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Green energy for China

What happens in China, in terms energy use, is widely seen as a key to whether serious global climate impacts can be avoided or limited. China is relying heavily on coal but is also turning increasingly to non-fossil energy sources. Its nuclear programme often gets the headlines but in 2008 China had as much wind capacity in place as it had nuclear capacity – 8.9 GW. Of course, the relatively low load factor for wind (under 20%) meant that nuclear produced more energy – 68 TWh as against 13 TWh for wind. Moreover, new nuclear plants are planned, including fast neutron reactors to be supplied by Russia. In all, plans announced in recent years call for nuclear stations to supply 4% of China’s power needs by 2020, up from about 2% now, although of course its energy use is expanding rapidly, so that is more than a doubling in capacity. But wind has now more than doubled – installed capacity reached 25 GW in 2009, and a 2020 wind target of 150 GW has been mentioned. China’s wind programme is also moving offshore: it recently installed its first 3 MW 90-metre diameter “Sinovel” offshore turbine, the first unit of a 100 MW Shanghai Donghai Bridge demonstration project.

Certainly renewable energy, along with clean coal (i.e. with carbon capture) seems to be seen as a key way ahead. Chen Mingde, vice-chair of the National Development and Reform Commission, in comments quoted by the China Daily newspaper last year, claimed that “nuclear power cannot save us because the world’s supply of uranium and other radioactive minerals needed to generate nuclear power are very limited”. He saw the expansion of China’s nuclear power capacity a “transitional replacement” of the country’s heavy reliance on coal and oil, with the future for China being in more efficient use of fossil fuels and expanded use of renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro.

China’s current target is to get 15% of its energy (not just electricity) from renewables by 2020, although this is likely to be raised to 20%. In addition to wind, it’s pushing ahead with solar as well as hydro and biomass. China’s hydro capacity is expected to nearly double to 300 GW by 2020. And a recent REEEP study suggested that 30% of China’s rural energy demand could be met through bioenergy. China already has 65 GW of installed solar thermal power, and the potential for expansion is significant (e.g. for large scale, concentrating solar power units in desert areas, feeding power by HVDC links to the cities). A 1GW prototype plant is planned.

PV solar is also set to expand rapidly. China is already the largest producer of solar cells globally and, although until recently most of them were exported (around 1 GW in 2007), the emphasis has now changed, so that the current national target of having 3 GW of capacity in place by 2020 could be exceeded by perhaps a factor of three. Looking further ahead, work in also underway on tidal and wave energy projects.

Some major integrated projects are also emerging. For example, Reuters reports that China is currently developing a demonstration zone in Hangjin Banner, with a planned 11,950 MW renewable-energy park, which, when completed, should have 6,950 MW of wind generation, 3,900 MW of photovoltaics, 720 MW of concentrating solar power, 310 MW of biomass plants and 70 MW of hydro/storage.

Some innovative new grid links are also being established, designed to deal with the problem that much of the renewable electricity resource is remote from mostly coastal centres of population. The new extended grid system could also help with balancing the variable output from some renewables. Modern Power Systems reports that Siemens Energy and China Southern Power Grid has started commissioning part of a High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission line, with a capacity of 5000 MW, covering a distance of more than 1400 km. It’s claimed to be the first HVDC link in the world operating at a transmission voltage of 800 kV. Commissioning of the second phase, and startup of the full system, is scheduled soon.

The Yunnan–Guangdong interconnector will transmit power generated by several hydro power plants in central China to the rapidly growing industrial region in the Pearl River delta in Guangdong Province with its megacities Guangzhou and Shenzhen. This system can, it us claimed, reduce the annual CO2 emissions that would otherwise have been produced by fossil-fuelled power plant by over 30 megatonnes.

In addition Modern Power Systems reports that there is the 800 kV Xiangjiaba–Shanghai link, on which ABB has been working with the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC). It will be capable of transmitting 6400 MW of power from the Xiangjiaba hydropower plant, located in the southwest of China, to Shanghai – a distance of over 2000 km. It is claimed that transmission losses on the line will be less than 7%.

China is now the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter and its energy demand is still rising rapidly, despite the global economic recession. However, in the run up to the COP 15 climate negotiations in Copenhagen last December, while not willing to commit to reductions in net emissions, China said it would cut its energy intensity (emissions/GNP) dramatically – by 40–45% by 2020. That’s not the same as reducing net emissions of course, but it would be a start. And if that is acted on, renewables would clearly play a major part.

China’s role at COP 15 has been much debated – essentially it seemed to want to protect its continued growth, and avoid imposed emission targets targets – much like the US. But, like the US, it also seems keen to be a leader in the move to green energy technology – perhaps becoming the “green workshop of the world” feeding the expanding markets for renewable energy systems around the world. In addition to exporting solar PV cells, it was even planning to build wind turbines for and in the US – although a US senator’s objections may have scotched that.

How rapidly China can and will green itself though is less clear. Certainly China has massive renewable resources: for example the wind resource is put at around 2 TW. And a new study by Michael McElroy and colleagues at Harvard and Tsinghua University in Beijing, published in the journal Science, has claimed that, in theory, wind power could meet all of China’s electricity demand by 2030.

That is very unlikely happen by then of course, but China is likely to become a major player in the green-energy revolution.

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  1. Thanks, it does sound large, but unless I misread it, 65GW (Thermal) is what is reported in ‘Solar heat Worldwide’, Institute AEE Intec /IEA, by 2006, about half the global total of about 128 GW(th). It will have gone up since then. 65 million 1 kW solar collectors seems not impossible in a country of 1.6 billion! I can’t find a more recent figure for China, but ‘Solar Thermal Markets in Europe Trends and Market Statistics 2008’, May 2009 from ESTIF says the EU 27+CH by then had 19GW (th)

  2. Christopher

    No, you’re right Dave, although that number reflects primarily solar hot water heater devices. Some cities in China, thanks to dedicating extremely large amounts of money on the municipal level to implementing domestically innovated solar hot water heaters, lead the thermal sector by a huge head start. However, such devices are mostly individual scale, mounted on apartments and houses. Still, they save the energy that would be used on water heating otherwise.

  3. I agree with Christopher. They are miles ahead in many ways. With the increased municipal spending, they can afford to get these devices setup on an individual basis, leading the thermal sector by a head.

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