Dams, Nukes, Windmills & Solar: China’s Growing Demand for Energy Alternatives

On her first trip outside Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) in 20 years, Aung San Suu Kyi was invited into the cockpit of the jet as they descended into Bangkok. As she admired the lights of the city below, she said the first thing she thought was “we need an energy policy.”

In China, meeting the ever-growing demands for energy are testing policy makers daily.

Coal remains the most abundant and easiest form of power for China, especially as it is the third largest producer of coal in the world. The country is a major manufacturer with numerous provinces building more coal-fired stations to fuel industry. Some 65-70% of China’s power comes from coal. This contributes to make China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. (Check this page out – click on the “play” button in the image and watch how the red dot representing Asia expands towards the end.)

“The nation’s energy use has been supported by strong coal demand. The increased use of coal constrains the nation’s efforts in improving energy efficiency,” said Aochao Wang, head of China research at UOB-Kay Hian Ltd. in an interview with Bloomberg.

It’s no surprise, then, that national planners are working to find renewable alternatives. In a report issued 30 May 2012, Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) outlines the numerous steps underway to reduce reliance on coal. Even the report’s title suggests more needs to be done: “A Greener Shade of Grey: A Special Report on Renewable Energy in China.”

On a positive note, China’s efforts to reduce energy consumption and switch to low-carbon alternatives have seen results. Global carbon emissions rose 1.5 gigatonnes less than they would have otherwise, according to International Energy Agency (follow them on Twitter here).

The drive to increase renewable energy has led to a boom in clean technology investment. Some 25% of the world’s installed renewable energy equipment is in China. The scale of these projects in defy comparisons:

The (Three Gorges) dam will generate as much energy as 18 coal power plants and will have 20 times as much power capacity as the Hoover Dam in the US. The rate of energy production, equivalent to burning 11,000 barrels of oil per hour, is enough to supply Beijing with power for one year. (Source: Mt Holyoke College)

The Three Gorges Dam led to the forced resettlement of 1.2 million people. Today dams are under construction in Xiluodo and Xiangjiaba with more relocations to take place.

As with hydroelectric, China is investing heavily in wind and solar powers. These have led for the need to upgrade the nation’s electricity grid (some 28% of wind turbines are not connected to the grid due to technology and tariff issues). The heavy investments have also led to a worldwide glut in solar panels. Last year the price of solar modules decreased 47%.

Today The Wall Street Journal Asia reports that China is considering stimulus investment in nuclear power. Beijing-based reporter Brian Spegele writes that jobs may trump Fukushima-induced fears:

“The size of China’s nuclear program is too big to ignore as a tool to create jobs in a potential fiscal stimulus” if problems in the euro-zone worsen, said Guo Shou, a Barclays energy analyst, in an email.” (Source: Brian Spegele for The Wall Street Journal Asia)

Today China has 15 nuclear reactors in operation. An increase in production would also mean billions in investment at a time of stagnant global demand for nuclear power equipment.

The demand for all forms of energy continue to grow. In 2009 China surpassed the USA as the world’s largest consumer of energy according to International Energy Agency. By 2010 China consumed 20.3 percent of the world’s energy. Last year demand increased  7 percent to 3.48 billion metric tons of standard coal equivalent (Source: Bloomberg).

China is on the right path with the remarkable investments in renewable energy. Yet the fast growth in demand and the rise in carbon emissions globally showcase that more needs to be done. Perhaps when Aung San Suu Kyi is developing her energy policy she can learn from China – and teach, too.

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