The Buzz

Planet Earth Beware: China is Addicted to Cheap Coal

A recent paper in Nature says that “no other country is investing so much money or generating so much renewable energy” as China. “Its build-up of renewable energy systems at serious scale is driving cost reductions that will make them accessible to all.”

The International Energy Agency reckons China accounts for 56% of the US$250 billion in annual global renewables investment, and that solar could become the world's leading primary energy source by 2050. Beijing has recently rejuvenated its nuclear program too. China's Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli, proclaimed at the UN Climate Summit that his country would strive to peak absolute CO2 emissions 'as soon as possible.' Apparently China is shifting its stance on climate change, and backing its words with manufacturing muscle.

A field-trip across China reveals a more nuanced reality on the ground.

For a start, as the Nature essay notes, today the vast majority of China's non-fossil electricity generation is from hydropower, and the country's gigantic dam projects are controversial. One problem with all renewables is “intermittency”; they need rain, wind and sun, which are capricious, so backup thermal plants must stand by. Another problem is “curtailment”. By 2020, there could be well over 300 GW of wind and solar capacity installed, representing almost 20% of China's total nameplate capacity, but actual generation might be only 8% of the total.

Coal supplies three-quarters of China's electricity and 67% of its total primary energy (although 16% of this is exported in manufactures). A Xinjiang official boasted his province might have one trillion tonnes of coal reserves: “our black treasure will supply China's needs for a century.” I have noted before that coal underpins China's growth model; Inner Mongolia achieved a 159% energy efficiency gain between 2002 and 2009 but exploited this to make fourteen times more cement and steel.

The much-touted UHV lines, transporting power from west to east, all originate at coal-fired complexes, not wind and solar farms. Although coal's trajectory has moderated and will eventually peak, a coal glut is the immediate concern. Recent regulations (a sales tax, supply consolidation, import bans) appear intended to support the mining sector's profitability.

A power utility explained that a large (1000 MW) modern ultra-supercritical thermal plant earns 25-30% return on equity, compared to 8-12% for renewables, even with subsidies from one to the other. Coal is a third cheaper than wind power. The reason is simple: coal is superabundant. Global prices have halved since 2011. A manager at a power equipment maker says that coal power is seeing a resurgence in orders, spurred by the fuel's competitiveness. He disclosed that President Xi Jinping, heading China's leading small group for energy security, has “re-emphasized the importance of coal.”