by Peter Davies
China has big plans for low-carbon electricity, primarily to reduce air pollution but also with the intent of reducing CO2 emissions and building a true 21st century power grid. Is it going to succeed?
In the late 1970s the Chinese leaders realised that the Cultural Revolution (in which intellectuals were forced to labour on the land among many other things) had been a disaster for the Chinese people. They therefore brought in economic reforms, adopting a more capitalist economic policy while still keeping tight political control, and opening China up to foreign investment. After a slow start this resulted in high economic growth rates. China is now the second biggest economy in the world and the biggest single driver of world economic growth. By 2050 it is expected to overtake the USA as the world’s biggest economy and will need an energy infrastructure to support this.
This economic growth has not been without problems.
Although this is not an article about human rights, do not forget the Chinese government is not directly elected and has absolute power. It can dictate national and regional energy policy and force through infrastructure projects even if they affect a large number of people. For instance, to build the 22.5 GW Three Gorges Dam the government moved 1.3 million people and lengthened our day by 0.06 microseconds with no approval needed!
The People’s Republic of China’s central government usually has the best interests of its citizens in mind unless those conflict with the dominant political role of the communist party. But its planning processes are not as good as they might be, and there are often unforeseen consequences from its policies. Some problems which might have been spotted at the outset in the USA and Europe are fixed in China only after they become obvious.
After failed attempts by previous leaders, when Xi Jinping took over as President and head of the communist party he committed to stamping out government corruption and lavish entertainment spending. After the jailing and punishment of 108,000 government officials in the first nine months of 2013 the message largely sunk home with those not already in prison and still employed by the government. Especially in Beijing, this has had a huge impact on the revenue of hotels, airlines, top-end restaurants and those supplying luxury goods, all of which now have to offer attractive deals to ordinary citizens to stay in business! And Chinese people now have a higher opinion of government officials.
Key driver for change to China’s energy – air pollution
Visits to the interactive, real-time map of air pollution sensor readings in Beijing and other Chinese cities will convince you of China’s air pollution problem. The single reading from each sensor includes levels of particles (PM2.5 and PM10 with sizes in microns) and nitrous and nitric oxides (NOx). Up to 50 is safe. 101-150 is unsafe for sensitive groups and 300+ is hazardous for all, especially combined with physical activity outdoors. Beijing values often get to a few hundred. (The map zooms to other Chinese cities and works worldwide too.)
Air pollution in Beijing comes from many sources, including coal, vehicle exhausts, pollution carried by the wind from the north a few hundred miles away, and sandstorms from the Gobi desert to the north and north-west of Beijing driven by the wind. Since you can feel and see air pollution , everyone in China knows the problem is very serious. The central government actually let this unofficial video go viral for a while before suppressing it.
The Chinese central government thinks communist party credibility, and maybe long-term survival is at stake, and desperately wants to reduce air pollution. It has also said it will address air pollution for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The planned actions include replacing coal, petrol and diesel with less polluting sources of energy such as nuclear, hydro, wind and solar. The government says these are also necessary to combat climate change, and the two issues are inextricably linked in people’s minds.
Change of focus of the Chinese economy
The central government is nudging growth away from heavy industry and export and into internal consumption and services. This affects growth rates, energy intensity (energy used per $ of GDP) and future energy plans. As a result growth has slowed from more than the 8% official target 2005 to 2011 to “only” 6.9% in 2015.
Public Chinese climate and energy commitments and plans
In June 2015 China made four promises in its Nationally Determined Contribution to the November 2015 Paris climate conference. The second half of the document is the English translation.
- To achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early;
- To lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60 to 65% from the 2005 level;
- To increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20%; and
- To increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters on the 2005 level.
1 and 3 were from a summit agreement with the USA in November 2014.
China creates five-year plans for the economy and country. The draft 13th Five Year Plan [and one-page highlights] forecasts growth of 6.5% from 2016 to 2020 and thus a doubling of GDP and Chinese living standards between 2010 and 2020. As the economy slows some Western economists doubt government actions can sustain growth as high as 6.5% though others disagree.
