Long way to go for flammable ice to be a solution

By Xu Xiawei and Bao Cunkuan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/25 23:13:39

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

China has recently succeeded in mining flammable ice in the South China Sea, a historic breakthrough for the country's exploitation and utilization of natural gas hydrates. This is of great significance for China, which is in a phase of upgrading its energy systems, as well as economic transformation and air quality improvement. However, despite the huge interest in commercialization of flammable ice, realizing this goal will still be very tough.

First, a clear understanding and comprehensive disclosure of the environmental risks involved with flammable ice development is essential, from the technical testing to commercial development. It has been reported that more than 30 countries and regions including the US and Japan have been researching flammable ice since the 1950s. China started late but has made rapid progress. No country is yet able to mine flammable ice on a large scale. One of the fundamental reasons is that flammable ice exploration could lead to geological disasters, greenhouse effects and ecological damage far more terrible than the risks posed by traditional oil and gas exploration.

Second, the economic feasibility of flammable ice, especially the reduction of costs to a level comparable with traditional fossil fuels, is undoubtedly a prerequisite for wide-scale use of it. Even if flammable ice can be mass produced and commercialized, and if the cost can be reduced, it will still face competition from other renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal and biomass energy. It can also be predicted that the commercialization of flammable ice will depend on national subsidies, just like other renewable energies, which indicates that it will take a long time for flammable ice to enter the real markets through cost advantage.

Finally, for flammable ice to play an important role in China's energy structure, a more substantial adjustment should be made to the existing energy and economic systems. China's economic and social systems still have a high degree of dependence on coal. Market rules in the energy sector that contribute to coal use, as well as individuals' and enterprises' preference for fossil energy instead of more expensive new energies, are deeply rooted in China's society. The proportion of new and renewable energy in the nation's energy structure has increased very slowly, so altering the dominance of fossil energy will be tough.

Based on these three aspects, the large-scale development and commercialization of flammable ice in the short term is not realistic in China. But the extent to which flammable ice could help us to improve the overall quality of the environment is worth consideration. In the next 20 years, to achieve China's economic transformation and upgrading, energy structure optimization and air quality improvement need to be solved through energy demand control and energy supply optimization. First, we must promote an energy consumption revolution to control unreasonable energy consumption growth. Second, an energy supply revolution must be promoted, leading to the green transformation of the nation's energy structure.

China's economic transformation, energy upgrading and air quality improvement are difficult and long-term tasks, so we need to maintain strength and confidence at all levels of government and society. We need to curb irrational expectations for new energy and to realize that the promotion of "economy-energy-environment" collaborative development is not a short -term task, and it cannot be achieved purely through the emergence of a new energy. We also need to respect the laws of economic and technological development, to control the demand side and to optimize the supply side. Constant insistence on these principles will definitely bring success.

Xu Xiawei is a PhD student with the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering at Fudan University. Bao Cunkuan is a professor with the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering at Fudan University. bizopinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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