. The cost of efficiency improvements increases over time, their effectiveness diminishes. If anything, we need production of clean electricity to increase exponentially over time, its cost to diminish.

Alan Rozich's picture
Thank Alan for the Post!
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