Although there is no full English version yet, the China Daily and other English language newspapers have many articles on the latest plan. Here’s the China Daily version of the long-term 2030 energy projections in the plan.
China has to add new installed capacity of 100 GW nuclear power, 150 GW hydroelectric power, 300 GW [solar] photovoltaic power and 400 GW wind power between 2016 and 2030.
Here’s a catchy little song about the 13th five-year plan in English apart from the Chinese words ”shí sān wǔ” (十三五 in simplified Chinese) or “thirteen five”.
Current and future electricity and energy use
The values in the charts in this section and others with no hyperlinks come from the main references at the bottom of the post. Such official sources have slight inconsistencies, reflecting flaws in the overall process of gathering statistics in China. The central government says that not all official statistics are yet accurate, as not all provinces report accurately.
With the recent slowdown and with energy efficiency savings, the Chinese economy grew at 6.9% last year with only a 1% increase in electricity generation. Thus electricity consumption is beginning to detach from GDP.
In the above chart thermal, hydro and nuclear generation values for 2015 are not yet supplied directly in official reports and are the average of 2014 and 2015 year-end capacity multiplied by the 2015 hours of operation. Other historical values are direct from official reports. Treat values with a little caution as figures from different sources don’t quite match.
For the 2020 and 2030 projections, capacity factors assumed are 42% (hydro), 30% (wind), 90% (nuclear) and 15% (solar), which reflect recent years except for wind which is discussed below. The 8,000 TWh total for 2030 is adjusted down by me (hopefully conservatively) from estimates of 8,500 and 9,300 TWh produced before China committed to reduce energy intensity (energy per $ of GDP) by 60-65% by 2030. Thermal for 2030 is the 8,000 TWh total less low-carbon generation. Including even an approximate 2030 generation total is important because it shows that generation from coal is much more likely to reduce than increase by 2030 and that the reduction is very dependent on the planned energy efficiency savings.
The energy to power the Chinese economy currently comes mainly from coal. In 2014 coal was at least 93% of thermal generation while gas was 3%, even though gas was 5% of thermal capacity.
Hydroelectricity is already 20% of the total generation and there are plans to expand it further.
There have been some problems with hydro. The Banquio Dam failure cost 26,000 lives directly and another 145,000 from epidemics and famine, affected 11 million people in total, collapsed 6 million buildings, and destroyed 18GW of hydro power generation. Although the numbers were horrific, the deaths are dwarfed by those from air pollution.
The chart below omits total and thermal generation so the growth of low-carbon generation is clearer.
In the generation capacity chart below, note that the load (or capacity) factors for different technologies differ widely. Load factor is the ratio of actual electricity generation in a period (in GWh) compared with maximum (“nameplate”) capacity multiplied by the length of the period. Nuclear punches above its weight compared to wind and solar capacity.
Hydro includes pumped storage hydro of 20GW (2014) and 40GW (2015).
Most of China’s wind power is onshore and China missed its 2015 target of 5GW for offshore wind.
Despite a huge increase in the transmission networks in 2015 some 15% of wind power was curtailed (dramatically up from 9% in 2014) because the network could not carry it. Surprisingly, when there is a surplus of power, wind and solar are curtailed in favour of coal generation, because coal is given fixed generation hours. This is economically inefficient, does not help air pollution and is likely to change shortly.
Even so, in 2013 wind generation overtook expanding nuclear generation for the first time, and looks like staying ahead. This was due both to a re-evaluation of nuclear safety following Fukushima and the 6 years for a Chinese nuclear build compared with a few months for wind. After Fukushima China reduced its 2020 target for nuclear capacity from 80 GW to 58 GW installed with 30 GW under construction.
Variable wind power must be backed by despatchable generation such as gas or hydro generation to cover times when the wind is not blowing. China potentially has the ideal combination of wind backed by the huge hydro capacity. However, the hydro and wind are in different places which are not both connected to the same population centres. A lot of the hydro is over 1000 km from Beijing (e.g. Three Gorges) and the best wind is Gansu (1000km west of Beijing) and Inner Mongolia (closer). The planned long-distance high and ultra-high voltage transmission network upgrades (see below) will solve the problem over the next few years. Further, due to local grid capacity problems, new wind farm starts are temporarily banned in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Jilin, until the local transmission network catches up.
