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Environment and energy

China’s energy plans

06 Jun 2018 Dave Elliott
Photo of wind turbines

China is moving into the world picture in many spheres, not least energy. The nation saw Trump’s clean energy cull and COP 21 Paris accord exit as ducking out of global leadership, but warned that “no matter how hard Beijing tries, it won’t be able to take on all the responsibilities that Washington refuses to take”.

However, China is leading the pack with more renewable energy capacity installed (around 550 GW in 2016) than any other country, with some major projects, and more investment than anyone else. It is also shutting coal plants, in part as a response to the massive air quality problems that emerged after its breakneck economic expansion based mainly on coal. As noted in my earlier post on China, the National Energy Administration claims that: “between 2016 and 2020, we plan to halt construction or suspend building of new power plants with a total capacity of 150 GW, and shut down 20 GW of outdated capacity”. The nation is also experimenting with a carbon market. Clearly it wants to get on top of the carbon problem, although that may mean it just imports more gas, which also offers a partial and short-term response to the air pollution issues.

The more sustainable option is of course to expand renewables. Hydro remains the largest renewable (at around 350 GW), but in terms of new renewables, wind has led the way, with over 170 GW installed by 2017 (GWEC data), although PV is now catching up with over 120 GW in place. There are some impressive solar projects on land and also on lakes: China’s largest floating PV array so far is 40 MW, but a 150 MW project is under way. Though recently the growth of PV has been slowing.

One reason is that, as capacity has built up, there have been continuing curtailment problems with PV solar, as had already occurred with wind. With wind, the main resource areas are often remote from load centres and grid links can be poor. With PV, although sunlight is ubiquitous, some regions get more than others. So, in some cases, local curtailments for both technologies can be very high. As I noted in an earlier post, as a result, NEA, China’s National Energy Administration, has decided that, while grid and integration improvements are made, no new PV capacity would be added before 2020 in Gansu, Xinjiang and Ningxia provinces, and no new wind plants approved in Jilin, Heilongjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang between 2017 and 2020.

It certainly was a problem. Greenpeace has said the PV curtailment rate across China rose 50% in 2015 and 2016, with over 30% of available power in the north-western provinces Gansu and Xinjiang failing to reach the grid. Curtailment of surplus wind output had reached 20% in 2016 nationally, much more in some remote locations with poor grid links, 43% in worst-case Gansu province. However, progress has been made, and it fell to 33% there, and 15% nationally last year. Now efforts are being made to get curtailment down to 30% in the worst locations, Gansu and Xinjiang, and to 20% in Jilin, Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia, with the expectation being that it could be completely eliminated in Heilongjiang, Jilin and Ningxia, while Inner Mongolia is expected to reduce curtailment to below 5%.

Despite these infrastructure problems, wind and PV are clearly the cheapest new options, with estimated average generation costs of US$60/MWh, compared to nuclear, which currently gets a guaranteed support tariff of US $70/MWh.

China’s total installed wind power capacity is expected to reach 291 GW by 2020 and PV growth is also likely to boom, perhaps closing the gap with wind. But other renewable electricity options are also being explored, including wave energy. The Guangzhou Institute of Energy Conversion is involved in the development
of a new kind of semi-submersible barge-type wave energy converter called the Sharp Eagle, where the wave energy-absorbing buoy resembles an eagle’s beak. A 10 kW device was tested in 2012 and sea tests for a 100k W Sharp Eagle are now under way. As elsewhere, attention is now also turning to clean heat, with solar, biomass, waste and geothermal included in a new plan. And China is running a regional test, with a province seeking to run on 100% green power.

However, China is still also seeking to expanding its nuclear programme from its current 3.9% (from 35.7 GW) to maybe around 6% (with 58 GW) by 2020. That seems unlikely to be achieved by 2020, given recent delays, but the programme is certainly very ambitious in global terms, although it has to be put in perspective.  Renewables, including hydro, already supply around 10 times more power in China than nuclear, and its wind output has overtaken that from nuclear, with wind still expanding fast, along now with PV. By contrast, there have been problems with some of the new nuclear projects, most recently welding faults at the new EDF-derivative plant. Overall China’s nuclear programme has had its fair share of problems and delays. And the recent slowdown has dismayed those who look to China to rescue nuclear from the doldrums.

While the expansion of conventional nuclear may have slowed, there is some progress with new nuclear tech and possible new applications. China’s 250 MW HTR-PM high temperature pebble bed helium-cooled reactor (still being built) can, it’s said, be used in Combined Heat and Power mode, to vary the ratio of electricity to heat output. Possible heat applications are seen as “desalination of seawater for human consumption, production of hydrogen, or a wide range of other high temperature heat applications in industry”.

So what is the bottom line for China? Not everyone likes China’s politics and human rights record, but its energy programme is impressive. The country’s overall plan is to get 20% of its energy from low carbon sources by 2030, and renewables look like they will make up the bulk of that – they already supply around 25% of electricity and about 12% of energy. China does have big problems with curtailment and weak grids. And also, crucially, with coal. But it is working on the grids, and its coal phase-out is speeding up. And it aims to spend $750 billion on wind and solar by 2030. As a start, in 2017, it invested  $132.6 billion in clean energy, up 24% on 2016,  setting a new record, and dwarfing the US investment of $56.9 billion – only a 1% rise on 2016. So, as Trump’s cut-backs begin to hit the USA, and the EU slows down, China should stay well in the lead on renewables globally.

It is true that China did not sign up to very stringent targets for carbon in the Paris COP 21 accord, which was one reason why Trump wanted out of the agreement, since the US had signed up to what he saw as unfair targets. The Paris accord US target was a 26–28% domestic reduction in greenhouse gases by 2025 compared to 2005, making its best effort to reach the 28% target. China did, however, commit to a peak in carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030, with best efforts to peak earlier. It also pledged to cut emissions per unit of GDP by 60–65% of 2005 levels by 2030, potentially putting it on course to peak by 2027. It could no doubt try harder, but then so could everyone else – and the US now seems to have left the field open.

Meantime, China is, these days, a major player in Africa. About a third of the new energy capacity there has been led by Chinese funding, around half of it being for renewable energy projects. But they are not alone – Western countries and companies are also keen to invest in what could be a vast new market. See my next post and the new Palgrave Pivot book I’ve produced with Terry Cook: Renewable Energy: from Europe to Africa.

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