China Solar and Wind Surges as Coal Peaks

By John Addison

John Addison is the author of two books - Save Gas, Save the Planet that details the future of transportation and Revenue Rocket about technology partner strategy. CNET, Clean Fleet Report, and Meeting of the Minds have published over 300 of his articles. Prior to being a writer and speaker, he was in partner and sales management for technology companies such as Sun Microsystems. Follow John on Twitter @soaringcities.


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Kitty Bu starts each morning in Beijing checking the air quality report; many days she must keep her one, three and five year old inside all day. Estimates range from 600,000 to 1.6 million that die prematurely in China each year due to air pollution. Since China’s use of coal has peaked, she is hopeful for her children’s future. Her organization, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), has spent years helping China create a roadmap to energy efficiency and renewables. I recently attended a meeting about China’s energy future that included a number of experts like RMI’s Amory Lovins.

Sixty percent of China’s new energy generation is now from renewables. The best news from this is that coal power generation has peaked and started to decline giving 1.4 billion people cleaner air. Since China uses almost half of the world’s coal, this is welcome relief.

China also leads the world in installed wind and solar energy. Half the world’s wind power installed in 2015 was in China, which now has more wind power than the entire 28-nation European Union. China has passed the U.S. as if we were standing still.

Progress has not been easy. It has taken a few years to get over 90 percent of wind and solar grid connected. Grid operators still curtail wind and solar power ahead of coal power, a situation aggravated by excess coal plants in many regions. Although efficiency and renewables create more jobs than are lost, the state owned enterprises (SOE) are used to keep people paid because a basic safety net is missing. These SOEs are politically powerful.

China has halted the construction of all new coal power plants in the face of air pollution that kills thousands daily and turns city skies to coal-gray. The halt was also urgent because existing coal plants use more water than the drinking needs of the entire population. China has every reason to shift from coal to solar, wind, and efficiency.

Paris Climate Agreement

China President Xi Jinping joined U.S. President Barack Obama in ratifying the Paris Agreement in September. China emits 26 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and 20 percent of the Paris Agreement inventory. Their INDC targets China’s carbon intensity to be 60 to 65 percent of 2005 levels by 2030, and increasing its forest carbon stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels. With energy growing faster than GDP, unless China becomes more energy efficient, it will struggle to compete in the global economy, much less achieve its ambitions of growing GDP 600 percent in forty years.

Starting in 2017, China will tax carbon emissions from over 30 thousand sources including coal power, cement production and manufacturing. At the RMI meeting, California Lt. Governor Gavin Newson pointed out that a carbon price in California has reduced health damaging emissions, accelerated efficiency and renewables, and helped the economy to grow faster than national GDP. China, the world’s second largest economy is learning from coal-free California, the world’s sixth largest economy. In China, a yet to be determined carbon price of 100 yuan ($15.62) per ton would shift the economics from coal power to efficiency and renewables.

When presenting China’s 13th five-year plan to China’s National People’s Congress on March 5, Premier Li Keqiang called for “heavy blows” to be struck against air and water pollution. Over the next five years, the intensity of water use per unit of GDP will fall by 23%, energy intensity by a further 15%, and carbon intensity by 18%. During the last five years, China exceeded all pollution and clean energy goals in the 12th five-year plan.

China will easily surpass its target of 200 GW of installed wind power by 2020, since it is over 150 GW today. China may raise its solar target from 100 GW installed to 150 GW.

Reinventing Fire

Perhaps the best book about how to achieve efficient and renewable energy is Reinventing Fire, written by Amory Lovins and a team at RMI. You can get a free download of Reinventing Fire: China Executive Summary. China’s energy challenge is well stated in the report:

“China’s path forward—one that aims to urbanize 300 million people, grow its economy, and substantially advance the welfare of all citizens—cannot follow the same patterns as the past 30 years. China’s development over the past several decades has been characterized by high-input, high-consumption, high-pollution, high-speed, low-output, low-efficiency, and low-technology activities.”

Reinventing Fire takes a whole-systems approach to industry, buildings, transportation, and transformation to electric power dominance. This scenario planning was adopted by RMI to China, in collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Energy Research Institute (ERI) and China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NRDC). At the recent meeting, I heard from experts from several of these organizations.

By 2050, 600 percent GDP growth in China can be achieved without increasing primary energy demand. Industry would continue to demand the most energy, followed by buildings, then transportation. In many ways, China is ahead of the U.S. in the electrification of transportation from high-speed rail, to metro transit, to BYD making more electric vehicles than Tesla.

The scenario maps fossil energy reduced to 66 percent of total energy by 2050, but to only 18 percent of electricity generation. Renewables, including hydropower, would provide for 68 percent of electricity and nuclear 14 percent.

In this scenario, carbon intensity decreases 74 percent by 2030, far beyond its Paris INDC targets, and is reduced 93 percent by 2050.

China may achieve peak emissions of CO2 in less than 10 years. Already peaked are their emissions of smog forming sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

The scenario assumes that China’s GDP will grow 6 percent every year for the next 34 years. History shows that as economies mature, they grow far more slowly. With more realistic growth, there is even greater opportunity to reduce energy demands, electrify more in transportation and industry, enabling renewables to provide most of China’s 2050 total energy needs.

100 Percent Renewable China

Dr. Mark Jacobson at Stanford led a team to develop an even greater aspirational scenario. China can meet all its energy needs by 2050 with wind energy, solar power, and some other renewables. There will be zero use of coal, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, biofuels, and nuclear. This scenario envisions complete electrification of buildings, heating and cooling, transportation, industry, and agriculture. This particular scenario looks at available wind, sunlight, and legacy hydropower.

  • 58.4%  Utility-scale PV and CSP solar
  • 4.5     Commercial and government solar
  • 3.6     Residential solar
  • 16.0     Onshore wind
  • 12.9     Offshore wind
  • 4.6     Hydroelectric and other RE

A benefit of electrify everything is that buildings and transportation will be more efficient, reducing China’s power demand by 36 percent. For example, I replaced my 15-percent efficient gasoline car with a 90-percent efficient electric car. Dr. Jacobson’s new home is zero net energy including enough solar to charge his Tesla.

Solar energy is plentiful during the day; wind energy at night. These can now be as available as 24/7 power plants thanks to the leveling of energy supply and demand through storage, time-of-use pricing, smart grid, smart cities, and energy management software that uses big data and deep learning.

Based on extensive data analysis and modeling at Stanford and other leading universities, you can see a cost-effective 100 percent scenario for any state or nation at The Solutions Project. The RE solutions include links to the scientific research reports and, in some cases, spreadsheets with embedded data.

The transition to solar and wind would save over 600,000 lives each year in China and save the nation a staggering $7 trillion in healthcare and mortality costs. Buildings and cities will be smart and energy efficient. The health damage from smoggy cities will be gone.

China is moving in the right direction as the #1 nation for using wind and solar, with coal power peaked, with aggressive five-year plans, and ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement.

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