Category: Environmental Tidbits

Sulfur dioxide emissions in China

Sulfur dioxide is a component of air pollution that leads to the formation of smog and acid rain and can cause some nasty respiratory illnesses.  Shit’s bad news.  The burning of coal makes up 90% of sulfur dioxide emissions. I’m currently researching sulfur dioxide emissions at a particular power plant in Linfen, but in addition to that, I’ve been compiling data on macro-level sulfur dioxide.  Here are some lovely graphs and tables for everyone’s edification and a brief context for that staple of the planned economy, the five-year economic plan of China.

China’s sulfur dioxide emissions from 2005-2010 are as follows:

Year              Sulfur dioxide (tonnes)
2005              25,494,000
2006              25,888,000
2007              24,681,000
2008             23,212,000
2009              22,144,000
2010              21,851,000


Please note that the y-axis does NOT start at 0.

The highest sulfur dioxide emitting provinces in 2010 are as follows:

Province                  sulfur dioxide (tonnes (2010))
1. Shandong              1,538,000
2. Inner Mongolia      1,394,000
3. Henan                    1,339,000
4. Shanxi                   1,249,000
5. Hebei                      1,234,000


Please note that here, as well, the y-axis does NOT start at 0.

The highest sulfur dioxide emitting provinces in 2010 per capita, however, are as follows:

Province                  sulfur dioxide (tonnes per capita (2010))
1. Ningxia                  0.055
2. Inner Mongolia      0.052
3. Xinjiang                0.028
4. Shanxi                   0.026
5. Jilin                        0.021

As usual, the significant figures are iffy because I don’t know the uncertainty on the data that I have.  Notice all the provinces are in the north. Ahh, bless the north with its bountiful noodles, gangly demographics, and sulfur dioxide! Also, after an admittedly not thorough literature search, it is unclear to me why these provinces are the most emitting per capita.  Some papers claim it is linearly related to GDP per capita, which makes sense, but I’m not going to pretend that I did any research into whether or why Ningxia has a high GDP per capita.  But then some papers say that there is no correlation.  I just know that Ningxia is known for its grapes.  We all know that…people working in the grape industry…need to burn coal…ok, I’m pulling this out of my ass.  I doubt that grape production is correlated with sulfur dioxide, but perhaps that is a masters thesis waiting to be written! You’re welcome, hypothetical graduate student!

To put these numbers in rough context, the data I got from my power plant in Linfen says that pre-scrubbing, the sulfur content of the total coal burned per day is on average 100 tonnes.  That means that if all of that sulfur is converted to sulfur dioxide, the mass is around 200 tonnes. But if we assume the desulfurization equipment can get rid of 90% of the sulfur dioxide, that means that a single, modern 600MW power plant emits about 20 tonnes of sulfur dioxide per day.  So China’s total sulfur dioxide emissions per year is EQUIVALENT to about the SO2 emissions of 3000 power plants of the specs I’ve assumed above.

China realized on paper that they needed curb their emissions during the tenth five-year plan (2000-2005).  In the tenth five-year plan for energy conservation and emissions reduction (节能减排第十五规划), they set a target to reduce SOby 10% compared to 2000 levels, but sulfur dioxide emissions actually increased 42% during that period.  They fucked that one up, but many people probably got shiny BMWs out of all of it.

They did better during the eleventh five-year plan (2005-2010).  They actually reduced SO2 by 14% from 2005 levels!  This is especially impressive because the economy was developing and electricity generation actually grew by nearly 80% in this time period.  Flue-gas desulfurization (FGD), or scrubbers, were installed on 86% of all power plants by the end of 2010, compared with 14% by the end of 2005. Schreifels’s paper (see below) cites six factors for the reduction in emissions:  (1) the instruments used to outline the goal, (2) the political commitment to enforce the emission targets, (3) Central government accountability for provincial and local officials and power company executives, (4) verification of emission measurements by the Central government, (5) greater government focus at all levels on the SO2 goal, and (6) revised policies and programs that placed an emphasis on performance and incentives. I’m not going to write out all the details because really you should read the paper, because it’s awesome. It’s quite specific about how incentives, enforcement, and better coordination between governmental bureaus have curbed SO2 emissions.