China has no significant commercial CSP (concentrating solar power – solar troughs or heliostats (mirrors) plus solar tower). However it has 1.1 million square km of desert with high levels of sunlight which are very suitable for CSP generation. An 810 MW (when complete) CSP plant with 3 hours of storage is planned in Qinghai in the west with a first phase of 270 MW. When fully completed this will be the largest in the world.
The load factors for the different types of generation are below.
The nuclear load factor is high, as might be expected. The hydro load factor is dictated by rainfall which varies a little from year to year. The solar load factor is lower than you might expect from a country with a lot of desert, but this has not been exploited at present. The mainly onshore wind load factor is at least 5-10% lower than it ought to be as discussed above.
Smart transmission grid
The wind is strongest in the North West and Inner Mongolia (north), but the major population centres are in the East and Centre.
To link renewable generation centres with the population centres China is expanding the high voltage DC and AC transmission networks. The map below shows the projected 2018 high voltage DC grid.
Between 2011 and 2015 China installed an additional 200,000 km of high voltage transmission lines, including 40,000 km of ultra-high voltage DC lines, to bring the total high voltage network to 900,000 km. The estimated cost of the new lines was $269bn. In the period 2016 to 2020 the transmission network will expand at a similar rate. By contrast the US grid has 275,000 km of high voltage lines.
By 2018 China will have 60% of the installed worldwide high voltage DC lines by distance in 20% of the worldwide projects. The Chinese grid is bigger and thus more complex than other high voltage grids, but because of the huge investment the Chinese have been able to develop new techniques to make its high voltage DC grid more reliable and stable than elsewhere.
Transmission losses were 7% in 2013 but reduced to 6.6% in 2014 and 2015.
Insulators on Chinese high voltage lines have to be a little longer than normal as the high levels of air pollution make breakdown more likely.
While there have been significant gains in energy efficiency in China, one area of weakness is a lack of focus on demand response in electricity use. Under the control of a smart grid, demand response is the ability to respond to the availability of electricity by reducing or increasing loads for a few hours (e.g. in response to a short gap in wind power). It can apply to loads in industry (e.g. aluminium smelting), commercial (building air conditioning) or homes (washing machine operation, electric vehicle charging).
What is happening to coal in China?
China committed to peaking coal use by 2020 at the latest, at a level no more than 16% higher than in 2013.
In 2015 the Beijing central government handed over environment approval for new generating plants to the provinces. The local state-owned generating companies believe that a new coal station will generate additional revenue for them, even though it reduces the load factor of coal nationally. So they take a short-term, self-interested approach and thus China is still installing more coal generation. So the load factor of coal generation is going down rapidly year on year (see load factors chart above). The central government has wised up to what is going on (as it inevitably would in time) and the 13th Five Year plan will clamp down on new coal generation. There are already bans on new coal plants in the most highly-populated parts of the east, and these will be extended further west.
New coal generation is not necessarily bad where it is more efficient and has better pollution controls than older coal plant which it replaces. However, it has been the case in the past that coal plants fitted with effective pollution controls (exhaust scrubbers) have run with them switched off to reduce costs, even while claiming bonuses for reducing pollution. Needless to say the central government takes a dim view of this when it finds out and has changed the power grid regulations to stamp it out.
Coal generation is being directly replaced by natural gas generation in some areas such as Beijing which used to have four coal-fired stations. Three of these have already closed and the last will close later this year.
In February China announced it was closing 1000 coal mines and would approve no further mines for the next 3 years. This will eliminate surplus capacity and increase the price, reducing financial losses from mining and making it more cost-effective to replace coal with less polluting forms of generation.
With the rebalancing of the Chinese economy and slower growth, the direct use of coal in China’s heavy industry reduced in 2014 and 2015. Coal use probably peaked in 2013 and appears to be on the way down. This could lead to China’s carbon dioxide emissions peaking somewhere between 2020 and 2025.
