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Asia’s Accelerating Energy Revolution: China

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Solar panels in Shanghai (Photograph by jcrakow/Flickr)

In late 2012, the Rocky Mountain Institute’s cofounder, chairman, and chief scientist Amory Lovins spent seven weeks in Japan, China, India, Indonesia, and Singapore observing Asia’s emerging green energy revolution. In February 2013, he returned to Japan and China. Japan, China, and India—all vulnerable to climate change—turned out to be in different stages of a “shared and massive shift” to a green energy future, one with remarkable similarities to RMI’s Reinventing Fire vision for the United States. See part one: Japan Awakens and part three: India Starts Tipping.

China Scales

China is the world’s #1 energy user and carbon emitter, accounting for 55 percent of world energy-consumption growth during 2000–2011. Yet China now also leads the world in five renewable technologies (wind, photovoltaics, small hydro, solar water heaters, and biogas) and aims to lead in all. Its solar and wind power industries have grown explosively: windpower doubled in each of five successive years. In 2012, China installed more than a third of the world’s new wind capacity and should beat 2015’s official 100 GW windpower target by more than a year. (See related pictures: “Rare Look Inside China’s Energy Machine.”)

China owns most of the world’s photovoltaic manufacturing capacity, which can produce over twice what the world installed in 2012, so the government has boosted its 2020 PV target to 50 GW to soak up the surplus in a few years. Meanwhile, overcapacity drove consolidation, with over 100 makers exiting the world market in 2012. But plunging prices plus Western innovation have made wind and solar into likely power-marketplace winners—even with incentives shrinking to zero.

As non-hydro renewables head for about 11 percent of China’s 2020 electricity generation, vigorous industrial and appliance efficiency efforts are trimming demand growth. To be sure, coal still supplies two-thirds of China’s energy and nearly four-fifths of its electricity, but its star is dimming. Two-thirds of the coal-fired power plants added in 2003–06 were apparently unauthorized by Beijing, but in 2006–10, net additions of coal-fired capacity fell by half, then kept shrinking. In 2011, investment in new coal plants fell by one-fourth to less than half its 2005 level, and China’s top five power companies—squeezed between rising coal prices and government-frozen electricity prices—lost $2.4 billion on coal-fired generation. Coal’s hidden costs, including rail bottlenecks, are becoming manifest; public opposition is rising. And now further speeding the shift from coal to efficiency and renewables is dangerously polluted air (especially in Beijing) as coal-burning mixes with the exhausts of abundant but polluting new cars. (Shanghai’s Singapore-like auction now prices a new-car license plate above a small car to put it on.) Bad air has suddenly created a powerful grassroots environmental movement.

In November 2012, the 18th Party Congress for the first time headlined a “revolution in energy production and use”—strong language from an organization founded in revolution. The incoming leaders had already earmarked major funding to explore how to accelerate China’s transition beyond coal. They clearly intend to fix what President Hu called an “unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable” development pattern and to get off coal faster. An unprecedented 2012 dip in coal-fired generation, even as the economy grew, was caused largely by a slowdown in manufacturing and strong hydro runoff, but renewables and efficiency too are starting to displace coal. China is making a real bid to be the new Germany, leading not only in making but also in applying its abundant renewable assets.

This post originally appeared at the RMI Outlet and was republished with permission.