Basically everything on the history of policy is from this article and this article, and all my numbers from the China Environmental Statistical Yearbook. The most recent data I could get was from 2010. Full citation below:

Schreifels, J.J., Fu, Y., Wilson, E. J. Sulfur dioxide control in China: policy evolution during the 10th and 11th Five-year Plans and lessons for the future. Energy Policy, September 2012.

Gao, C., Huaqiang, Y., Ai, N., Huang, Z. Historical Analysis of SO2 Pollution Control Policies in China. Environmental Management, January 2009.

Chinese coal production

Time for some more graphs.  Since I did coal consumption many months ago, why not do coal production?



Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, and Shaanxi are the top coal-producing provinces by far.  Collectively, they produced over 67% of China’s coal in 2012.  Shanxi and Inner Mongolia produced 54% of China’s coal in 2012.

Cultural lesson: why have my y-axis in units of 10,000 tonnes of coal? Because in Chinese, you don’t count based on thousands, millions, and billions (factors of 1000.). You count in factors of 10000, known as wan, 万。I just copied all of it from China Data Online so it’s still in these units out of laziness, I suppose you could say.

You can actually find this information in the Coal Museum in Taiyuan(煤炭博物馆), a convenient ten-minute walk from my home on Yingze Dajie, just west of the Fen River.  I think it is the only useful I thing I learned from the coal museum, although the 3D movie is nice; it sprays water at you to simulate dinosaurs spitting during the naissance of coal formation.

Converting emissions standards, China vs. U.S.


Table taken from

The table above managed to cause me about a month’s worth of confusion. Fucking table. The purpose of this blog entry is for those who hate English units, hate conversion factors of vague origins, or just hate a lot of things in general.  Hate is the theme of this post.  That and pollution.  I hate pollution.  Anyway, I hope the following post will save you the confusion it caused me. Acknowledgments to Jeremy Schreifels, who sent me lots of good resources for deciphering this mess.

China’s new air pollution standards went into effect on January 1, 2012.  These new standards, much more strict than the previous ones established in 2003, are finally on par with the rest of the world (see above table). I’m in the business of sulfur dioxide standards, so I started staring at the table and comparing the U.S. standards to China’s.  China’s standards are in mg/m3, i.e. milligrams of sulfur dioxide per cubic meter of flue gas.  The U.S.’s standards are in lb/millionBtu(mmBtu), or pounds of sulfur dioxide per million Btu of coal. But if you look at the table, someone already did the dirty work and converted the U.S. units of lb/mmBtu into mg/m3.  But for those of us who are analytical and shit, this was actually a disservice.  I want to know where the numbers come from, dammit!

The conversion is not just your simple English-to-metric wahoo.  The pounds-to-milligrams and cubic-feet-to-cubic-meter stuff is trivial.  We have to do one key conversion (Eq.1):FfactorconversionThe first factor on the right is what U.S. EPA standards are defined in. How do we find the second factor? Turns out its reciprocal is something called the F-factor, which is a ratio of flue gas produced per heat generated by a fuel.  F-factors are determined by using stoichiometric calculations, explained further on this EPA page.

This conversion assumes that we are using bituminous coal, which has an F-factor of 9780 dscf/mmBtu or 1800 scf CO2/mmBtu. (Here dscf stands for “dry standard cubic feet” and scf stands for “standard cubic feet,” and scf CO2/mmBtu means standard cubic feet of COemitted per mmBtu of coal.)

So, for an example:  the US standard for SO2 new coal power plants is 0.15 lb/mmBtu. We divide by the bituminous coal F-factor, 1800 scf CO2/mmBtu to get (lb of SO2/cubic feet of CO2). Then we divide that by 12% because we assume that takes COup 12% of the volume of gas.  Then we convert lb to mg (1:4.54E5) and cubic feet to cubic meters (3.28^3:1), and we get about 160 mg/m3, and we’re done.

