July 23, 2017


China bites off more than it can chew

When it comes to renewable energies, China seems to be insatiable.

In a decade, the country has become the world leader in renewable energy production, surpassing the United States last year, according to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy. China is currently contributing about 40 percent of the global growth (more than the entire OECD), providing the main source of world growth in hydro and nuclear power. In 2015, China has become the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, spending a total of $103 billion and currently account for 36 percent of the world total according to the United Nations Environment Program’s annual report on global trends in renewable energy.

In order to meet 20 percent of China’s needs by 2030, China wants to invest about three times more (around $370 billion) in solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power generation by 2020, creating 13 million jobs in the sector, announced the National Energy Administration (NEA). China added 35 gigawatts on new solar generation in 2016 alone, which is almost equal to Germany’s total capacity. Every hour, China erects another wind turbine and installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field, according to Greenpeace Beijing. And if it complies to the 13th Five Year Plan, by 2020, China is expected to install 340 GW of hydropower, 200 GW of wind, 120 GW of solar power, as well as 58 GW of nuclear capacity and 15 GW of biomass. The country has, thus, become a major manufacturer and exporter of renewable energy technology, supplying about two thirds of the world’s solar panels and producing nearly half of the worlds’ wind turbines.

Too much clean energy wasted

This commitment aims to reduce the role of coal, China being the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, and to ease the severe air pollution that kills an estimated 1.1 to 1.6 million of its people every year. However, the country needs to overcome important issues to no longer rely on imported fossil fuels.

China is, in fact, is finding difficult to use all its new electricity, to the point the National Energy Administration (NEA) has to ask the local authorities in six Chinese provinces to stop authorizing the construction of wind turbines on their territory. In 2016, China’s wind curtailment rate – which means that wind energy that could have been generated and used but wasn’t – reached 17%, i.e. more than double what it was two years before. Meanwhile China’s solar curtailment rose by 50% in 2015 and 2016. This is a serious challenge for China. A considerable amount of clean energy that should be replacing coal-generated power is wasted.

A more flexible grid

One can justify this trend by the fact that currently wind turbines are mostly installed and connected to the grid in the sparsely populated northwestern provinces in China. And because of a lack of transmission lines, diffusing this energy to the highly-populated coastal areas is problematic. But it does not explain it all. For the NEA, China’s electricity grid needs to be more flexible for the power grid to operate properly. The amount of electricity that is supplied must perfectly match the load on the system. Improving flexibility would help the grid to manage the variable renewable energy due to different wind speeds or sunlight levels for instance.

It is crucial to identify new uses for the renewable energy produced in China’s northern provinces as well. One promising approach would be to use wind energy to help fulfill the region’s extensive heating needs. The NEA encourages natural gas production and pumped hydro storage as an ancillary service and cleaner and more efficient substitute to coal-fired powered plants. In addition, the NEA supports the creation of direct markets for renewable energy. Renewable energy generators would then be empowered to sell electricity directly to those who need it. That would provide an additional outlet for their electricity if the grid cannot take it all.

Image credits: Michal Strba

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