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Green Star Over China

A glance at solar, wind, and biofuel projects that may change China's technological landscape

07·04·2017

China has a habit of smashing renewable energy records—its achievements are not normally global “firsts,” but certainly big and spectacular.

It’s now leading the world with a new “biggest” financial commitment to green energy: in 2016, Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that China’s investment in clean energy was larger than the US, UK, and France combined. It was also announced in January this year that China has further plans to spend more than $360 billion by 2020.

Ideally, China aims to be 85 percent self-sufficient in energy by 2020. It has found that the easiest way to achieve this is to be the world’s largest investor in green energy, boosting business opportunities as well as tackling pollution and climate change. According to a former United Nations climate official, China has the capability to take the lead in tackling climate change after the US pulled out of the Paris Agreement—let’s have a look at China’s recent initiatives in clean energy and what they aim to achieve.

Solar energy

China owns five of the six largest solar manufacturing firms in the world and recently switched on the world’s largest floating solar panel farm. Previously, the UK held the record, with a 6.3 megawatt plant. In contrast, the new plant in China, located in Huainan in the central province of Anhui, holds a huge capacity of 40 megawatts. The location is a former coal-mining region which has been flooded by heavy rain, possibly wiping out coal as a potential polluter in the region.

China already has another far larger solar power plant, and while it’s built on water, it’s not exactly “floating”. The Longyangxia dam plant can generate up to 850 megawatts, and another solar panel farm is underway in the Ningxia Autonomous Region, which is expected to be the world’s largest once completed, with potentially up to 2,000 megawatts being produced.

Meanwhile, Dezhou, Shandong, is China’s largest solar industrial “zone”, encompassing 3,000,000 square meters. Like America’s Silicon Valley, Himin Solar Valley hopes to become a household name, and its solar industry was valued at an estimated 8 billion USD in 2013. There are facilities for manufacturing, research and developing, and training, and a world’s first all-solar hotel and exhibition center for low-carbon technology. The energy-saving rate is estimated to be over 70 percent, but with solar heating and cooling, it can reach up to 88 percent.

Huang Ming, the entrepreneur behind Himin Solar Valley, has completed over 100 projects internationally. He has been invited to speak at the UN twice, has been the main driver behind China’s “Renewable Energy Law,” and has received several awards for the company’s initiatives and progress in green energy. According to Huang Ming, the end goal is to have renewable energy sources achieve “a dominant position in the world.”

Wind energy

In 2015, Greenpeace estimated that China installed one wind turbine each hour of every day, making China the world’s largest installer of wind turbines. In 2016, a Chinese firm moved into the world’s first place for wind energy production. The company, Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology, produced a record 28.7 gigawatts of wind energy in 2015.

The western province of Qinghai, home to 5.8 million people, recently announced that it ran entirely on renewable energy from June 17 to 23. Energy was provided by wind, solar, and hydro power sources, with coal-fired plants transmitting electricity to provinces nearby. Vice-manager of the grid company, Han Ti, told Xinhua, “Clean energy is the ultimate way. We need to reduce reliance on fossil fuel, improve our energy structure, and reduce carbon emissions.”

Electric cars

China also overtook the US in 2015 as the largest industry for electric vehicles (EV). Electric vehicles account for less than one percent of cars produced each year, but a Wall Street research firm has predicted that electric vehicles could make up 40 percent of total car sales in the next 20 years. In 2016, China saw a 53 percent increase in electric car sales from 2015, compared to a 14 percent increase in Europe.

Biofuel cars

Kang Liping, an expert in clean transportation at Beijing think-tank Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation, told TWOC that there are now less than 10 biofuel companies in China and the industry is stagnating. According to Kang, “China makes up half of the global market—but only when it comes to numbers. The EU and US are still much more advanced.” The country is also struggling to embrace EV cars. “China’s oil companies don’t like to blend their oils with biofuel and the consumer thinks biofuel makes cars less powerful,” Kang said.

Ms. Liping KANG, Clean Transportation Project Manager, speaking on China’s 2014 International Bio-Energy Summit on September 17th

Kang Liping, an expert in clean transportation, speaking at the 2014 China International Bio-Energy Summit (icet.org.cn)

With regards to the current situation in the US, Kang said, “Biofuel demand in the US is decreasing, but the policy system is better than China.” She told TWOC that the US situation is unlikely to impact on the situation in China, but “the new President has different opinions” which may present a few challenges.

“The next five years will be hard. [The] challenge is international oil price—it’s hard to promote biofuels when prices are low and companies can’t make money,” Kang added. With time, though, she thinks the industry will flourish. The government is setting up its success by giving subsidies to any consumer wishing to buy an electric vehicle, as well as pumping huge amounts of money into the industry. But Kang highlighted another issue: “Biofuel prices are close to oil prices so it is not an open market—they are government-set prices,” she said. She believes the government has the financial power but attitudes towards biofuel need to change, including those of private companies believing they cannot benefit from the biofuel industry.

Challenges

As the South China Morning Post has highlighted, a major problem with solar and wind power lies in the wastage of energy. Systems need upgrading; huge amounts of energy from renewable sources are wasted due to limited grid construction. If these sources of clean energy are not sufficiently integrated into the electricity grid, the industry risks losing profit. Despite these problems, the development of solar and wind energy is more significant than biofuels and presents less challenges in policy, investment, and acceptance. According to Xinhua, by 2030 China hopes to produce 20 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, creating 13 million new jobs in the industry.

At a time when the US is stepping down from its commitment to clean energy, and in the run-up to the G20 Summit being held in Hamburg next week, Reuters claimed that “on both climate and trade, Merkel’s best ally in Hamburg may prove to be Chinese President Xi Jinping”.  China has a long way to go in tackling pollution and securing energy sources for a rapidly growing population, but for now, China is set to remain the most important player in the global renewable energy market.

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