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Asian renewables contest: China versus the rest

27 Jun 2018 Dave Elliott
Composite image of solar panels with pylon and wind turbines. Courtesy: iStock/vencavolrab.
Courtesy: iStock/vencavolrab.

Renewables are booming across Asia, but there are variations in pace and rival options also play a role. An interesting paper by Indian academic Nandakumar Janardhanan looks at competition in renewables in developing countries in Asia, focusing on India and China.

Janardhana notes that “India and China, being major developing economies and having huge energy appetite, focused heavily on strengthening their respective alternative energy sector” so as to reduce their over-reliance on conventional fossil fuels. He adds that “India depends on external oil supplies to meet two thirds of its oil demand, one third of oil demand in China is met by imports”. As a result, the renewable energy sector has gained great momentum in these two countries and “as innovation and development began to lead the growth of alternative energy sector, opportunities for expansion within their respective borders as well as outside emerged as promising avenues for the industry from both countries”.

 China has done especially well: “the competition in the domestic energy sector in China led to the emergence of cheaper and better technologies which will enjoy a natural competitive edge over its counterparts from other countries – solar PV is an obvious example – and the Chinese government “has been keen in enhancing its ties with the developing Asian economies in all possible ways”. Basically, “China sees that capturing the developing Asian market is important to its economy”, and believes that “spreading influence among the economies in the region is in its greater strategic interest”.

By contrast, although it too has some regional involvement via ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) cooperation agreements and initiatives, India has done less well on most counts, e.g. it has around five times lower national renewables output. And on trade, China is clearly winning so far: “a critical advantage China enjoys in the region is its sheer size of economy”, and it is “able to present itself as an alternative power which can offer financial support and business opportunities”. But the contest continues, with India trying hard to catch up, while China is having to cope with the problems of being in front, including the issue of curtailment. See my earlier post. With programme costs also rising, it has recently decided to throttle back on its very rapid PV solar growth, so that only 29 GW extra may be added this year, instead of the 48 GW expected.

Both India and China have nuclear programmes, which inevitably siphon off some support from renewables, but less so in the case of China – the nation is now getting around ten times more output from its rapidly expanding renewables programme than from its nuclear plants: the output from its huge wind programme – 170 GW and rising – overtook that from nuclear a while back. That’s also now the case for the smaller wind programme in India (33 GW so far), but the output from India’s other renewables is still quite low, although growing. It aims to have 175 GW of renewables by 2022, with PV accelerating.

The other major contenders in the region are also well behind China. Japan clearly has the industrial capacity but, still recovering from the shock to its energy plans represented by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it’s dragging its feet on renewables, PV apart.

In theory, with most of its nuclear plants closed, Japan is aiming to move away from nuclear and expand its use of renewable sources so that they supply 22-24% of its power by 2030. However, even given this relatively low target (less than the UK gets now), progress is relatively slow, although some of the big PV projects are quite spectacular. But Japan is still trying to upgrade and restart more nuclear plants, which is expensive, and it is faced with the huge Fukushima clean-up bill, which may be vastly more than the official estimate, perhaps £150 bn.

 South Korea might do better, having decided to abandon its nuclear programme, but like Japan, it still has a long way to go on renewables – it’s aiming to get just 20% of its power from 58.5 GW of renewables by 2030. What’s more, although the government seems resolute, there are still those who want to rescind the nuclear decision – and one plant build has been restarted, although an old reactor is to be closed ahead of its 2022 retirement schedule.

Similar issues are being fought out in Taiwan, which, with massive popular opposition to nuclear, is aiming to phase it out by 2025 and wants to get 20% of its power from renewables by then. However, there have been signs of a back-slide .

Backing off from nuclear is clearly hard work. Japan is having to import a lot of gas, at massive cost and with significant emissions being produced. In effect, and embarrassingly, it has had to abandon its Kyoto climate pledges. And the direct impacts of the 2011 Fukushima disaster are also far from over. More than 130,000 people left or were evacuated from the region. Some are being asked to return and some want to, and some already have. But a recent survey by Greenpeace Japan in the towns of Iitate and Namie in Fukushima prefecture, including the exclusion zone, found radiation levels in some locations up to 100 times higher than the international limit for public exposure. The organisation claims that the high radiation levels in these areas pose a significant risk to returning evacuees until at least the 2050s and well into next century.

This view will be unpopular with the government, since it is looking to the upcoming Olympics for an economic boost. So the last thing it wants is bad news about radiation risks, which might deter visitors. The issues can perhaps be portrayed as being far away and of no consequence as far as the Olympics in Tokyo are concerned. But it may not in fact be just a local issue, with contamination being found up to 60 miles away. Or a trivial one, with hot particles still turning up

It’s hard to see how it can all be decontaminated. There is a harrowing report and video, which looks at the issues and shows the clean-up so far, with the vast areas of water tanks and top soil in bags. It all adds up to a horrible warning about what can happen when nuclear goes wrong, with some saying that the impacts on local people amount to a human rights violation. Let’s hope that China and India, Taiwan or South Korea don’t have to face this at some point.

However, some clearly see it all differently and argue that, albeit with the benefit of hindsight, as it turned out, the costly and disruptive Fukushima evacuation was a mistake. The problem was that, at the time, no one knew what would happen next – very major radiation releases were possible. And the long-term health impacts of what did happen are still debated. Statistically, as an Financial Times article has noted, the Fukushima evacuation may have, in effect, extended the life of those moved from the worst zones by a few months from what they would have been if they had been left exposed. But statistical analysis and on-the-ground reality may differ and certainly may be perceived differently. Even now, South Korea is still refusing to import some sea foods from the Fukushima area. That may be seen as over cautious, but in the final analysis, it is the uncertainty about nuclear risks and impacts that is the killer in public policy and public reaction terms, and that makes the alternative energy options look far more appealing, the uncertainties adding to the case against nuclear, especially near population centres.

The nuclear issue is of course only one aspect of Asian – and global – energy policy. Its significance may well diminish as renewables continue to expand. In my next post, I look at the debate on how fast that may happen and at some possible constraints.

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