China is currently going through, and will continue to go through an energy transition period over the next few decades.
It currently relies on coal for a large % of it’s energy needs, and there are some clear barriers and challenges in the way for a transition to natural gas and renewable energy sources.
In this guide, we take a closer look at that transition, including the challenges involved.
Summary – China’s Challenges In Transitioning Away From Coal As An Energy Source
About 70% of China’s CO2 emissions come from coal, and about 14% from oil
China is also one of the largest users of natural gas (behind the US and Russia)
China leads the world in renewable energy investment, and installed wind and solar power capacity
But, China already has a significant investment in coal power plants, and their installed capacity for coal isn’t expected to peak before 2025
Along with a power grid that is currently set up for coal power plants (and now renewables for example), the Chinese transition to natural gas and certainly renewables is made difficult by challenges such as (including but not limited to) the financial profits in coal power plants, subsidies and protection of coal power, lax regulations on coal power, penalties that might not be harsh enough for businesses using coal power, a lack of technology to give renewable energy a performance and cost advantage over coal, a lack of infrastructure and investment to properly integrate renewables to the Chinese power grid, the potentially disadvantageous short term social and economic impact of closing down coal power plants, the impact of renewables on disposable income of citizens, the geographic locations of solar farms and other renewable setups, and renewable energy making some environmental issues worse when concentrated in a particular area.
There are also other challenges which you can read in the guide below
In terms of the transport sector, some sources also point out the logistical challenge in switching from gasoline and diesel powered cars to hybrid and electric cars when done at scale. The lithium batteries in particular can require a lot of resources to produce, can be hard to recycle (due to a range of reasons), and require the mining of metals which may face scarcity issues in the future.
So, overall, there are many challenges in transitioning to cleaner electricity production and cleaner transport not only for China, but the world (but obviously some are specific to China with the way their power mix, governments, energy sector, transport sector, and country is set up)
*Note – If a country is still to use predominantly fossil fuels in the short term, natural gas is preferred over coal because natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon during the combustion process (chinapower.csis.org). Switching to renewable energy is obviously in many cases even better from an emissions standpoint than fossil fuels as a clean energy source.
As a short summary list, China’s difficulties, complexities and challenges it needs to address in moving to cleaner energy in the future include but aren’t limited to:
China still consumes (at this point) more coal than the rest of the world combined
China’s electricity grid currently runs mainly on coal
China’s installed coal capacity isn’t expected to peak before 2025
Much of China’s recent increase in coal consumption has been in line with economic growth objectives
The last 15 years’ development strategies can still influence today’s power system (so, planning for 15 years time needs to start happening now)
Coal power plants that haven’t reached the end of their useful life end up becoming stranded investments the quicker natural gas and renewable energy are used
Energy supply and cost/price problems lead to energy shortages for business and citizens – so there’s a delicate balance that needs to be smoothed out over time
The profit margin for coal is good, and elites are making much of this profit
Subsidization and protectionism are helping the coal industry
Several major industries are heavily reliant on coal power, and would have problems with transitioning over in some aspects
The regulations on new investment in dirty energy and coal may not be strictly enough enforced
It can be cheaper to pay dirty energy and pollution fines than invest in energy and emission friendly energy solutions
Technology for renewable energy isn’t as economically efficient as it could be to compete in some ways
Current power infrastructure isn’t designed specifically for renewable variable energy, and can also lead to power loss from power already generated
New energy price reforms would reduce disposable income for citizens, and lead to unemployment for those employed in the coal energy sector
Governments would lose tax revenue they are currently getting from coal power pants
There could be an education gap for skilled and knowledgeable workers to transition from coal power plants to cleaner energy
Some renewable energy depends on suitable geographical positioning (which isn’t always available), and large areas of land for installation
There can actually be some negative environmental consequences of moving to renewable energy, such as degraded land
Both electric cars and traditional cars in China currently have similar CO2 and small particulate matter emissions
The lithium ion batteries used to power EVs require a huge amount of energy to produce
There currently isn’t adequate distribution capacity even to move quicker from coal to natural gas
There can be a lack of communication between government, industry/business and citizens – which can lead to frustration and implementation problems
There can be a cultural opposition to moving away from coal and already running energy systems
The overall transition can be complex and take time
China’s Reliance On Coal, & Subsequent CO2 Emissions
China has heavily relied on coal in the past for it’s economic development.
As a result, China’s emissions from coal consumption have only grown over time.
In the year 2000, China had:
- 3.4 Giga tonnes of C02 emissions – which was 13.9% of global C02 emissions
- 2.4 Gt came from coal, 0.649 from oil, 0.0598 from gas, 0.297 from cement, and 0 from gas flaring
In the year 2016, China had:
- 10.2 Gigatonnes of C02 Emissions – which was 29.2% of global C02 emissions
- Coal was responsible for 7.17Gt, Oil 1.38Gt, Gas 0.395Gt, Cement 1.2Gt and 0 from Gas Flaring
Coal has constituted an average of 69.9 percent of China’s energy consumption between 1985 and 2016.
As of 2016, China still consumes more coals that the rest of the world combined.
Roughly 70 percent of China’s CO2 emissions – which is more than those from all European, African, and Latin American countries combined – results from coal consumption. An additional 14 percent of its CO2 emissions come from oil
China’s Transition From Coal, To Natural Gas, & Renewable Energy
China has made investments to try to transfer from coal, to natural gas and renewables.
China also plans to expand nuclear power capacity.
- As of 2017, China was the world’s third largest consumer of natural gas after the US and Russia.
- China is also the third largest purchaser of liquified natural gas (LNG) from the US
- In order to boost alternative energy usage, Beijing pledged to install “340 gigawatts (GW) of hydropower capacity, 210 GW of wind and 110 GW of solar by 2020.”
