Why wind and solar are poised to power China for the next 40 years | Daily News Byte


The recently concluded international climate change summit COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh offered world leaders, experts and activists an opportunity to pause and take stock one year after a landmark agreement to “phase down” coal emissions. There’s already cause for concern: A November 2022 International Energy Agency report found that, if nothing is done, emissions from existing coal resources are enough to tip the world beyond a 1.5 degree Celsius rise, scientists and world leaders are agreed that the threshold for a safe climate under the 2015 Paris Agreement and the 2021 Glasgow Agreement

Since China is the world’s largest coal burner, any discussion of phasing out coal hinges on whether it can reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. Although China has set ambitious targets for reducing emissions in the coming decades, political leaders remain wary that cutting coal power too quickly could affect the country’s energy security and economic growth. This summer, an unprecedented heat wave and severe drought have severely strained China’s power system, as high temperatures have caused electricity demand to be much higher than planners expected, while drought-like conditions in traditionally water-rich regions such as the southwest Sichuan province, hindered the production of hydroelectric power plants. dams, which caused significant power outages.

China is not alone in its grid resiliency problems due to extreme weather. In Texas, the 2021 winter storm wreaked havoc on gas infrastructure and power lines, knocking out power to millions and leading to hundreds of deaths. This summer, several French nuclear power plants had to cut production as rising temperatures warmed the water used to cool the reactors.

The good news is that China can simultaneously improve its energy security, address recent grid reliability issues, and reduce its reliance on coal power. The solution lies in world-class renewable resources — and a willingness to invest in a modern and more resilient grid. A new study, conducted by myself and my colleagues at the Berkeley Lab, Energy Innovation and the University of California, Berkeley, found that China could more than double its share of carbon-free electricity generation to 80% by 2035, while reducing generation Energy. costs without sacrificing reliability. This transition would generate greater economic growth, reduce air pollution, mitigate energy price volatility, and have significant health benefits for the Chinese people.

China is already a world leader in wind and solar development, adding more wind, solar and offshore wind capacity in 2021 than any other country. However, the potential for expansion is still huge. According to a 2020 study by its National Climate Center, China has enough wind and solar potential to supply about 13 times its national electricity needs. That year, the installed capacity of solar energy and wind represented about 1% of the country’s technical potential.

Much of this potential is concentrated in western and northern China, far from the industrialized coast. But offshore wind represents a particularly exciting new growth area, as China possesses significant offshore wind resources. Crucially, these resources—worth some 2,000 gigawatts by some estimates, or nearly double the power produced by China’s existing coal-fired power plants—are available almost year-round and lie close to the country’s coastal economic powerhouses.

Cost reduction and job creation

As the costs of wind and solar fall, the Berkeley study suggests there is no cost premium for a rapid transition to clean energy. In fact, investing in renewable energy sources could reduce electricity costs by around 6% while creating new jobs.

Nearly three-quarters of global solar panels and wind turbines are produced in China, and the country has the manufacturing and construction capacity to further increase renewable energy and build related grid infrastructure. Building a modern and more resilient power grid would require a huge investment, which could provide a much-needed economic boost to China’s economy, which has been struggling to emerge from a three-year “zero COVID-19” policy. Our analysis suggests that accelerated solar and wind development could create 1.2 million jobs while reducing premature deaths from air pollution by 55%. Similarly, the IEA found that moving to a net-zero energy system could lead to global GDP being 4% higher by 2030, compared to current trends.

Coal plays a vital role in China’s electricity mix. It helps meet peak demand when wind and sun are not enough. Existing coal plants will remain key to ensuring grid reliability as China’s low-cost transition to renewables accelerates, but their operation will change from constant to intermittent generation. Instead of generating power around the clock, coal plants can fill the peaks and valleys of wind and solar production, supplemented by China’s significant hydro and nuclear resources. Since the cost of wind and solar power is already lower than the cost of running most coal plants, the result is a cleaner and cheaper grid.

The Berkeley study shows that this is possible without sacrificing reliability. We simulated the operation of an 80% carbon-free grid over the past 35 years of weather conditions and found no performance shortfalls. Even without new coal-fired power plants, coal, hydro, gas and nuclear facilities, along with new battery technology, were enough to make up for the lull in solar and wind. As COP27 delegates grapple with how quickly to transition off fossil fuels, China should focus on what it does best: increasing the use of its domestic renewables to support its own economic growth and improve air quality. It will not only clean up China’s energy mix, but also put Chinese industry at the forefront of the global clean energy revolution.

This article was co-authored by Michael O’Boile, Director of the Electricity Program at Energi Innovation.

Editors: Cai Ieven and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

(Top image: An offshore wind farm in Yancheng, Jiangsu Province, October 13, 2022. Li Gen/VCG)


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