China – Renewables and Coal Power – Impact on Carbon Emissions

Posted on March 16, 2011 by

China is taking a number of measures, very significant ones to become a lead players in the carbon constrained economy of the future. China has set a target by 2020 of reducing carbon pollution by 40 to 45 per cent per unit of gross domestic product. But that does not change the fact that it will  remain the largest energy user and biggest carbon emitter for a significant foreseeable time. This is driven by a number of reasons

  • China has overtaken the US as the largest energy consumer in 2009. It will only continue to grow as the economy expands.
  • The enormous demand for electricity which will only continue to increase will for the most part be supplied by coal.

The steps China is taking to reduce, or at least slow the rate of growth of carbon emissions, consist of a number of measures

  • Closing down older and heavily polluting coal-fired power stations. This is happening at a rate of one facility every one or two weeks. The reality is every kilowatt hour of electricity saved from old coal-fired power stations now closed has been more than replaced by electricity from a coal-fired power station using newer technology.
  • A four-fold growth in nuclear power to 40 gigawatts, 63GW of new hydroelectric capacity, a growth of 22GW in gas-fired generation and 48GW of new wind power to more than double capacity. Solar capacity is expected to reach 5GW of electricity by 2015.
  • China at the same time adding large coal-fuelled capacity than installed in a number of large economies such as US and Japan, is also working on renewables.
  • Though the Chinese government is intent on reducing its coal dependence, the overall coal consumption will continue to increase to meet demand for electricity. At an overall level, the percentage of coal-fired electricity generation is expected to fall by about nine percentage points over next five years. This will be driven by improvements in efficiency of coal plants and an increase in renewables.
  • China is also working on the CCS technology with about 20 demonstration carbon capture and storage plants. All the new coal-fired power stations being built include the possibility of the technology ( as and when it becomes available/feasible).
  • The government is providing stimulus (very much needed after the global financial crisis ) by supporting deployment of almost all the low-emissions technologies – solar, wind nuclear, biomass and hydro-electric. There area also large investment in the electricity transmission grid to reduce energy losses and to ease  integration of new sources of electricity.

There are interesting implications of all these actions

  • The large number of hydro, nuclear, wind and solar power stations being built will probably reduce the proportion of electricity China generates using coal, but the total amount will not decrease.
  • All the numbers of addition in renewable energy must be seen in context of the estimated additional 260GW of coal-fired power generation.
  • It is important to keep in mind that China has the third largest reserves of coal – around 114 billion tonnes. It also imports millions of tonnes of coal from a number of sources including Australia.
  • Overall coal-fired power generation is expected to increase from 8000 terrawatt hours in 2008 to 11,000 in 25 years.

There are a number barriers to success of reducing emissions intensity. Generation based on coal and heavy manufacturing industries still make up 81 per cent of China’s emissions. With a number of diverese efforts underway to shift to renewables, to increase efficiency of coal powered plants, there will also be growth in coal generating capacity that will disproportionately outstrip the alternative energy roll-out plans.