- China plans a 16.5 percent annual increase in nuclear power capacity between 2015 and 2020
- It is estimated that China will need to increase its target for non-fossil fuel consumption from its current target of 15 percent to 26 percent by 2020 to meet Paris Agreement targets
- At present, China also leads the world in terms of wind and solar power capacity
- As of 2017, renewables were generating 5.3% of China’s electricity supply
- China is already the leading investor in renewable energy in the world, planning to invest another $360 billion by 2020
- China says it will be the world’s biggest investor in renewables and has pledged $400 billion by 2030.
Note though that installed capacity does not always equate to end electricity use. Installed renewable energy equipment can have issues with transferring power into the main power grid for various reasons. Power can also be lost in the transfer process.
China’s Difficulties, Complexities & Challenges With A Transition Away From Coal
Specifically in transport:
- China’s electricity grid runs mainly on coal – this is an issue for electric vehicles
- When accounting for emissions from electrical consumption, … both electric cars and traditional cars in China have similar “CO2 emissions and PM2.5 levels per kilometer driven.”
- Furthermore, the lithium-ion batteries used to power EVs require enormous amounts of energy to produce, up to twice as much as is needed for manufacturing a standard combustion vehicle.
- Despite declining in relative terms, China’s coal installed capacity is not expected to peak before 2025
- Despite China’s investment in renewable energy, China still consumes as much coal as the rest of the world combined
- In 2016, the bulk of Chinese electricity was produced by thermal power plants, mainly coal, which accounted for 65 percent (or 3,906 terawatt hours) of the country’s total power generation
- The industry still represented 71 percent of energy consumption in 2016, which translated into a structural hurdle to the advancement of reforms in China’s energy mix.
- … in absolute terms, installed capacity for coal is supposed to increase almost 17 percent, from 2016 to 2020.
- The current power system is still influenced by the last 15 years’ development strategies, which – successfully – aimed for security of electricity supply to power the rapidly expanding economy.
- There is an over capacity of coal power plants – which are essentially stranded investments
- Because of the huge investment by the Chinese government in renewables, it’s pushed the prices for them down
- First difficulty (market forces) – But, the profit margin of coal-fire power increased in the last years, due to low prices of coal and to a relatively stable grid purchasing price – this is a market force which helps coal
- Second difficulty (market forces) – Energy prices in China are probably lower than they should be due to subsidization and protectionism. Industries are also heavily reliant on coal with the current infrastructure set up and it’s difficult for them to transition to new sources.
- Third difficulty (market forces) – due to decentralisation of environmental impact assessments of new power plants, relaxation on regulations to prevent new investments in dirty energy has increased
- Fourth difficulty (market forces) – it has been cheaper in many cases to pay extra fees due to pollution or breaking environmental regulations than to implement energy-efficient solutions
- Fifth difficulty (tech breakthroughs) – Technology impacts these renewable sources’ efficiency, operation and maintenance costs, and eventually, market prices. Mainly it is the infrastructure to take on new equipment. Electricity dispatching and absorption for example is an issue [as well as power loss and also variability]
- Sixth (social welfare) – any price reform for new energy sources would reduce disposable income [and increase unemployment]. Second, governments lose revenue from industrial taxes from decreased use of coal power plants. [There would also be an education and skill gap in the work force]
- Seventh (environmental resilience) – two [environmental] repercussions worth mentioning: geographical suitability and interrelationships among environmental issues. Renewable energies depend on good geographical positioning, where the potential to generate energy outpaces the costs for installation and operation … wind and solar power, for instance, are more advantageous in grasslands and deserts … but they can exacerbate problems like soil degradation, erosion, and water scarcity …
- Investment in clean energy is still important, but the transition will be slower and more complex, and will take time
- Some coal fired boiler to gas conversion programs have been put off until 2020 – when additional gas import capacity from Russia will be ready
- A large-scale transition needs adequate gas distribution capacity
- Households plus a number of industrial businesses will need to switch from coal to gas for heating and electricity
- If Beijing doesn’t take care to increase the supply of coal and put a lid on fast-rising prices – there will be more shortages
- Hebei (where coal use was at 86.6 percent in 2015, versus a national average of 63 percent) has its problems with insufficient gas distribution infrastructure
- Last year, the local authorities converted more than 2.5 million households to gas and electricity heating from coal
- Lack of communication between the government and the industry in the transition can also be an issue
- Nationally, solar only generates about 2 per cent of China’s electricity and wind power a little more than 3 per cent … [despite the large investment in renewables]
- … the problem is much of the electricity is not getting onto the grid. It is being squeezed out by coal, which provides three-quarters of the nation’s energy needs.
- [about] 20 per cent of renewable power that is generated is being lost
- Many of the massive showcase renewable projects in the outer provinces are too far away from the energy-hungry cities and industrial centres of the east, and transmission lines and the grid haven’t been upgraded to utilise the power
- In western parts large amounts of energy produced by solar and wind is wasted and not integrated into the grid, that brings a lot of losses for the companies operating the renewables
- Coal is cheap, and China is self-sufficient. And that has created a dependency
- Coal is firmly entrenched and much of China’s business and political elites are making billions from it
- Some say the coal culture will be a challenge to change, and top decision-makers down do not regard solar as a viable alternative yet
- A lot of employment, a lot of incomes, a lot of GDP growth is relying on the coal industry. In the provinces the local officials prefer coal
- The other issue is cost. Renewable energy is still expensive compared to coal
- … it is only a matter of time before technological breakthroughs bring lower prices perhaps in 5 years from 2018
- Then it will be a low-cost, clean and stable fuel of the future. In the last decade it’s already dropped from $5.00 to 40 cents a watt.
- How effective energy reforms are, and how fast the coal culture can change – will both affect the transition