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China's Surge in Renewable Energy
(Released May 2011)

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  by Ethan Goffman  


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China has the brownest air in the world. China has the greenest energy in the world. Both of these statements are true, if only in a limited way. China is the brownest in that it passed the United States, in 2007, as the global leader in greenhouse gas emissions and, in 2006, the World Bank reported that it had 16 of the 20 most polluted cities on the planet (Fang). Both of these facts are mainly the result of China’s position as the planet’s largest user of coal, which it needs to power its rapidly growing industries. China is the greenest of countries in that it has recently become the global leader in clean, renewable energy, in total gigawatts (GW) generated by wind power, and in its production of parts for wind turbines and solar panels. China’s push for renewables is largely a result of its untenable pollution; renewable energy is the obvious solution. Yet it also fits China’s export-oriented growth strategy— China has positioned itself as a leader in manufacturing renewable energy parts, coinciding with a global surge in wind and solar power.

Haze Over China as Seen from Space
Thick haze blown off the Eastern coast of China, over Bo Hai Bay and the Yellow Sea.

China’s success in manufacturing, however, is a large part of the story behind its environmental woes. Becoming an economic superpower has been a dirty path, one powered by coal—responsible for some two thirds of China’s electrical power. As a result, China has some of the world’s filthiest air: “Smog cloaks cities, reducing the sky to little more than a blue patch amid a blanket of haze. As the pollution builds, it forms a brown cloud, visible from space, that in a week's time crosses the Pacific Ocean to the western U.S., where it accounts for as much as 15 percent of the air pollution” (Biello Paradox). China’s own polluted air causes high rates of lung cancer, heart disease, and bronchitis, among other problems. As of 2005, “women in certain industrialized areas of China [were] reported to have the highest rates of lung cancer ever recorded in the world” (Cann et al 7). Explains one analysis, “The heavy reliance on coal, lack of environmental standards, rapid industrialization, and the national emphasis on economic growth over all else have resulted in overtaxed resources, undrinkable water, filthy air, and vast emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants” (Ma). Other problems include desertification, water scarcity, and acid rain. Indeed, environmental stresses due to China’s rapid industrialization have led to “tens of thousands of mass demonstrations” annually (Economy), a disconcerting situation for a government sensitive to any perceived threats to its legitimacy.

Faced with increasing pollution and unrest, China has turned to renewable energy. With a centralized government and a history of intrusive economic planning, it has mandated a crash program.  In 2006, an analyst compared China’s then infant program with America’s: “There is no renewable-energy law in the U.S. . . . We fund research and development, and give incentives. China is giving directives--getting right to the point"’ (Fang). The five year plan for 2005-2010 called “for wind, solar, bio-gas and water power to account for 10 percent of the country's energy consumption by 2010 (up from 7.5 percent in 2005) and 15 percent by 2020.” (Biello, China’s energy). According to one major report, China has “some of the world’s most ambitious renewable targets, calling for 30 GW each from wind and biomass energy by 2020” (Pew). Other mechanisms include a feed-in tariff for wind power and guaranteed bank loans at rates as low as 2% (Bradsher China Leading). These measures have shown quick results—in 2009, China passed other leading economies in clean energy investment, spending $34.6 billion versus $18.6 billion in the United States (Pew). Further, as of 2010 China has 52.5 GW of renewable energy, “just behind the United States” in installed capacity (Pew).

Cyclists in pollution
Cyclists pass through thick pollution from a factory in Yutian, 100km east of Beijing in China's northwest Hebei province, 18 July 2006.

China’s command economy sometimes leads to animosity, as other countries struggle to adapt. Still, centralization has its drawbacks, as it can lead to meeting targets in an uncoordinated fashion. Thus, China has installed far more wind power than it is actually capable of using. For instance, wind turbines in Mongolia “were built for the government mandate but never hooked up to the grid” (Eilperin). This is largely because the best wind resources are inland and to the west, but the highest energy demand is in central and southeast China. Indeed, as 2010 closed, “only 66% of total installed wind-power capacity was even connected to the grid” (Anonymous Wall Street). In response, China is building ultra-high-power transmission lines, which “can carry more electricity than standard lines, and move it across vast distances with less loss” (Anonymous Wall Street). Thus, China is likely to counteract its mistake of building wind turbines without grid connections via a vast project to move power where needed, with the same speed and efficiency it has carried out other energy projects.

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