Coal Towns Remain the Heartbeat of China's Economy

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"If the coal mine shuts down, the lights go out in Beijing."

Amid the glowing reports of new wind farms and solar investment throughout China, it's easy to forget that cities like Datong are still the heart of this country. Located about 150 miles west of Beijing in Shanxi province, Datong is the coal capital of China. The Jing Hua Gong mine on the city's outskirts produces about 4.5 million tons of coal annually—in a country that produces more than 2.4 billion tons annually, according to the World Coal Institute.

Manufacturing, especially of energy-intensive goods like cement and steel, is the driver of China's explosive economic growth. Even in the midst of a global recession, the country's industrial production has continued steadily.

China's long sojourn with coal accounts for more than 70% of the country's energy consumption, and the country continues to develop it at a rapid pace. According to the Energy Information Administration, coal energy produced in China will double over the next 20 years or so. Clean alternatives like wind, hydro, solar and nuclear are growing fast, but they will amount to less than a third of the country's total installed capacity by 2020.

Miners claim pride in helping to keep the nation's economic engine purring. "If the coal mine shuts down, the lights go out in Beijing," says Gao Ailing, who has been working at the mine outside Datong 20 years.

Experts say about half of all the new housing being built worldwide is in China, with U.S. State Department envoy Todd Stern noting that the country builds the equivalent of "two Bostons' worth of housing" each month. That, analysts say, is largely responsible for cement production doubling there in recent years.

Add to the mix a rapidly rising middle class yearning for dishwashers, microwaves, bigger TVs and cars, and analysts say China isn't leaving coal anytime soon.

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