China’s energy transition sees ‘staggering’ progress on renewables — and a coal power boom

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China is recognized as the undisputable global leader in renewable energy expansion.

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China is making rapid progress in scaling up clean energy, tentatively boosting hopes that the world’s largest carbon emitter could soon start to curb greenhouse gas pollution.

A massive wave of permits for new coal-fired capacity poses a significant challenge to the country’s climate goals, with Beijing seen as “the glaring exception to the ongoing global decline in coal plant development,” according to the Global Energy Monitor.

Research from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air and GEM published late last month showed China approved the highest number of new coal-fired plants since 2015 last year.

Beijing authorized 106 gigawatts of new coal power capacity in 2022, four times higher than a year earlier and the equivalent of 100 large-fired power plants, the research said.

The extraordinary speed at which China approved the projects was thought to have been driven by energy security considerations, namely electricity shortages following a historic drought and heatwave last summer.

The major additions of new coal-fired capacity may not necessarily mean that carbon emissions from the power sector will increase in China, CREA and GEM analysts said, particularly given the country’s rapid progress in scaling up clean energy.

China was found to have permitted 106 gigawatts of new coal power capacity in 2022, four times higher than a year earlier and the equivalent of 100 large-fired power plants.

Vcg | Visual China Group | Getty Images

China is recognized as the undisputable global leader in renewable energy expansion, adding new projects to the grid almost as fast as the rest of the world combined in 2022.

The build-out comes as part of the government’s strategy to cut its energy intensity and reach peak emissions “in a well-planned and phased way.”

“When we look around the world today, we can firmly see that the energy transition is in progress,” said Mike Hemsley, deputy director at the Energy Transitions Commission think tank.

“China is building renewables at such a staggering rate [that] it is said to outperform the targets they have set themselves,” Hemsley said at International Energy Week in London last week. He added that around 50% of all renewables built every year were built in China.

“To put that into context, we’ve heard the really admirable goal of Masdar to build 100 gigawatts of renewables by 2030 [but] China every year is building around 75 gigawatts of wind and in excess 100 gigawatts of solar every year,” Hemsley said. Masdar is the UAE’s state-owned renewables developer.

On its current trajectory, Hemsley said that Beijing is on track to reach 1,800 gigawatts of total renewables by 2030. That would be 50% higher than Chinese President Xi Jinping‘s target of 1,200 gigawatts of total renewables by the end of the decade.

“The implications of that being [that] they will outperform their Nationally Determined Contribution, and they are likely to peak emissions way before 2030, some say around 2025 [or] 2026,” Hemsley said, describing this as “really positive news.”

‘A hot, still summer evening is the worry’

The International Energy Agency said earlier this month that, while still rising, global carbon emissions may at least be reaching a plateau.

Energy-related carbon emissions added less than 1% in 2022 to a new high of more than 36.8 billion tons. The increase was less than expected, as renewables helped limit the impact of a global rise in coal and oil consumption. Comparatively, global emissions from energy gained by 6% in 2021.

China’s emissions, the IEA said, were broadly flat in 2022, as Covid-19 measures and declining construction activity led to weaker economic growth.

“Getting China’s emissions to peak has an indispensable role in peaking and declining global emissions — and the success of the overall global effort,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA.

In 2020, China’s Xi announced plans for the world’s second-largest economy to strive for peak carbon emissions in 2030 and for carbon neutrality by 2060.

Renewable energy company discusses the 'full circle' of the planned transition to net-zero

Myllyvirta told CNBC via telephone that, depending on one’s perspective, China’s climate targets could either be seen as flexible or as lacking in ambition, noting it is important to keep in mind that they allow for a “huge range of outcomes.”

“The grid planners believe that there are going to be some hours or days or weeks during the summer [when] they are going to need more coal-fired power plants,” Myllyvirta said.

China’s power system remains dependent on coal, the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, to meet electricity peak loads and to manage the variability of demand and of clean power supply.

Burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, is the chief driver of the climate crisis.

“A hot, still summer evening is the worry. Where are [they] going to get enough power to keep the lights on? That’s why they think they need more coal-fired power plants, because that’s traditionally the way they’ve met the demand in that situation,” Myllyvirta said.

If China is going to meet its climate commitments — as CREA expects — then the think tank says that the country’s new coal power plants will “end up as short-lived and under-utilized malinvestments.”

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