The sleeping dragon stirs

The sleeping dragon stirs

Arianna Pescini
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China will invest $360 billion in renewables over the next three years, threatening to eclipse US leadership in this market. But transitioning away from a coal-based economy won't be so easy
#Coal is a "seesaw fuel," adapting more readily to varying #energy demand than #renewables @ESI_EnergyVibes

Beijing is accelerating the massive push to develop renewables announced in January 2017. Already a global leader in wind and solar, the Middle Kingdom is planning a massive overhaul of its energy mix that should bring the share of clean energy from 11 to 20% by 2030, sparing the environment the equivalent emissions of 730 million t of coal. According to the National Energy Administration, 13 million new jobs will be created over the next few years thanks to a $360 billion investment that will primarily benefit the wind and solar sectors.
Many energy analysts believe the new plan couldn't have arrived at a more crucial time for China, which is still in time to resolve its concerning air pollution levels while at the same time profiting from the Trump administration's stalling on this issue. The country is thus poised to dominate a competitive and steadily growing market. The cost of solar photovoltaic plants, for example, has declined by 40% since 2010. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), demand for wind energy will grow by 440% by 2040, and solar will grow by a whopping 1,100% during the same period.

According to China's National Energy Administration, 13 million new jobs will be created over the next few years, thanks to a $360 billion investment that will primarily benefit the wind and solar sectors.

Obstacles to transition

This moment offers a historic opportunity, but also reveals an ever-present paradox: China is both a green energy leader and the world's biggest CO2 and greenhouse gas emitter, churning out twice as much pollution as the United States. The Asian giant's reliance on coal, which currently makes up 64% of its total installed capacity, makes an energy transition that would limit output of the fossil fuel a Gordian knot. "A number of variables must be kept in mind," explains Philip Andrews-Speed, division head of the National University of Sinagpore's Energy Studies Institute, "such as the rate of growth of energy demand, which in its turn depends on the growth rate and very structure of the economy. Coal is a seesaw fuel, meaning its consumption varies as demand rises and falls. Additionally, the transition to clean energies depends on economic policy and how the electricity sector is managed, especially in terms of construction of new coal-fired power plants, and the political will behind such efforts." According to IEA data, in late 2015 China was producing 3,527 million t of coal annually, 45.7% of global coal output. Today the country's total installed capacity from coal is over 900 GW, and another 200 GW will soon be added. According to Laura Cozzi, the IEA’s principal analyst, coal will continue to supply over half of Chinese energy consumption at least until 2030. Nonetheless, a new course is being charted for Chinese coal, with plans to cut 2,400 million t from obsolete plants by 2020 and develop "clean coal" through the use of carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) for an annual output of 500 million t. At the same time, the government is betting on renewables by bringing their share of China's energy mix up to 30% during the same period.

A sector with a thousand possibilities

#Lauracozzi @IEA: coal will continue to supply over half of Chinese electricity at least until 2030

With major achievements in solar, wind, hydropower, but also geothermal and sea energy, China has been pursuing carbon-free development for years. "Beijing leads the world in both investments and output capacity," states Cozzi. "One out of every two solar panels are built in China. Renewables already supply 24% of the country's electricity, and wind and solar are the fastest growing energy sectors." According to a Greenpeace study, every hour one wind turbine and enough solar panels to cover a soccer field were built in China in 2015. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has calculated that during the same year the country generated 43.62 GW of solar energy. According to the National Energy Administration, that number grew to 77.42 in 2016. With the 2017 five year plan, capacity from photovoltaic and concentration solar will grow by over 110 GW over the next three years. But China also produced 145 GW of wind energy, 321 GW of hydropower and 10 GW from biofuels, for a total of 520 GW. These numbers are set to rise, enabling the country to potentially overtake the United States. However, Andrews-Speed believes that, Trump notwithstanding, the USA will remain a leader in energy innovation for years to come, and that the use of renewables will continue to rise, thanks to supporting technologies offered by industry. Nonetheless, the expert asserts, it is likely that China will become a major producer of equipment for this sector, but this doesn't mean it will necessarily have complete dominance over the green energy market. Many other players will also command a leading position, including India and the European Union.

During the course of 2015, in China, one wind turbine and a significan amount of solar panels, enough to cover a soccer field in its entirety, were installed every hour.