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  • Writer's pictureLeah Tyler

Renewable Energy Developments in China

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

A solar power plant in Dunhuang. | Photo by 李大毛 没有猫 on Unsplash

China has a lot of two things: industries and people. These two things, however, call for extensive energy usage. Hence, China stands as the largest consumer of energy, the largest producer and consumer of coal, and the largest emitter of carbon dioxide worldwide. Given the current climate concerns, Beijing's ultimate goal is to drastically reduce its carbon production by utilizing renewable energy. Hydropower is the country's greatest renewable energy development to date, although the country's prolonged droughts have severely hampered the generation of that electricity. Hence, if China intends to uphold its climate change pledges and offer a sustainable electricity infrastructure, it must now concentrate on growing alternative renewable energy sectors, such as wind, solar, and nuclear.

China's Current Energy Sector

In order to power its enormous and rapidly expanding nation, China primarily relies on coal. Reportedly, China consumes half of all the coal used worldwide (You, 2022). Manufacturing makes up 55% of China's overall energy consumption, while 56% of the total energy used in the nation depends on coal. Although this metric has decreased since the middle of the 2000s, the absolute level of coal use continues to increase. Thus, China needs to diversify its energy industry swiftly. China has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060 and reduce its reliance on fossil fuels by 2030.

Hydropower use in China

China has made strides to increase its hydropower capacity through large-scale dam construction projects. In 2012 China completed the largest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam. It is located near the city of Yichang, in the south-central region of China, and regulates the flow of the Yangtze River. Furthermore, the Ministry of Water Resources has authorised 25 new projects for a total of 1.7 trillion yuan, or $246 billion, in addition to building four of the ten largest energy-producing hydroelectric dams worldwide (Stanway, 2022). These projects come as China is experiencing severe droughts and an imbalance between energy supply and demand.

Last year, China experienced record heat waves that dried up parts of the Yangtze River. Since hydropower accounts for over 80% of Sichuan's energy needs, the drought compelled government officials to shut down industry and restrict electricity for homes (Stanway, 2022). The fact that Sichuan is essential to China's economy made the drought a major issue; "Its mild and humid climate, fertile soil, and abundant mineral and forestry resources make it one of the most prosperous and economically self-sufficient regions of China" (Hu, 2023). Therefore, this area needs access to energy and water, or else other industries, including agriculture, would suffer. According to David Shankman, a geographer who studies China's water system, when preparing for droughts, you should have the most water available; yet, when preparing for significant floods, you should have the least amount of water available. Hence, although adding 25 new hydropower plants seems like a good idea in principle, allocating significant economic resources to a volatile source of electricity portends future disasters. What, then, can China do? Expand the grid for renewable energy.

Renewable energy potential in China

In July 2021, China released its 14th five-year plan (14FYP) for 2021-2025. The 14FYP is a "highly anticipated industry road map" which outlines development plans in nearly every sector, namely energy efficiency (You, 2022). The 14FYP is primarily concerned with upgrading China's energy industry through massive projects with high budget expectations. China wants to use renewable energy sources to meet 25% of its energy needs by 2030. (Min, 2022). The sources it is actively developing are listed below:

Wind and Solar energy

China has dominated the solar panel market and has become the world's largest offshore wind market; its wind and solar capacity now account for 35-40% of the global total. The current plan is to pair wind and solar farms with "clean and efficient" coal power capacity to balance the instability of renewable resources (You, 2022). "China's climate pledge aims for 1,200 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar power capacity by 2030, and for 25% of energy consumption to be met by non-fossil fuels by 2060" (Min, 2022). At least 100GW of wind and solar energy capacity must be added to the grid annually to achieve these goals. China will likely accomplish the objectives specified in the 14FYP based on its track record of exceeding its development goals for renewable energy. Indeed, 23 of the 35 provinces have set capacity expansion objectives for wind and solar energy totalling more than 120 GW annually, putting them on course to surpass their energy ambitions.

Nuclear Energy

As of now, nuclear energy only accounts for about 2-3 per cent of all energy consumed in China. The plan is to develop 150 new nuclear reactors, 17 are already under construction, to expand nuclear energy production from 50 GW to 70 GW (Donnelleon-May, 2022). In order to continue producing nuclear energy, China has formed a close relationship with its neighbouring country Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has a wealth of natural resources, including 15 per cent of the world's uranium reserves, and was originally utilized as a nuclear testing ground during the Soviet era (Donnelleon-May, 2022). While China has its own Uranium supply, they are interested in diversifying its future Uranium acquisition strategy to avoid high import dependency ratio risks. As a result, Kazakhstan could also economically benefit from Beijing's plan.

Ending notes

Despite the importance of these recent and prospective advancements, electricity constraints last year confirmed that coal consumption is not going away soon. Following the droughts in 2022, China increased its coal use to compensate for the lack of hydropower. Hence, in addition to successfully managing the switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, officials will need to address flaws in the system's network of renewables, such as hydro and wind (Mullin, 2022). China must start to build storage facilities for their renewable energy for times when the wind, sun, and rain are unpredictable. Dr Xie Chunping, a policy fellow on Climate Change and the Environment, comments on China's renewable energy sector stating, "When renewable energy and energy storage technologies are fully developed, (China) can rely more on wind and solar generation and reduce the utilization of coal power capacity whenever possible" (qtd. in You, 2022). Overall, the expansion of wind, solar, and nuclear energy, as well as the improvement of their hydropower capacity, represent advances in China's pursuit of more renewable energy sources that will help to reduce global carbon emissions.

About the Writer

Leah Tyler is a recent graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder. She graduated with a Major in International Affairs, a minor in Political Science and a certificate in Peace, Conflict, and Security Studies. She spent part of her time studying sustainable development as well as politics and religious and ethnics divides across the Middle East and Africa.

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