The CHN Energy Taizhou Power Generation Co. in east China's Jiangsu Province in 2017 (COURTESY PHOTO)
The year 1952 was a memorable year for both Wang Xuezhen, who is an 85-year-old retired coal miner today, and the industry he was engaged in for most of his professional life. That year, Wang, then 18, got his first formal job in a coal mine after a string of badly paid jobs, working for landlords.
It was also the year when China's coal production reached a then record high of 66.49 million tons. It was the culmination of three years' efforts since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 to revive the old mines that had been destroyed or fallen into disuse during the War of Liberation (1946-49).
The mines needed strong workers like Wang, as machines had not yet been introduced to extract and transport coal.
Wang became a new recruit at the Rujigou coalfield in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwest China, one of the country's oldest mines. It was the start of a lifelong career in coal mining. Later, he became a director.
"Those days, we mostly used shovels to dig out coal. I would haul 2 tons of coal from the mine every day," he told Beijing Review. "Now, everything has changed. Trolleys and shovels have become history. The whole industry has been overhauled with modern equipment, advanced technology
and scientific management." The Rujigou coal mine is owned by CHN Energy, the largest coal mining company in the world with its annual production capacity totaling 560 million tons.
Zhao Zhizhi (center), Manager of the Hongliu Coal Mine in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwest China, shows visitors around the mine on August 20 (COURTESY PHOTO)
In 2018, the total coal production in China was 3.55 billion tons, more than 100 times the volume seven decades ago.
According to a 2018 report by the International Energy Agency, China has been the world's largest producer of coal since 1985.
With progress in technology and equipment modernization, the hard manual labor is a thing of the past. Today, workers staff computers, monitoring the work of automatic machines that are doing their job.
When the Hongliu coal mine, another mine under CHN Energy in Ningxia, was opened in 2011, almost 50 percent of its operations were automated, according to Zhao Zhizhi, Manager of Hongliu.
Today, a sophisticated system is employed to monitor the loading of coal on the conveyor belts to avoid potential accidents in transportation. Remote monitoring and control and unmanned machinery rooms have substantially improved production efficiency and safety.
Li Wei, director of the monitoring center of Hongliu, told Beijing Review that in the past, when there was a problem, it would take at least an hour to identify and rectify it. But now, remote control technicians can make the malfunctioning equipment start working in minutes.
"This makes the production and transportation of coal more efficient," Li said.
People work in the Rujigou coalfield in the 1960s (COURTESY PHOTO)
Around the time Wang retired, outdated and depleted mines began to be shut down to improve the environment and cut overcapacity. In the Rujigou coalfield, only one mine is still in operation.
In 2016, Rujigou Anthracite Co., a subsidiary of CHN Energy that operates the mine, began to clean up the pollution caused by mining. It stopped all coal mining in the ecological buffer zone of the Helan Mountain National Nature Reserve and invested 83.36 million yuan ($11.6 million) to restore the local environment.
The quality of the air in the mountains has improved over the past when workers needed to wear masks, said Wang Baoming, chief engineer of Rujigou Anthracite. Over 2,000 willows have been planted this year to make the black mountains green.
"Excessive mining in the past led to environmental pollution, while chaotic competition pushed coal prices overly low. After a ban on overexploitation, the environment and profits of local coal mines have both improved," Wang told Beijing Review.
To reduce emissions caused by coal burning, coal-fired power plants under CHN Energy are upgrading their production systems. All its coal-fired power generation units meet the national emissions standards, which parallel those of Japan and are stricter than the United States' and the EU's. Also, the group has 180 million kw of installed thermal power capacity, accounting for 15.8 percent of the country's total.
Liu Baohua, deputy head of the National Energy Administration, said at a press conference that over 70 percent of the coal-fired power plants in China have achieved ultra-low emissions.
In the production zone of CHN Energy Taizhou Power Generation Co. in Jiangsu Province in east China, the smoke issuing out of the chimneys is almost as white as the clouds in the sky, thanks to improved technology. It is a sharp contrast from the earlier coal-fired power plants belching out black smoke and ash.
According to Chen Xuwei, general manager of the company, the white stream is actually steam as a result of technologies such as the desulfurization of coal for ultra-low emissions, notably carbon emissions.
The company has also installed nets to prevent the spread of coal ash, Chen said.
(Reporting from Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Jiangsu Province)
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
Comments to email@example.com