China Will Attempt First Carbon-Neutral Winter Olympics
A variety of climate-friendly strategies will be on show, along with the athletes
About 160 kilometers northwest of Beijing, the city of Zhangjiakou with its rugged terrain boasts some of the richest wind and solar resources in China. Renewables account for nearly half of the city’s electricity output with less than a third of its full solar and wind potential of 70 gigawatts installed so far.
That makes it an ideal cohost with Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, which China plans to make the greenest yet. The plan is to power all 26 venues fully with renewables, marking a first in the games’ history.
The Beijing 2022 Organising Committee aims to make the games carbon neutral, or as close as possible—a benchmark for the International Olympic Committee’s mission to make the Olympics carbon positive by 2024.
Besides being a symbol for President Xi Jinping’s ambitious goal of China being carbon neutral by 2060, the 2022 games should drive sustainable development in the region. The event has already helped Beijing clean up its skies and environment, and has fired up local energy-technology markets. It will also be a global stage to showcase new energy-efficiency, alternate-transport, and refrigeration technologies.
The Olympics will account for only a small fraction of the country’s annual electricity consumption. Powering them with clean energy sources won’t be difficult given China’s plentiful renewable capacity, says Michael Davidson, an engineering-systems and global-policy expert at the University of California, San Diego.
But Davidson also points out that insufficient infrastructure to manage intermittent renewables and electricity-dispatch practices that don’t prioritize them mean that much of China’s green-power capacity is often not put to use. And because the game venues are connected to a grid that is powered by a variety of sources, asserting that all the electricity used at the games is 100 percent from clean energy sources is “complicated,” he says. Nonetheless, the games will be important in raising the profile of green energy. “The hope is that this process will put into place some institutions that could help leverage a much broader-scale move to green.”
The Games will offer a global stage to showcase new energy-efficiency, alternate-transport, and refrigeration technologies.
Case in point: The flexible DC grid put into place in Zhiangjiakou in 2020 will let 22.5 billion kilowatt-hours of wind and solar energy flow from Zhiangjiakou to Beijing every year. By the time the Paralympics end in March, the game venues are expected to have consumed about 400 million kWh of electricity. If all of it is indeed provided by renewables, that should reduce carbon emissions by 320,000 tonnes, according to sports outlet Inside the Games. After the athletes go home, the flexible DC grid will continue to clean up around 10 percent of the capital’s immense electricity consumption.
Green transport infrastructure being built to shuttle athletes and spectators between venues will also be part of the games’ lasting legacy. A clean energy–powered high-speed railway that takes 47 minutes to travel between Beijing and Zhangjiakou was inaugurated in 2019. More than 85 percent of public-transport vehicles at the Olympics will be powered by batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, or natural gas, according to state media.
In August, officials at the Chinese capital revealed a five-year hydrogen-energy plan, with goals to build 37 fueling stations and have about 3,000 fuel-cell vehicles on the road by 2023, for which the Olympics should also be a stepping-stone. Already, hydrogen fueling stations built by China’s petrochemical giant Sinopec, Pennsylvania-based Air Products, and French company Air Liquide have cropped up in Beijing, Zhiangjiakou, and the Yanqing competition zone located in between.
Even the iconic Olympic torch will burn hydrogen for its flame.
The 2022 event will also put a limelight on climate-friendly refrigeration. The immense 12,000-square-meter speed-skating oval in downtown Beijing—8 times the size of a hockey rink—will be the first in the world to use carbon dioxide for making ice.
“We’ve built skating rinks with carbon dioxide direct cooling but never a speed-skating oval,” says Wayne Dilk of Toronto-based refrigeration company CIMCO Refrigeration, which has built most of the National Hockey League arenas in North America and designed and provided consulting services for the Olympics’ icy venues.
Ice-rink technology typically relies on refrigerants siphoning heat away from brine circulated under the floors, Dilk explains. But CO2-based cooling systems, which are getting more popular mainly in Europe and North America for supermarkets, food-manufacturing plants, and ice rinks, use CO2 both as the refrigerant and for transporting heat away from under the floor where it is pumped in liquid form.
CO2 is a climate villain, of course, but conventional hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants are worse. The common R-22 form of Freon, for example, is about 1,800 times as potent as a greenhouse gas. CO2 cooling systems are also 30 percent more energy efficient than Freon, says Dilk. Plus, the CO2 system produces higher-temperature waste heat, which can be used for space heating and hot water. And while the system is more expensive to build because it runs at higher pressure, the temperature across the large surface stays within a range of only 0.5 °C, giving more uniform ice. Consistent temperature and ice quality generate better competitive racing times. The Beijing 2022 hockey arenas and sliding center for bobsled and luge use climate-friendly ammonia or Opteon as refrigerants. Besides being a key part of the greenest Winter Olympics, these state-of-the-art ice venues should seal the deal for another goal China has in 2022: to establish itself as a world-class winter sports and tourism destination.
This article appears in the January 2022 print issue as “China’s Green Winter Olympics .”