To summarize, the assumptions made in this conversion:

1) The coal plants use bituminous coal of F-factor 9780 dscf/mmBtu or 1800 scf CO2/mmBtu.
2) Flue gas is 12% CO2.


Another useful unit in emissions standards is ppm, parts per million by volume. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t try to dissect this one to pieces. The conversion looks like this (Eq. 2):


We got the term on the left of Eq. 2 by using Eq. 1.  Now we want to convert that number into ppm, so we need the factor on the right.  This term is called the K value and it comes from the ideal gas law.  To do this we have to convert mass to volume, so we have to assume all sorts of things about pressure and temperature.  I’m not going to go into detail on this one because, well, I haven’t had to deal with ppm yet. The K-value for SO2 is 1.66E-7 (pounds of SO2/cubic feet of flue gas/ppm).


Table of F-factors

Where I got the table (ChinaFAQs)

Derivation of conversion factors

How is the Air Quality Index (AQI) calculated?

2013-01-13 16.07.30

A photo I took on January 13, 2013, in Beijing, during record smog. That lil fella pokin’ through the smog is the Sun.

I recently hosted two friends from college here in Shanxi.  While we enjoyed cultural shenanigans and massive feasts galore, they were particularly appalled by the high levels of pollution in northern China, and we wore face masks everywhere.  This post is dedicated to them, my main mangs, Chloë Dalby and Savannah Sullivan.

I check the air quality index (AQI) regularly these days.  AQI–a unitless number that describes the safety/hazard level of the air pollution–is becoming a staple of Beijing culture, especially after the record-breaking smog earlier this winter.  Beijingers pay attention to AQI in conjunction with the weather, to see whether they should don their face masks and limit their outdoor activity.  Quite regretfully, it has not yet become as mainstream in Taiyuan, where the air quality is often on par with Beijing.

After weeks of seeing inconsistent numbers among different sources, I realized that I had no idea what the AQI actually was measuring.  I knew that raw data for emissions consisted of pollution concentrations, masses, and volumes–so what exactly is this unitless number, AQI? How does it relate to actual pollution measurements? Can you convert AQI to volumes or concentrations of PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter), PM10 (particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter), NOx (nitrogen oxides), SO2, or other pollutants in the air? I also realized that this is basic knowledge for someone studying air pollution in China, and I lacked legitimacy and street cred because of my ignorance.  Thus, I decided to understand AQI in the method of my physics forefathers–from first principles.  (Okay, it’s not really first principles.  But a physicist can pretend.)  This blog post is for those of you who wish to understand where the AQI comes from.  I will not explain the color code, the public health implications of the different pollutants, or suggested activity level for the different levels of AQI (you can find that info here).  Instead, think of this blog post as a derivation–a very simple derivation. This derivation is a summary of the AQI calculation method by the U.S. EPA.  If you don’t like the technical mumbo-jumbo (although I tried to explain everything at a high-school math level), you can skip to the pretty graphs I made and the main conclusions I drew from this process.

Definitions and Givens:

1. Pollutant concentration measurements:
-different instruments are set up to collect air samples and physically measure SO2, NOx, PM10, PM2.5, etc.
-these instruments measure concentration, i.e. unitless proportions (e.g. parts per million) or mass per volume (e.g. micrograms per cubic meter)

2. The U.S. EPA definitions of AQI (see page 13 of this document):
-The U.S. EPA has an AQI scale from 0 to 500.  The goal is to convert the pollution concentration in #1 into a number between 0 and 500.  The AQIs of 0, 50, 100, 150,…500 are referred to as “breakpoints.”  Each AQI breakpoint corresponds to a defined pollution concentration.  The pollution concentration between the breakpoints is linearly interpolated using this equation:

I=  [(Ihi-Ilow)/(BPhi-BPlow)] (Cp-BPlow)+Ilow,

where Iis the index of the pollutant; Cp is the rounded concentration of pollutant p; BPhi is the breakpoint greater or equal to CpBPlow is the breakpoint less than or equal to Cp; Ihi is the AQI corresponding to BPhiIlow is the AQI corresponding to BPlow.  For better formatting, context, and the actual concentration definitions of the AQI, see page 13 of this document.  This equation is very simple, despite all the confusing-looking subscripts and terrible WordPress formatting! The index Ip has a linear relationship with the concentration Cp, with [(Ihi-Ilow)/(BPhi-BPlow)] as the slope.  SAT math.

