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Green energy in China

By Dave Elliott

China’s economy has been accelerating at uniquely high levels, although lately that has slowed slightly. Some say that will provide a helpful respite from the massive eco/health problems that have been created by burning so much coal and oil- epitomised by the dire air pollution in big cities like Beijing, which of late has led to major health scares and protests. China has a massive renewable energy programme, with for example wind on and off grid already at around 75GW, but it’s barely able to keep up with the growth in energy demand. So the transition to a sustainable energy future may take some time. Renewable Energy World asked  ‘can it “turn the ship around” as the ship steams ahead at full speed?‘ It suggested that ‘China “pause” to allow sustainability to catch up with the magnitude of the Chinese economy’. But it concluded,’it is unlikely that the exigencies of China’s inexorable economic ascent and the political and social context in which that is being accomplished would allow such a hiatus’.

Instead the only real option, apart from cleaning up emissions, is the even more rapid expansion of renewables, and that now seems to be the plan. China will sharply boost renewable energy, the National Development and Reform Commission said in a 2013 report. It plans to increase hydropower generating capacity by 21 GW, wind by 18 GW and solar energy by 10GW. These figures are all higher than the annual average increase over the past five years of 20GW , 11.6 GW and 1.4 GW respectively, according to official data. See:

At the end of 2012, hydro reached 249 GW, a 7.2% rise on 2011, on-grid wind 61.4 GW, a 33% rise, on-grid solar 3.4 GW, up 61%. Nuclear stayed at 12.6 GW. Non-fossil capacity including nukes was 29% of the total, 4.2% up on 2005, and it supplied 21.4% of grid electricity.

Although there are major grid challenges and other bottlenecks, according to China’s 12th Five-Year Renewable Energy Development Plan 2011-15, China’s installed wind capacity connected to the grid is on track to reach 100 GW by 2015, including installed offshore wind power capacity of 5 GW, while annual electricity generation is projected to exceed 190 TWh. By 2020, the country’s combined installed grid-connected wind power capacity is expected to reach 200 GW, including installed offshore wind power capacity of 30 GW, while annual electricity generation is forecasted to surpass 390 TWh.$16+billion_87489.html

A pilot offshore 102MW wind farm at Shanghai is undergoing environmental assessment with the aim of connecting it to the grid in 2015, using turbines from Sinovel, who also supplied 34 3MW turbines for China’s first demonstration offshore wind farm, the Shanghai Donghai Bride project, in 2010.

PV solar is also now expanding. Until recently most of the PV cells manufactured in China were exported, making it a world market leader. But with rapid market growth come all the usual boom and bust problems- with global PV solar prices falling, a US Chinese PV import embargo and threats of import sanctions from the EU, China’s Suntech PV cell manufacturer has gone bust, and more companies may follow: the sector had mushroomed. But a deal with the EU has been arranged, limiting exports from China, and China is increasingly focusing on deployment at home: there is now 10GW in place in China and it is aiming to install 21GW of PV nationally by 2015.

China is also looking at tidal power, for example atthe Dutch ‘dynamic tidal’ concept, using the daily tidal surges to create a local head of water across a wall in the sea, without needing impoundment.

China has a nuclear power and although large in capacity terms  by Western standards, its only aimed to expand the nuclear contribution from its current 2% to 4% by 2020: by contrast renewables, including large hydro, already supply over 17% of China’s electricity and the aim is for China to get to 15% of its total energy from non-fossil source by 2020, with renewables dominating . After halting all new nuclear projects, apart from those under construction, following the Fukushima disaster, China restarted a ‘steady’ return to full-scale nuclear build, approving a ‘small number’ of projects in each of the coming five years, but restricting technology selection to Generation-III designs only. So it’s throttling back from the earlier programme: 9 new reactors were begun in 2009, and ten in 2010.

There is some opposition to the expansion plans. A BBC Globespan poll carried out between July and Sept 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, found that although 42% of their Chinese sample still supported nuclear power, 35% wanted no new plants and 13% wanted all nuclear plants closed. An Ipsos Poll in May 2011 put the opposition higher at 58%.  More recently questions have been raised about safety.  A former state nuclear physicist and prominent critic He Zuoxiu has claimed that China is heading for a nuclear accident if it continues with current construction plans. He notes that China plans to build 30 third-generation power stations between 2015 and 2020, including the Chinese version of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors- a reactor type that is as yet untested any where in the world. He notes that the new plants  ‘are all being built inland and all face problems with water supply’ and claims that ‘ Several third-generation plants, including Pengze in Jiangxi and Taohuajiang in Hunan, each with six reactors, cheated during the environmental impact assessment process, with no action taken by the National Nuclear Safety Administration’.

This claim may be challenged, but it is true that the world’s first AP1000 third-generation nuclear power plant being built in Sanmen, Zhejiang  province, has fallen a year behind schedule, and questions are being raised over its safety standards given that it is being re-engineered from a US design which has not yet been tested, some say too hurriedly. The World Nuclear Association said on its website the construction cost of the two AP1000 reactors at Sanmen was estimated by the China Nuclear Energy Association at 40.1 billion yuan in May – 24 % higher than earlier estimates.

With no or very little oil or gas, but a lot of coal, China clearly faces problems in moving to a sustainable future. The nuclear option does not seem very significant given the scale of demand, and a somewhat desperate attempt to access shale gas seem to have failed.  Although it has spent £1.6bn on 130 shale gas wells, according to a Reuters report, evidently most are not delivering at expected levels. It seems that it would be best to focus on its huge renewables resources as well as improving the efficiency of energy use.

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