The ITER (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project to generate excess heat from nuclear fusion will start operation in the 2020’s but is not expected to generate net power until 2030. The next step is a prototype commercial reactor in the 2030s, which may lead to commercial fusion reactors from about 2040 if the economics turn out to be favourable.
Though a member of the ITER project, China is also building the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor which is bigger than ITER and may be completed by 2030. To help solve the problem of providing sufficient electricity to drive economic expansion long-term, China hopes to develop production fusion reactor technology earlier than the ITER timescale. In doing so it will have to spend a lot on design retrofits from ITER findings, but it must believe the extra costs from pressing ahead are worthwhile.
China is leveraging its huge internal electricity market to increase high technology exports to the rest of the world. In 2015 among world wind turbine manufacturers Goldwind became the second largest after Vestas, though currently the Chinese makers are concentrating on the Chinese internal market which was 46% of world installations last year.
China is also pushing nuclear energy exports, though these are not huge at present. One advantage the Chinese have is that nuclear generation requires a lot of capital, and Chinese banks can readily supply this, recycling Chinese export earnings.
If fusion power can be commercialised China will clearly be in a good position to play a leading role in the industry.
In 2013 China had a huge row with the EU because China has effectively subsidised solar panel companies to export to the EU, which was deemed unfair to EU-based manufacturers. Subsidies included cheap, government-guaranteed loans at very low rates. Currently the EU is reviewing the situation, which may take a year or more. The current negotiated settlement includes a minimum price with quotas, with all other exports from China subject to a hefty import tax.
What about all the trees?
Having spent most of the last century cutting down its forests, China is now determined to stop the encroachment of the Gobi desert in Mongolia and the north, and to sequester carbon dioxide. The Great Green Wall (Three North Shelterbelt project) was started in 1978. China is now growing 66 billion more trees and by 2050 expects to have 100 billion more.
There is criticism of the programme. Trees are planted in areas which are semi-arid, lowering the water table further. And the plantations are generally a single, fast-growing species, which does not promote wildlife as well as natural mixed tree species would. A lot of new trees died, but there is a net gain in the area of Chinese forests and total mass of carbon sequestrated by them.
China has not followed up by insisting that imported timber comes from sustainable sources, relying instead on voluntary controls by importers, which almost certainly have little effect.
China clearly has big plans for low-carbon electricity, primarily to reduce air pollution but also with the intent of reducing CO2 emissions and building a true 21st century power grid. Is it going to succeed?
There’s no doubt the central government has the power to drive through implementation of its five-year plans, and the central planning process will get more thorough with time. Meanwhile provincial governments and state-owned companies will continue to act in their own short-term self-interest, and not the interests of China as a whole, at least until the central government catches on and stops them. The resulting economic inefficiency is going to be a fact of life in China for some time to come.
China is also likely to beat its climate commitments hands down. This is because, although prepared to take decisive actions, the central government is unwilling to commit to properly challenging targets.
But China will still end up with the electricity grid and energy system needed when it becomes the dominant world economic superpower later this century. . And, with high economic growth rates by Western standards, it may not have mattered hugely that it cost China more to get there than it should have. At that point electricity generation will be increasingly dominated by low-carbon generation with either no or low (nuclear) fuel costs
And maybe then the people of China will be able to breathe more easily – literally.
感谢您的关注。(Gǎnxiè nín de guānzhù. Thank you for your attention.)
Biosketch: Peter is a mature, part-time PhD student in the condensed matter theory group of Imperial College London, using Schroedinger’s equation to model energy storage in nano-scale capacitors. The purpose is to understand whether such capacitor technology can be applied in areas such as offsetting the effects of large inductive loads (electric motors) on the electric grid. He worked for IBM for over 30 years as an information technology architect with UK customers including banks, Defra (UK government Department of the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs), Shell and Merseyside and North Wales Electricity Board. The work involved designing and leading the implementation for customer applications and also identifying and solving computer performance problems. In the 1970s Peter studied science (physics, maths) , electrical science and computer science at Cambridge University. Peter’s interests include energy and climate change. Since China is the long term big player in these areas he is also learning Chinese.
JC note: As with all guest posts, please keep your comments civil and relevant.