3. The AQI is determined by the pollutant with the highest index.  For example, if the PM2.5 AQI is 125, the PM10 AQI is 50, SO2 is 30, NOx is 50, and all other pollutants are less than 125, then the AQI is 125–determined ONLY by the concentration of PM2.5 .

With these three givens, we can interpolate and figure out to what pollution concentration the AQI corresponds. The graph below shows how each US EPA-defined AQI corresponds to single pollutant concentrations.  If you like looking at tables instead, check out this site. And if you want to calculate AQIs from concentration, check out this site.

NOTE: Because the US embassies in China only measure PM2.5, the AQIs it reports in China are based purely on PM2.5 concentrations and do not include other pollutants.  Consequently, during events such as sandstorms where pollutants other than PM2.5 are the dominating factor, the US embassy AQI reading may be artificially low.


Graph 1:This graph shows how each US EPA-defined AQI corresponds to single pollutant concentrations. Each dot represents a breakpoint. For PM10 and PM2.5 (solid lines), read the left axis. For NOx and SO2 (the dotted lines), read the right axis.  The reported AQI corresponds to the concentration level of the pollutant with the highest index.  For example, if the PM2.5 AQI is 125, the PM10 AQI is 50, SO2 is 30, NOx is 50, and all other pollutants are less than 125, then the AQI is 125–determined ONLY by the concentration of PM2.5. In addition, the US EPA does not have a short-term NOx National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), so a NOx index can only be over 200.  Note: this graph does not include all the sources of air pollution considered in AQI calculation.  Other sources include ozone and CO. Source: US EPA.

Using this interpolation method, we can also figure out the method that the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) calculates AQI.  (Note:  the Chinese index is referred to as “API,” which stands for Air Pollution Index.)  China also has the same API breakpoints as the US AQI (increments of 50 from 0 to 500), but they are defined to be different concentration levels than the US. For example, a Chinese PM2.5 index of 50 does not correspond to the same PM2.5 concentration level as a US PM2.5 index of 50 (see Graph 2).  The Yale site also includes some API standards for China, and the MEP original standards document (in Chinese) is here.  I’ve converted it into graph format because I can’t resist using Igor Pro:


Graph 2: This graph shows the disparity between US AQI calculation and China API calculation for PM2.5. Note that Chinese standards are more linear than US standards. For an API between 0 and 200, China has a laxer standard for PM2.5 than the US. The PM2.5 concentration level for AQIs at and above 200 are the same for US and China. US and Chinese standards for PM10 are the same. Source: US EPA and Chinese MEP.

Main Conclusions:

1. The AQI is calculated differently in different countries because they have different qualifications for “good,” “moderate,” “hazardous,” etc., air.  Just because the U.S. embassy AQI differs from the Chinese API in the same city doesn’t mean that one of them is falsifying their data. (Can’t point any fingers just yet.)  In addition, China’s API may differ from the US embassy-measured AQI because the US only measures PM2.5, whereas China’s API is based on measurements of several pollutants. China’s PM2.5 index calculation is currently more lax than the US; for example, API 100 on the Chinese scale has a higher pollutant concentration than AQI 100 on the US scale.  The Chinese attribute this to the fact that they are a developing country.  You can compare the live AQIs measured by the US embassy and the API measured by MEP. MEP covers more Chinese cities than the US.

2. The AQI is NOT linear.  An AQI of 200 does not mean that the pollution concentration is twice as heavy compared to an AQI of 100.

