I betrayed my ignorance within minutes of meeting my hosts at the airport in Xilinhot, a city some 500 km north of Beijing in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
I told them my colleagues and I had come to see wind farms and learn about development of renewable energy in Xilingol prefecture, of which Xilinhot is the capital.
"This is obviously your first time here," said Wang Yongjun, deputy director of Xilingol Development and Reform Commission.
I knew immediately that we would be talking about more than wind farms. For the next three days, a major topic of conversation was the 100-km long traffic jam that clogged the Beijing-Zhangjiakou section of the Beijing-Tibet highway for many days.
In recent weeks, this section of the highway has become a huge parking lot, with thousands of heavy-duty trucks stranded on the road for days. Most of the trucks are loaded or overloaded with coal. According to one report, half the trucks in China have been used to transport coal from Inner Mongolia.
The media have been having a field day with this story, pointing fingers at highway managers in Beijing, Hebei, and Inner Mongolia for their inefficiency and hunger for road tolls and at the railway administration for not shipping more coal out of Inner Mongolia.
The ministry of transport has also been blamed for failing to anticipate the increase in traffic on this section of the highway. It is said that this highway was built to handle 10,000 vehicles a day, but now sees as many as 70,000. The answer, according to some, is more roads; they suggest that six more national highways be built between Beijing and Inner Mongolia.
But local officials are convinced that all of this misses the point. The problem, they say, is China's skewed energy policy.
The coal from Inner Mongolia feeds power plants as far away as the Yangtze River Delta region, where coal deposits are few. However, several of my hosts, including Yu Zhiyun, director of Xilingol Reform and Development Commission, and Ah Long, director of Information for the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, pointed out that these heavy-duty trucks are consuming diesel fuel, a high-grade energy source, to transport coal, a low-grade energy material.
By any analysis, that is a huge waste of fossil fuel. Instead, they propose to redesign China's energy supply system, streamlining the distribution of energy and natural resources.
Xilingol, our hosts said, should become a major supplier of electrical power, serving areas as far away as Jiangsu province, thus saving a lot of diesel fuel as well as land and money for highway construction.
Xilingol has the capacity to do it, they insisted. They had only superlatives to describe the area's natural energy resources.
We first went to China's first and probably only germanium museum, in Xilinhot. There a guide told us how the semi-conductor metalloid is widely used in manufacturing top-notch optical fiber, infrared devices and above all, solar energy panels. Xilingol, it turns out, may have China's largest deposit of germanium, which is found in the dust of the local brown coal.
Then we went to the Datang International Shengli Mine, which local officials say could become China's largest open-pit mine within a few years. Workers there have begun to tap a brown coal deposit that runs more than 320 meters deep. If a power plant were built near the mine, they say, it would cost about 0.10 yuan to generate a kW of electricity.
We toured the Shangdu Power Plant in Zhenglan county, which burns coal from a mine just 20 km away. The plant managers hope to build this into the largest power plant in Asia.
Even with the cost of transmission, it will still be cheaper to supply electricity to Jiangsu than to generate it there, our hosts argued.
We visited two wind farms, both located in areas that enjoy steady winds in autumn, winter, and spring. Our hosts also shared their plans to develop solar energy, as the vast grassland has abundant sunshine year round. Here, solar and wind power are complimentary; the sun is brightest when the potential for wind energy is least.
All in all, Inner Mongolia has the potential to supply power to a large part of China, whether it is generated from coal, sunshine or the wind. There is good reason to doubt that we need to build more highways to enable more trucks to burn more fossil fuel.
The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.