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China's Winter Olympics is a mixed bag of sustainable achievements and setbacks

The Chinese government has created a renewable energy marvel to power these latest Winter Olympic Games, but they're happening under a shadow of broader environmental concerns.

A huge amount of the power used for these Olympic Games is coming from renewable energy, according to the climate publication, Carbon Brief.

The city of Zhangjiakou, which is located in the mountains of China's Hebei Province, and plays host to the skiing events of the games, generates about as more power from renewables than many countries.

If it were a nation, Zhangjiakou would rank eleventh in the world for its use of renewable power.

But that huge renewable energy power supply is supplemented by an equally large amount of coal power to ensure the stability of the grid as renewable generation fluctuates.

Much of the power is coming from huge wind and solar developments paid for by Zhangjiakou businesses that are being funneled directly to the region for the games -- which are expected to consume roughly 400 GWh of energy (that's enough to power around 180,000 Chinese homes).

The games were also an excuse to give China's utility grid the kinds of upgrades the Biden Administration is hoping to push through as part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending package passed last year.

In China, that development looks like the construction of a direct current grid transmission system, which can move energy across the country more efficiently. That means power generated from renewable resources located miles from where that power is used can access the green power effectively.

So green power coming from all over China can be funneled through these direct current lines and supplement the 16 gigawatts of wind and 7 gigawatts of solar power developed for use in the region itself.

All of this green energy doesn't detract from the fact that China's grid is also using coal... a lot of coal to power its economy including providing baseload power to manage grid fluctuations and smooth transmission of renewable power.

And the green power usage and development doesn't detract from the fact that Beijing and the Chinese government has destroyed natural habitats and diverted water to manufacture the snow that's covering man-made slopes at the winter events.

To make snow for those slopes that skiers and snowboarders are hurtling down at breakneck speeds seven machine rooms and pumping stations are moving water up through mountains where that water is pushed through high-pressure pumps and then forced out through a fan and shot through 350 snow guns, according to an analysis in The Conversation.

"All told, maintaining a supply of fake snow is a complicated technical solution sustained with a lot of energy and more than 49 million gallons of water – enough to fill 800 Olympic swimming pools," Madeleine Orr, a sport ecologist in the Institute for Sport Business at Loughborough University, told The Conversation.

Orr also cited estimates provided by the organizing committee for the Beijing 2022 bid, which said that the games will require roughly 4% of the available water in one region where competition is being held and another 2.6% of available water supplies in another.

Add to that the fact that some 20,000 trees in one of the country's protected nature preserves were cut down to make room for events, and the environmental impact of these Winter Games comes into fairly stark relief.

Orr also has some suggestions for ways to make the games more sustainable and accessible to communities where there's enough natural snow for competition (at least until climate change impacts those regions too).

"Two Olympic Games have gone ahead without fans in the stands," Orr told The Conversation. "If they were to shrink the number of seating and fan tickets they expect to sell at these kinds of events, we could go to smaller mountain towns with smaller facilities. Athletes would compete in front of their family and friends, and some locals, and the media of course, but there would be no need for huge spectator facilities.

This would reduce international travel around the Games, which is a big contributor to the overall environmental footprint, and would open up opportunities for smaller cities with smaller venues to host."


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