3.  From a pollution scientist’s point of view, the AQI/API is not a very useful number.  If you give me an overall AQI, I can’t break that number down into component pollutant concentrations.  I can’t rigorously conclude the source of an AQI of 300.  The AQI is designed for the general public, not for scientific purposes.  The exception is the US embassy in China’s reported AQI, which is only based on one pollution source, PM2.5.

Side Note:

People may remember from my previous post, Beijing’s AQI reached over 700 on the U.S. scale in January.  Technically, this is “beyond index”–the pollution levels have exceeded the levels for which AQI is defined.  But this air analyst has confirmed my hypothesis that after the AQI exceeds 500, the U.S. embassy simply linearly extrapolates the AQI.

*EDIT: Aug. 5, 2013, CORRECTIONS: China’s index is known as API, not AQI.  Clarifications also made about US embassy only measuring PM2.5. Thanks to Adam Century for bringing these to my attention.

Linfen: my visit to the most polluted city in China, part 3

This post is the last in a series of three about my homestay and visit to a power plant in Linfen, Shanxi Province. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.


Me with my hosts in Linfen at the Yao Temple complex.

Xiong and his wife had been cooking dinner for me every night.  “Your parents made Yao feel at home in America,” Xiong’s wife had said to me, referring to her son.  “I want you to feel as though you’ve come home too.”

On my last night, dinner was a variety of dishes, including home-pickled longbeans, a Jiangxi specialty.  I ate a lot of it.

Xiong’s wife had smiled at my enthusiasm for the longbeans.  “They’re Yao’s favorite, too,” she said.

But now the wooden dining board was tucked neatly in the corner again, and I was curled up on the sofa, reading The Brothers Karamazov and trying to tune out the awful program that was playing on CCTV.  I think it was the children singing.

His wife was playing Spider Solitaire on the computer.  Xiong was shuffling back and forth in the room, sometimes watching TV, sometimes peeling a mandarin orange, sometimes ogling his fish.

“Tomorrow is the winter solstice,” Xiong announced suddenly.

“Tomorrow is also the end of the world,” I said.

“You know what you have to do on the winter solstice,” Xiong said.

“No, what do you have to do on the winter solstice?” I asked, looking up from my book.

“You have to eat dumplings, or your ears will fall off,” he replied.  “It’s a Chinese tradition.  You’re leaving tomorrow morning, so we must have dumplings for breakfast tomorrow!”

“I’m too lazy to make dumplings,” his wife said.  “Let’s just go out and buy some frozen ones.”  She got up from her computer game, and they started to put on their heavy winter gear.  She laced up her boots, and he put on his winter coat.

I stood up.  “Don’t go out into the cold for my sake,” I said.  “I don’t need dumplings.”

They laughed and continued dressing anyway.  “Who says the dumplings are for you?” Xiong said, smiling at me as they left.  “We want our ears.”


It was warm in my room.  That night, I contemplated sleeping naked—a luxury that I allowed myself all too frequently in China, especially when I’d allowed myself that that other luxury, drinking.

I was sober tonight, but that didn’t stop me from flinging my clothes off like a tipsy college student.  My socks were stained with coal dust from the plant tour.  I stood in my slippers against the cold tile floor.  The city was quiet.  I peered outside before closing my curtains—in the city lights, I could still see the fog swirling beneath me in a grey-amber glow.  But if I closed my eyes and slipped into bed, I could imagine myself back in pastoral Ohio.

Linfen: my visit to the most polluted city in China, part 2

This post is the second in a series of three about my homestay and visit to a power plant in Linfen, Shanxi Province. Read Part 1 here.

I got the opportunity to visit this power plant in Linfen because of an obscure family connection.  Xiong, whose job at the power plant, according to him, is to “keep people in line,” has a son, Y–, who is married to my dad’s former graduate student.  Y– is tall and broad for a Chinese guy, with a crinkly teddy bear smile.  He has the same face as his pet border collie.  He and his wife live in Texas now, but they used to come over to my house for all major holidays while I was in high school.

Xiong is shorter than his son, but they have the same face—crinkly eyes, crooked smile, puppylike demeanor.  He and his wife moved to Linfen five years ago from X____, Jiangxi, a city in the south.  They came to work for this power plant—he’d been here since the conception of the plant in 2009.

