Discovery Guides Areas


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

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  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations




Hydro, Clean Coal, and Nuclear


Although wind and solar are the cleanest sources of renewable energy, they are not the most important in terms of numbers. Hydropower, though older and less in the news than wind and solar, continues to generate more of China’s energy than wind or solar, producing a whopping 23% of its electricity in 2010. (Aizhu). Over the years the number has fluctuated greatly; hydro accounted for 32% of energy generation in 1982 but only 19.2% in 1996 before rebounding (Jianxiang). Hydro has serious environmentally impacts, however. Nuclear power emits virtually no greenhouse gases, but remains controversial. Clean coal is also being intensely researched; just how clean it is, however, is subject to debate.

Hydropower has long been a big part of China’s energy picture. Indeed, China’s hydroelectric capacity leapt from 79.3 GW in 2000 to 172 GW in 2008 and is the world’s largest (Ma). Yet the displacement of water due to dams alters river flow and damages ecosystems, disrupting fish and cetacean migration. Additional impacts include “wildlife habitat destruction and division, silting of waterways, increased emissions of methane (a greenhouse gas), and the leaching of toxic heavy metals from the soil” (Cann et al. 21). Dams also displace people and farmland.

China's Three Gorges Dam
Three Gorges Dam site, Sandouping, Hubei province, China.

In 2006, China completed the Three Gorges dam, the world’s largest, which “provides 22,500 megawatts of power--more than 20 large coal-fired power plants.” Beyond its environmental impact, Three Gorges forced more than four million people to relocate (Biello, China’s energy).

Nuclear has also been a sizable part of China’s energy picture. The country “currently has 9 GW of nuclear capacity in operation but expects it to exceed 70 GW by 2020,” at which time it should provide 5% of the country’s power (Ma). Indeed, a recent study predicts nuclear power to grow the fastest of all sources in China (Winning). Lower recent uranium costs have also contributed to nuclear’s growth. While nuclear emits no greenhouse gases or other air pollutants, radioactive wastes and their long-term storage, together with the possibility of a meltdown, are a worry. The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima plant has led to a suspension of approval for all new plants (Richburg); it remains to be seen whether this will affect China’s long-term development of nuclear power.

Finally, clean coal refers to the possibility of trapping greenhouse gases before they can be released into the atmosphere and burying them deep beneath the earth. This technology is expensive and unproven, however, and China is reluctant to add it. Still, China is building the Greengen plant, “designed to be the most efficient and cleanest coal-fired power station ever built” (Ford). The U.S. has given up work on its own clean coal project, Futuregen (although America is still working on clean coal technology). Nevertheless, getting clean coal up to scale in a massive industrial environment should prove quite a task even for a country with China’s formidable record.

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