China is rushing headlong toward a more sustainable and green energy industry, with aggressive renewable energy campaigns in spite of significant setbacks like limited transmission capacity and a steadily growing backlog of subsidy payments. According to data released this week, in 2018 China grew its renewable power capacity by a whopping 12 percent as compared to the previous year, with the government continuing to introduce new renewable energy projects all the time.
Numbers shared by the National Energy Administration (NEA) during a media briefing this week show that by the end of last year the total renewable power capacity in China increased to 728 gigawatts (GW). This increase accounted for an impressive 38.3 percent of China’s total installed power capacity, 1.7 percentage points higher on the year and approximately 7 percentage points higher than the end of 2015. So far, China’s renewables investment has been focused on hydro, biomass, solar and wind power.
Of the 728 GW added to the grid in 2018, 20.59 GW were from new wind power capacity and 44.3 GW from new solar capacity. This amount of new solar capacity is higher than earlier estimates, but it shows a decrease in solar growth nonetheless, following a 2017 decision to cut down on Chinese solar subsidies. In addition to wind and solar, there were also smaller contributions to the grid, including from hydropower, which added 8.54 GW of capacity for a total hydropower capacity of 352 GW by the end of the year.
This growing enthusiasm for renewables in China comes from a larger “energy revolution” objective that endeavors to wean the world’s second-largest economy off of its long-time dependence on coal. With the fastest growing consumer market in the world and notoriously horrific air quality, China is looking to move away from one of the dirtiest forms of power production to something much cleaner and with a significantly lighter carbon footprint.
The intense ramping up of renewable power production, however, has introduced a new level of strain on grid operators, who have to correspondingly raise transmission capacity. Because of this, China has attempted to vary the rhythm of renewable power construction in order to allow these grid operators an opportunity to add the necessary transmission capacity as well as make sure that the new energy generation does not go to waste. It would seem that this strategy has been a success in at least some sectors, as deputy head of the NEA’s new energy section Li Chuangjun says that the amount of wind power waste fell to 7 percent in the last year, 5 percent lower than the previous year. “The utilization rate of renewable energy is constantly going up”, he quoted at this week’s NEA media briefing.
A recent guideline put together by the National Development and Reform Commission and the National Energy Administration set objectives for China’s clean energy consumption between now and 2020. The guideline stipulates that by this year, wind power utilization rate should top 90 per cent, while the utilization rates of both photovoltaic and hydropower should reach more than 95 per cent.
These renewable energy goalposts are being implemented in tandem with initiatives to clean up China’s coal plants, still the backbone of Chinese power production, by way of new emissions control technology. While China’s “energy revolution” promises a literal breath of fresh air to its smog-choked cities and citizens, however, the country has received a good deal of criticism for funding major coal projects in other countries. Furthermore, recent reporting show that those new emissions controls in coal plants aren’t working so well after all.
While China’s clean energy goals are ambitious, and the country certainly is gaining some ground in its “energy revolution”, it remains to be seen whether the reality will live up to the rhetoric. Even if China can get its own air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions under control, it counts for little if they are funding the same dirty coal operations elsewhere.