China has a less arbitrary definition of north and south than the Mason-Dixon line—“south” is anything south of 长江, the Yangtze River, the longest river in China.  There are cultural differences between the north and south, the most definitive of which is that southerners traditionally eat rice, and northerners eat wheat and other grains.  However, southern and northern culture are anything but homogeneous, and I can’t tell how many of the generalizations people tell me about north and south are actually true.  For example, northerners are supposed to be more honest, but southerners are better with money.  Also, southerners are better-looking and make prettier food.

I had trouble understanding why anyone would move to colorless Linfen.

“Why did you leave Jiangxi for here?” I asked him, trying to keep the disdain out of my voice.

“The plant in Jiangxi I was working at was much older, and much smaller,” he said.  “This job pays better, and it’s more exciting.”

The money isn’t worth the pollution, I thought to myself.

“We bought a home in Xi’an,” he added.  “We’re just planning on staying here until retirement.”

Xiong’s response reminded me of a trait I’d observed among many Chinese people, including my own family—the tendency to stomach undesirable situations because they promised a brighter or stabler future.  I’m very American in my preference for short-term, transient pleasure.  I keep spending excessive amounts of money on beer.

“Can you get used to life in the north?” I asked him.  On the train, I’d heard a guy from Anhui—also in the south—complaining about noodles.  I’d had my earphones in and was pretending to read because I didn’t want to talk to anybody.  From what I’d overheard, he was spending a few months up north completing a mining-related project for his company.

“All these noodles up north,” the stranger on the train said to the girl sitting across from me.  “I can eat rice every meal of the day.  But you Shanxi folk eat noodles.  I can’t digest these goddamn noodles.”

Xiong didn’t agree.

“Oh yeah, I can definitely live here,” he said.  “The south doesn’t get heating in the winter.  Up north, it’s really cold in the winter, but everywhere is heated—at home, in the supermarkets, in the shops.”


A Linfen coal stove, used for both cooking and heating, used in houses that still aren’t hooked up to the heating plant.

“None of the south gets heating? Still? Why?” I asked.

Xiong shrugged.  “It’s Chinese energy policy,” he said.  “It’s always been this way.”

“Even if you’re just on the southern border of the Yangtze River, you still don’t get heating?” I pressed.  The policy seemed so binary for something as varied as climate.

“Yes,” he replied.  “The Jiangxi winter would be about 0 degrees Celsius outside.  Indoors, we’d have to wear all our clothes and crowd around a coal stove.  It was such a pain to crawl into bed, the blankets would be so cold…”


While I was in Linfen, the power plant was actually holding an employee ping-pong competition with some of the neighboring plants.  Xiong took me to the opening ceremony of the competition.  His wife had prepared a dance with a few other employees for the ceremony.

The opening ceremony of the ping-pong competition.

The opening ceremony of the ping-pong competition.

We left the office in the middle of the afternoon to gather in the courtyard of one of the new buildings in the plant.  The first part of the ceremony was to take place outside, complete with fake cannons and firecrackers, on a red carpet in front of some giant banners.

“One of the big bosses from Beijing is coming,” Xiong told me as we waited in the cold.  The plant was a subsidiary of a larger government-owned enterprise, and one of the leaders was showing up to the competition.  When a fancy car approached the building, employees began swarming.


The escorts hold ribbons for the bigshots.

I, however, was more interested in a line of young women wearing long, tight red-and-black dresses and stilettos.  The dresses had high collars and made them look slightly like vampires.  They were holding large signs and ribbons, and their role in the ceremony seemed largely decorative.  I couldn’t resist talking to one of them.

“Some of us work here at the plant,” she told me.  “But the rest are hired professionals.”

Their mastery of wearing tight dresses was undeniable.


The firecrackers.

