China’s renewable energy growth useless without infrastructure

China is unable to enjoy all the benefits that renewable energy has to offer since its infrastructure is lacking.
Published: Wed 07 Dec 2016

By ramping up renewable energy and introducing improved plant cooling technologies in China’s power sector, the country can reduce its water intensity by up to 42% and emissions intensity up to 37% in 2030, according to a brief prepared by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and China Water Risk.

The brief, Water Use in China’s Power Sector, examines the expected impact of China’s power sector on water and climate in 2030. It highlights that renewable energy is critical for decarbonisation and dramatic water-related benefits for the country. 

IRENA’s REmap analysis on China, released in late 2014, finds that achieving a 26% share of modern renewables by 2030 is both technically and economically feasible. Doing so would not only reduce emissions intensity of power generation by 37%, but also reduce water intensity by 42% thanks largely to the water saving potential of solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind. During power generation, solar PV needs much less water than thermal to generate the same amount of electricity whereas wind power doesn’t use water at all.

The water saving potential of renewables is clearly a key benefit for China. The power sector currently accounts for nearly 12% of total national water withdrawals. What’s more, 45% of China’s power generation facilities rely on fresh water and are located in areas of high water stress. With domestic electricity demand expected to rise 65% by 2030, less water intensive solutions are needed.

The global issues of water, energy and climate are completely interconnected, according to IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin. Amin adds: “The only effective, immediately available solution to meet the rising demand for energy while limiting environmental impacts, is to scale up renewable energy. China has recognised this and must continue its leadership in the global energy transition.”

Renewables generation outgrowing China’s grid

China has already pledged to reduce carbon emissions by sourcing 20% of primary energy consumption from non-fossil fuels by 2030. In fact, China has become the world's biggest wind and solar power user, but a large amount of renewable power has not been able to reach the grid because transmission capabilities are lagging generating capacity by around three to five years.

China has built so many coal-fired power plants, which are slow to turn on and off, that it has to turn its wind turbines off for as much as 15% of the time because its grid can’t always handle both being online at the same time.

China started more than 70GW of new coal power generating capacity last year and had 200GW under construction at the end of April, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Most of these plants are idle most of the time and and other sources of electricity including nuclear and renewables are catching up with domestic demand. Greenpeace has warned that China is in danger of wasting $150 billion on excess coal power capacity by 2020, even as the country seeks to reduce emissions.

China’s excess power to be sold

Power officials appear now to be acknowledging the situation and are looking at energy exports to relieve the situation.

State Grid Corp. of China, which operates the majority of the country’s distribution network, is considering how to sell electricity to India, South Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia where there is inadequate supply.

Wang Min, vice general manager at State Grid, has proposed an ultra-high-voltage global power network to transmit electricity, by 2050, between continents, with costs estimated at $50 trillion to develop.

China has certainly bitten off more than it can chew when it comes to renewable integration. The country has been installing solar at a rapid rate and it is unable to consume a lot of it -about 50% goes unused in some provinces.

While the country’s adoption of renewables is impressive, its consumption thereof pales in comparison. Until the appropriate transmission capabilities have been put into place, China’s renewable energy consumption goals will not be realised.