Is China really able to power ahead in clean energy?

 —  Article by Serene Lim
Wind power plant in guangdong province of China;
Image credit: Shutterstock

China, the world’s largest energy consumer, is taking big strides forward in its journey towards cleaner energy use.

It recently unveiled the world’s largest floating solar farm in a former coal mining town in Anhui province and is increasingly experimenting with the mainstream use of wind, solar and hydro power stations. In June, more than five million residents in the Qinghai province relied entirely on renewable energy for a week.

Such moves are part of a wider commitment to renewable energy initiatives; China is investing US$361 billion into renewable energy by 2020 – more than any other country. Indeed, it now accounts for 17 percent of global investment in the sector. President Xi Jinping has also pledged to protect the Paris Agreement even as U.S. backs away from it.

Incentivizing renewables

Cities across China are adopting renewable technologies through regulatory and policy changes. The Golden Sun subsidy in 2009 has made solar generated electricity more affordable and appealing to investors; in August 2013, the Chinese government introduced feed-in tariffs (FITs) at both state and provincial levels to boost the growth of distributed solar rooftop installations.

“These changes make it easier for renewable energy to be integrated into the existing grid, and more accessible for buildings and companies keen to make a difference,” says Wu Xuchao, JLL’s Head of Energy and Sustainability Services, Greater China.

“Buildings have more options to reduce their emissions through onsite and offsite renewable solutions. And already we’re seeing some sectors which are more active in adopting renewables such as industrial facilities, warehouses and factories which have relatively more roof spaces for solar panels than high rise commercial buildings.”

Coal comfort

Wu observes that while these are all good developments and trends, it is important to note renewables’ small percentage contribution to China’s total energy demands and consumption. “It will take many more years before coal can be taken off the list of major energy source,” he adds.

Indeed, China remains highly dependent on coal. Over 65 percent of all electricity in 2016 was generated by coal-fired power plants, compared to four percent in wind power and one percent by solar.

There are also structural obstacles to adopting renewable energy despite the state-wide push. “Most of the incentive schemes rolled out encourage onsite generation and consumption, which means individual companies or buildings are just looking at their own implementation. There’s no integration of effort in such projects which would help them to take off,” says Wu.

This results in much wastage as solar and wind energy are unable to be integrated into energy grids. Even if they are, transmission remains problematic due to larger power sector management issues.

Wu explains: “From a technical perspective, standardization and certification of solar components are required to make renewables compatible with the conventional power generation, transmission and distribution. Regulatory barriers include a lack of state-wide standard as China’s state grid is divided into regions such as the East China grid or the North China grid, and the level of development in each of these regions is very different.”

Still, there’s no discounting China’s intent to make renewable energy a priority as it plans to make renewable energy account for 50 percent or more of the grid. And according to government forecasts, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region will not need coal for its heating by the end of the year.

If China succeeds, it might just end up being the global green energy leader to set an example for all.

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