I wanted to ask her more questions, but the bigshots had exited their car, and the ceremony was starting.  The escorts began presenting them with ribbons.  Several people made excessive speeches, and then the fanfare began.  The cannons blasted confetti, and they started setting off the firecrackers.  I was originally intrigued, as I’d never seen firecrackers before, but pretty soon I was running into the building with the rest of the power plant employees.  Up close, the firecrackers sounded like they could blow my head off.  We evacuated the area into the gymnasium, where the rest of the ceremony would take place.

The ceremony was ridiculously overblown.  I suspected that it was mainly for the benefit of the bigshots, and that no one really cared about the ping-pong competition.  None of the ping-pong players looked very professional.  Some of them were slightly chubby, and most of them looked like they were in their thirties and forties.  The escorts marched them into their seats.

“You can tell which ones are professional escorts, and which ones are from our plant,” Xiong said knowledgeably to me.  I laughed and allowed myself to check them out again.  Goodbye, feminism!

After they played the national anthem, and multiple people made boring speeches, the show began.  I sat politely in my power plant uniform, nodding along with the various dances and songs.  I later sent a photograph of it to Joseph, who told me that some of them were modeled after ethnic minority dances.


Line dancing.

I told Xiong afterwards that it was an “interesting” show.  That wasn’t a lie.  I hadn’t enjoyed myself at all, but I certainly wasn’t bored.

“We’re actually having another plant-wide performance a few weeks from now for the New Year,” Xiong told me.  “It’ll be bigger and better!”

“Are you performing in it?”

“Yes,” he said.  “I don’t know what I’m doing yet.  And I’m not going to be the centerpiece of the show, by any means.  But there will be all sorts of dances, songs, skits.  You should come!”

“Don’t be silly, she’s not going to come all the way to Linfen to watch an end-of-year power plant employee show,” his wife said.

It was true.  But I wanted very badly for it to be otherwise.


One of the photos we took from the roof of Xiong's apartment building.

One of the photos we took from the roof of Xiong’s apartment building.

Xiong lived in an apartment building that was specifically a dormitory for employees of the power plant.  The building was very new. He and his wife shared a small but glossy one-bedroom apartment that she mopped every day because of the Shanxi dust.  The space was small enough that they opted not to have a dining table, and instead balanced a wooden board on a small nightstand at mealtimes.  They ate from the sofa, and after they finished, while Xiong did the dishes, Xiong’s wife would wipe off the wooden board and stash it away in the corner of the room.

They put me in a friend’s one-room studio upstairs—the guy apparently had another home in Linfen, which he preferred to live in.

“It snowed today!” Xiong said to me one morning when I descended for breakfast from my room on the eleventh floor to their apartment on the seventh.  “Looks nice, doesn’t it?”

I looked out the window.  Linfen did look more amiable covered in a thin layer of white snow.  At least the thick clouds looked appropriate—I couldn’t tell if they were smog or simply the weather.

“Want to go on the roof?” he asked me excitedly.  “We could take some photos of the city!”

“Sure,” I said.  I did want to take photos, but not for the same reason that he did.  He clearly thought the snow was beautiful.  I wanted to take photos of the greyness and post it on my blog to show off that I’d been to one of the armpits of the Earth.

Xiong got the key to roof from one of the building managers and shouldered his nice Sony camera, which had its brand name neatly covered with a small strip of black electrical tape.  I assumed this was still part of the aftershocks of the recent Diaoyu Islands mess—Chinese people didn’t want to be seen owning Japanese brands, either because they were irrational fervent nationalists, or because they feared getting the shit beaten out of them by irrational fervent nationalists.

We clambered up several flights of stairs to the roof.  “Careful not to close that door,” he warned me as I followed him out of the building into the crisp morning air, which also unfortunately smelled of sewage.  “We’ll be locked out.”

He and I strolled to opposite sides of the roof to take photos with our respective cameras.  I tried to capture the ugly charm of snowy Linfen while Xiong tried to figure out the panorama setting on his camera.  We circled around the roof, taking photos from different angles.

