The feature I wrote ran in the Daily yesterday. Unfortunately, the editing took away my voice, the excitement, and all of the fun parts (there's no way would willingly omit karaoke from the article), so I'm posting both versions.
The Coolest Field Trip Ever?
China Energy Systems Field Trips—CEE 276F—visited China during Spring break to get a firsthand look at its rapidly developing energy infrastructure. On Thursday night, they shared their experience with the Stanford community in a talk titled “Meeting the Energy and Environmental Challenge.”
“If there is one word for China it is ‘scale’,” said Stanford energy professor Jane Woodward. Despite inhabiting a land area similar in size to the United States, China’s population is five times larger, and the majority lives in an area half the size of the US. Consider the 9% annual economic growth, and the required supporting energy, electricity, urbanization, and manpower, you begin to get an idea of just how huge it is.
The scale—and rapid development—of China is what makes it a pivotal player in the global energy system. Over Spring break, 30 Stanford students had the opportunity to see just how expansive China’s energy infrastructure is. From March 19th to 31st, the China Energy Systems Field Trip class, or CEE 276F, traveled from the capital, Beijing to the far reaches of Inner Mongolia, Yichang, Shanghai, and seven provinces in between. Led by Woodward and Director of Sustainable Energy Education Karl Knapp, the class, which has been offered three times, every other year during winter quarter, provides a unique opportunity during spring break for a more “hands on” approach to energy education.
“Students studying energy typically have fewer opportunities to see energy facilities for themselves, or to talk to decision makers in person. Our visit to China is an effort to correct this unfortunate trend,” said Knapp and Woodward in a written overview of the trip. MAP Royalty, a private firm that acquires and manages natural gas and renewable energy royalties, played a large role in funding the trip as one of its sustainable energy education initiatives.
“I have every reason to believe that this trip accomplished its goal of taking 30 Stanford students committed to spending their careers in the energy/environment arena – on a trip that they will never forget,” said Woodward, who also serves as CEO of MAP Royalty.
The trip proved to be an unforgettable experience for all students involved, myself included. China itself is expansive, our trip could be summarized as “superlative.” Whether it was the largest dam in the world, the leading solar thermal manufacturer, or the most efficient coal power plant in the world, we saw some truly unique places, and were able to put some of the facts we had learned about China in a real physical context. But it wasn’t just the places that made the trip incredible. It was the scope of the trip, and the breadth of information we were able to absorb in just twelve days.
“We went all over China. In one day we passed through four provinces in seventeen hours,” said Sam Ramirez, ‘10. While the rate of four provinces per day was a one-time occurrence, all of our days were just as hectic, in the rare case when they weren’t even more so.
Despite the nonstop pace and limited sleep schedule, we managed to experience a bit of culture, most often in the form of karaoke. “Evidently, karaoke is considered one of the basic human needs along with food, shelter and water,” said Brad Copithorne, MS ’10. Indeed, there seemed to be a karaoke club within a block of, if not in, every one of our hotels. Even our bus became a karaoke haven when Knapp figured out how to connect iPods to the bus’s microphone system.
I only hope no one recorded my performances.
As United flight 889 descended into the Beijing airport, I pressed my nose against the window. Land use zoning regulations seemed nearly non-existent, as industrial complexes, garbage dumps, residential areas, and sheep pastures, all adjacent to one another, spotted the landscape below.
Once we touched down, 30 students, groggy with jetlag and armed with quarantine and foreign visitor forms, meandered slowly through customs. After Charlie Lannin’s, ’11, brief detainment with Chinese authorities—something about a stuffy nose—we loaded into the bus, ready for the dusty, smoggy, coal-filled country awaiting our arrival.
Twenty four hours, an acrobat show—”a little known but pretty cool fact is that the Chinese can actually control gravity,” said Brenden Millstein, MBA/MS ’10—a duck dinner (complete with duck brain), Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City tours later, we met with some of the energy experts whose policy we had been studying so extensively in the winter quarter class.
In a traditional Chinese teahouse, we met with representatives from the Natural Resources Defense Council, (NRDC), a U.S. environmental NGO with offices in Beijing. Woodward’s relationship with the NGO is what inspired and spurred the trip, and the meeting began to contextualize China’s expansive energy system in which we were about to immerse ourselves.
Over the next 10 days, we managed to fit in an exceptional amount of visits. NRDC, WWF, Tsinghua University, Himin Solar, Goldwind, Petro China/Shell, Ordos Xingxing LNG facility, Guyang Damao Wind Farm, Three Gorges Dam, Waigaoqiao Coal Power Plant, and the Shanghai Energy Conservation Museum were only some of the organizations with whom we met or received a tour.
While I could write 20 pages about any one of the tours we received, the ones that stand out most vividly are the ones that are the largest, most remote, or most something in the world.
Take the Three Gorges Dam, for example. If you’re envisioning a dam disappearing into the mist as it spans the Yangtze, an endless quantity of cement, and the most transmission lines you’ve ever seen in one place, then you’re spot-on. “[It’s] like the Hoover Dam, except five times as long (more than a mile across!), just as high (185 meters tall), and generates more than 10 times the power,” said Millstein.
Then there was the 5 GW coal power plant outside of Shanghai, which pumps out enough juice to provide 10% of California’s peak power demand. With ultra super-critical (read: “clean”) coal technology, the Waigaoqiao Coal Power Plant is the second largest—and most efficient—coal plant in the world. But it doesn’t end there.
We also visited Ordos Basin in Inner Mongolia, the remote natural gas capital of China. More natural gas is produced there than in any other region of the country, and we had the opportunity to tour one of the only inland liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants in the world. The road to it was barely wide enough for our bus to avoid a head on collision with an LNG truck, but somehow we made it through unscathed. “Neither our bus nor this tricycle vehicle fell off the road the way it felt we would,” said Woodward.
We also toured renewable power and manufacturing plants, primarily wind and solar facilities. “We dream that all Chinese people know and consume solar energy,” reads a Himin Solar—China’s dominant solar thermal manufacturer—billboard. In a visit to Himin’s Dezhou headquarters, we experienced the dream in the form of a solar valley: a half-built city complete with high-end condos and a resort, running almost entirely on renewable energy. Which makes sense, but kind of doesn’t since there’s not a lot of visible sunlight in China. Or at least there wasn’t when we were there.
The reason? Air pollution. With the “super efficient” coal power plants, abundant renewable energy resources, and government incentives for clean power, it’s easy to forget that two new coal plants are coming online every week in China. Until you go outside—then it’s impossible to forget. “No sun either, just an angry red blotch futilely trying to break through the gray-yellow mono-cloud of particulate matter holding the world hostage in the strong arms of haze,” as Millstein put it.
Twelve days, seven provinces, five power plants, two manufacturing plants, and endless particulate matter exposure later, we boarded the plane back to San Francisco.
Despite the dominance of coal, visible in sky and city, our trip showed how committed China currently is to a renewable energy future. Through scale, speed, and low cost—the themes of Thursday’s presentation—China is rapidly developing an expansive renewable energy system.
But the rise of renewable energy in China wasn’t the only sign of hope we encountered on our journey. “I think my favorite thing on this trip has actually been the group of 30 engineers I've been traveling with. Everyone is super warm, welcoming, fun/interesting to talk to, smart, stunningly non-cliquey and open, and every single one is trying to stop climate change,” said Millstein.
Given Stanford’s amazing sustainable energy education and the incredible group of people with whom I journeyed through China, I would say it’s a challenge we’re willing to confront.