Read more and see the charts at http://cleantechnica.com/2014/04/08/chinas-renewable-energy-revolution-global-implications/#8IkDZ5y04VXckxWj.99
China’s renewable energy revolution is powering ahead, with the year 2013 marking an important inflection point where the scales tipped more towards electric power generated from water, wind and solar than from fossil fuels and nuclear. This means that its energy security is being enhanced, while carbon emissions from the power sector can be expected to soon start to fall.
China’s energy revolution, which underpins its transformation into the world’s largest manufacturing system (the new “workshop of the world”), continues to astonish all observers, and terrify some. China is known widely as the world’s largest user and producer of coal, and the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This is true. Less noticed has been the fact that China is also building the world’s largest renewable energy system – which by 2013 stood at just over 1 trillion kilowatt-hours – already nearly as large as the combined total of electrical energy produced by the power systems of France and Germany.1
The energy landscape continues to give the clearest indication of the trends in industrial dynamics and prospects for the future. China is powering ahead with renewables while at the same time it expands its reliance on fossil fuels; the US by contrast is further locking in its dependence on fossil fuels. The distinction is critical.
Data for the full-year 2013 are now available, from both the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in the US and the China Electricity Council (CEC) as well as the National Energy Administration (NEA) in China.2 This allows us to examine the total electric power systems in each country, and to assess the direction of change by studying the increments in power generation capacity added in 2013, as well as additional electrical energy generated and the allocation of new investments across the three main energy sources – fossil fuels (mainly coal); renewables, and nuclear.
Both the US and China now have electric power systems rated at just north of 1 trillion watts each – with China edging ahead at 1.25 TW compared with the US at 1.16 TW – a significant milestone in itself, as China emerges as the most electrically powered nation on the planet (while per capita power consumption remains four times higher for the US).
We need to sketch in the background to China’s energy revolution, so that the enormity of its commitment to renewables may be appreciated. We can see firstly how China continues to expand its ‘black’ energy system based on fossil fuels, and particularly coal, for its electric power generation. We show the situation updated to 2013 in Figure 1, where the relentless rise in the size of the fossil-fuelled power generation system is clearly shown, and the rising dependence on coal. While coal for thermal power continues to rise, the overall consumption of coal appears to be ‘capped’ at 3,500 million tonnes – a desperate measure taken no doubt in response to the blackening skies and poisoning of water and air.
The year 2001 is the inflection point – which coincides with China’s entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO). This signalled to the world that China was “open for business” and manufacturing started to migrate to China in a big way – calling for drastic expansion of the energy system. In the time-honored way, replicating the actions of the West in the 19th century, what was expanded initially was the coal-burning system.
But the build-up in thermal (coal-fired) power has been complemented by the rise of renewables. The situation with wind power and its historic rise in terms of both capacity added (right axis) and electric energy generated (left axis) is shown in Fig. 2.
In just the space of eight years, China has become the world’s most important generator of wind power, with the world’s largest capacity and the largest addition of new power capacity in the year 2013. The increase in all three sources of renewables – hydro, wind and solar PV – is shown in Fig. 3, in terms of the proportion of power generated by renewables and its relentless rise (apart from a dip in 2012, following world recession in 2011).
The proportion reached by 2013, of close to 30% of electrical energy generated from renewable sources (hydro, wind and solar), is what gives China its international influence in renewables – and it demonstrates a relentless trend towards greater reliance on manufacturing systems for production of, e.g. wind turbines and solar cells, as opposed to the reliance elsewhere on alternative fossil fuels such as coal seam gas and shale oil.
In fact the sharp turn to renewables increase can be located accurately at around 2005-06, as shown in Fig. 4, which extends the same data as in Fig. 3 back in time to 1980. The sharp rise in renewables reflects particularly the new commitment to wind power – and it looks set to continue through industrial logistic dynamics. We will develop an argument below for the significance of this date.
Now let us look at the most recent data for the full-year 2013 – updating our own work as well as that of others who have been critical of us (such as Armond Cohen of the Clean Air Task Force). We have three sources of data to utilize in demonstrating how China’s electrical power system continues to green itself. We have the data on electrical capacity (measured in terms of gigawatts, GW); the data on electrical energy generated (in terms of billion kWh); and the data on investment. While each source of data is provisional at this stage (and there are some inconsistencies where we need to make compensating assumptions, which we will identify), the trend is clearly in line with the overall trends shown in Figs 2, 3 and 4 above.
Capacity is the most easily available and comprehensible source of data – just how many power stations is China building and how powerful are they? The weakness in this source of data is that coal-fired and nuclear power stations tend to produce more electricity than wind power or solar power of the same capacity. These differences, embodied in different “capacity factors”, mean that electrical energy produced is a better measure of how the system is travelling – but we don’t have complete data on this for 2013 as yet. Finally, investment data give an unarguable sense of where the system is headed.
1. Electric power capacity
In terms of generating capacity, China added…