On the way back to the apartment, Xiong showed me the photos that he took.  “I tried to take a few from each side of the roof,” he said, scrolling through the pictures on his camera.  He paused on one of the photos of the Linfen skyline. He’d captured a set of squatter apartment buildings in front of the building we lived in.  They were frosted with white from the snow, but the window frames and sides of the buildings were streaked with dark soot and dust.

Then Xiong finally voiced what I’d been thinking the entire time.

“It’s not actually that pretty,” he said.

Read Part 3 here.

Linfen: my visit to the most polluted city in China

This post is the first in a series of three about my homestay and visit to a power plant in Linfen, Shanxi Province.


The lovely city of Linfen.

Xiong works as an auditor at one of two 600-megawatt coal-fired power plants in Linfen, Shanxi.  Linfen likes to boast that it has a four-thousand-year-old history:  it used to be known as 尧都, the capital of the ancient state of Yao.  The Emperor Yao was a mythical figure in Chinese history, possibly some benevolent tribal leader, to whom later Chinese emperors used to trace their lineage.  Shop fronts and names advertise the Yao name, and there’s even a temple complex in Linfen honoring the Emperor Yao, most of which looks like it was constructed in the last twenty years. I suppose it is much easier for the city to hide behind its four-thousand-year-old glory than to own up to its latest claim to fame:  it has been known as China’s most polluted city, and possibly the most polluted city in the world, by publications such as TIME magazine.


I took the four-hour train ride from Taiyuan to visit Linfen, where Xiong would take me to work for a week.  He gave me a work uniform, a thick blue jacket with the name of the plant stitched onto the breast—“So no one will ask any questions,” he explained—and we embarked on a tour of the plant.  Construction began in 2009, and electric generation began at the end of 2010.  Xiong says that the construction of this plant, along with the other 600MW plant in Linfen, has contributed significantly to the cleaning up of Linfen.  Before, individual households would burn their own coal for heating and directly release the smoke and pollutants into the air.

“Imagine every household emitting all that smoke, sulfur, and nitrogen oxide,” he said.  “There were no controls—the pollution was terrible!  Even though our plant burns coal, and coal is dirty, we have state-of-the-art sulfur and NOx removal technology, and we are regulated by the government.”

He explained to me that the government would come for inspections and prepare reports to evaluate the effectiveness of the pollution technology.  If they didn’t meet government standards, they would be fined.

“It still looks really dirty,” I said skeptically.

“It used to be worse,” Xiong insisted. “It’s gotten a lot better.”



Xiong covers his car with a plastic sheath to avoid having to wash his car every day from the coal dust.


In spite of what he said, Linfen was still a dirty city.  Even though I came on an uncharacteristically beautiful day—the sun was shining—a layer of smog hovered above the horizon.  My lungs could physically perceive the dust in the air, something that had never happened yet in China, and I found myself clearing my throat frequently.  The next few days were worse—the sun disappeared behind the clouds, and the whole city was cloaked in a grey glow.

I’d told Xiong that I was interested in emissions monitoring, so he took me to his giant office—the size of a reasonable American living room—and logged into the company site.  The live emissions monitor looked like a LabView program.  Xiong wasn’t an expert on emissions, so the two of us tried to decipher the program together.  The program included data on the emission rates of nitrogen oxides (NOx), pollutants that react to form acid rain and smog, before and after treatment.  But the numbers made no sense.  The emission rates prior to treatment were actually higher than the post-treatment numbers.

Xiong called one of the employees from the environmental protection department to explain what was up with the numbers.

“Oh, those numbers haven’t been right for a while,” the guy said.

Xiong and I looked at each other.

“Well, you should fix it,” Xiong said.

“Do you need me for anything else?” the guy asked.

Xiong told the guy he could leave.  After he left, I commented that this seemed like a simple calibration error that could be fixed easily.  But because no one fixed it, the plant now probably had weeks of inaccurate data logs. “You know, if I was in that department, I’d make them fix that monitor,” Xiong told me.  “But I don’t have the power, and we don’t have the resources.”

It was the first in a trend that I’d see in many Chinese workplaces. The facilities would be decked out with the latest technology, but they would be wasted on incompetent and apathetic employees.

Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.