As the US takes its first steps toward mandating that power companies generate more electricity from renewable sources, China already has a similar requirement and is investing billions to remake itself into a green energy superpower.
Through a combination of carrots and sticks, Beijing is starting to change how the country generates energy. Although coal remains the biggest source of energy and is almost certain to stay that way, the rise of renewable energy, especially wind power, is helping to slow China’s steep growth in emissions of global warming gases.
While the US House of Representatives approved a requirement last week that US utilities generate more of their power from renewable sources of energy, and the Senate will consider similar proposals over the summer, China imposed such a requirement almost two years ago.
This year China is on track to pass the US as the world’s largest market for wind turbines — after doubling wind power capacity in each of the last four years. State-owned power companies are competing to see which can build solar plants fastest, though these projects are much smaller than the wind projects. And other green energy projects, like burning farm waste to generate electricity, are sprouting up all over the country.
The oasis town of Dunhuang deep in the Gobi Desert along the famed Silk Road and the surrounding wilderness of beige sand dunes and vast gravel wastelands has become a center of China’s drive to lead the world in wind and solar energy.
A series of projects is under construction on the nearly lifeless plateau to the southeast of the town, including one of six immense wind power projects now being built around China, each with the capacity of more than 16 large coal-fired power plants.
Each of the six projects “totally dwarfs anything else, anywhere else in the world,” said Steve Sawyer, the secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council, an industry group in Brussels.
Some top Chinese regulators even worry that Beijing’s mandates are pushing companies too far too fast. The companies may be deliberately underbidding for the right to build new projects and then planning to go back to the government later and demand compensation once the projects lose money.
“The problem is we have so many stupid enterprises,” said Li Junfeng (李俊峰), who is the deputy director general for energy research at China’s top economic planning agency and the secretary general of the government-run Renewable Energy Industries Association.
HSBC predicts that China will invest more money in renewable energy and nuclear power between now and 2020 than in coal-fired and oil-fired electricity.
That does not mean China will become a green giant overnight. For one thing, Chinese power consumption is expected to rise steadily over the next decade as 720 million rural Chinese begin acquiring the air conditioners and other power-hungry amenities already common among China’s 606 million city dwellers.
As recently as the start of last year, the Chinese government’s target was to have 5,000 megawatts of wind power installed by the end of next year, or the equivalent of eight big coal-fired power plants, a tiny proportion of China’s energy usage and a pittance at a time when China was building close to two coal-fired plants a week.
But in March of last year, as power companies began accelerating construction of wind turbines, the government issued a forecast that 10,000 megawatts would actually be installed by the end of next year. And now, just 15 months later, with construction of coal-fired plants having slowed to one a week and still falling, it appears that China will have 30,000 megawatts of wind energy by the end of next year — which was previously the target for 2020, Li said.