China is gaining in solar energy, but its use of coal is raising alarms

China is gaining in solar energy, but its use of coal is raising alarms

China is installing as many solar panels and wind turbines as the rest of the world combined, and is on track to meet its clean energy goal six years early. It is using renewable energy to meet almost all of its growth in electricity needs.

However, there is another side to that rapid expansion, one that is causing consternation in Washington at a critical period of climate diplomacy: China is also building new power plants that burn coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, at a rate that eclipses the rest. of the world.

China accounts for one-third of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, more than North America, Central America, South America, Europe and Africa combined.

John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy on climate change, is preparing to host his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, for talks that begin Friday at the Sunnylands estate in Southern California, according to two people familiar with the matter. who spoke on condition of anonymity. to discuss the details of the planning. President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, China’s leader, launched a joint push for climate action a decade ago at Sunnylands.

“Sunnylands is a symbolic place: it is where the first climate seeds were planted between the United States and China,” said Li Shuo, political advisor at Greenpeace East Asia.

Two weeks later, climate will most likely be on the agenda when Biden is expected to meet Xi in San Francisco at the summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation countries. World leaders will then gather in Dubai in early December for COP28, the latest round of global climate negotiations.

It is no exaggeration to say that the health of the planet depends on the actions of the United States and China. The United States has pumped the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the last two centuries, and China is currently the largest polluter. Their willingness to reduce emissions will essentially determine whether the planet continues to warm dangerously, leading to ice-free Arctic summers, widespread displacement due to intensified storms, flooding and wildfires, and the disappearance of coral reefs.

But more than ever, decisions made in Beijing could carry more weight than those made in Washington or European capitals.

“China’s annual emissions are so enormous that reducing them is now the key to any hope of preventing global temperature spikes and climate disasters,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate official in the Clinton administration.

In Shandong province, a peninsular center of heavy industry between Beijing and Shanghai, China’s energy decisions are clearly visible. On the northern coast of the province there are solar panels interspersed with immense wind turbines. More wind turbines and solar panels adorn the hillsides and corn fields inland. On the roofs and sometimes on the south-facing walls of apartment towers, solar panel installations absorb the sun’s energy.

Solar power producers in Shandong generate so much electricity at midday, exceeding demand, that they sometimes have to pay the provincial transmission grid to accept it. They do this to continue collecting government subsidies based on the number of kilowatt-hours they produce.

In some ways, China has made more progress in the fight against climate change than almost anyone expected several years ago. Xi announced in December 2020 that China planned to triple its wind and solar capacity by 2030. China is on track to reach that goal by the end of next year, said Frank Haugwitz, a solar industry consultant who specializes in China data.

Chinese officials could announce greater renewable energy ambitions as they move closer to the current goal. U.S. officials, however, are more concerned about coal development in China and are unlikely to praise new clean energy promises that are not accompanied by aggressive measures to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

Because of China’s size, its solar and wind power may not be enough to address climate change if it does not abandon coal, climate experts say.

“You would be crazy to try to promote this cause globally without focusing on coal,” Kerry said in Beijing this summer.

Kerry has said the United States and China agreed that countries should cut coal at a faster pace, but not on how quickly it should be done.

Chinese officials have defended coal-fired plants as necessary for national energy security. The country imports most of its oil and natural gas, but has the largest coal reserves.

China maintains that its coal plants are designed to minimize overall emissions and make it possible for China to use more renewable energy. The government requires that new coal-fired plants no longer be built so that they operate at virtually full capacity. They must also have the ability to ramp up and down their electricity generation to offset the rises and falls of renewable energy. China has also modernized almost all older power plants to allow similar flexibility, said Zhang Jianyu, executive director of the BRI International Green Development Institute, an environmental group in Beijing.

China has also invested heavily in recent years in transmission to connect more parts of the country to its solar parks and wind turbines. In August, the most recent month’s data available, 97.8 percent of wind-generated electricity and 98.8 percent of solar power were used, signs that China is deploying its renewable energy effectively. .

Nate Hultman, director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, said it was critical for China to work on grid reliability, an issue that could determine whether China uses all the coal it has developed.

“If they know how to run their grids with high levels of renewables and greater efficiency, that will alleviate some pressures on the need to use coal,” said Hultman, a former Kerry aide. “The actual outcome for the climate depends on how that network is managed.”

On the western outskirts of Weifang, a city in northern Shandong, Minghui Photovoltaic Power Generation Company and other nearby solar energy providers were ordered to halt new installations for at least three months while the grid recovered, a manager said. from the company who agreed to speak only if identified by his last name, Wu.

Geographic and climate patterns pose challenges for China in reducing coal use. Most of the country’s large cities, thirsty for energy, are located in areas where wind is minimal. That makes solar generation and efficient transmission from other regions crucial.

On the contrary, the coast is windy.

In Weifang, home to international kite-flying competitions, hundreds of wind turbines sit in tide pools along the city’s 70 miles of coastline. Building turbines miles out to sea, as Europe has done, has been difficult for China because much of the seabed is soft and muddy.

One of the reasons for the rapid deployment of renewable energy in China is favorable zoning laws and public support. Approvals for renewable energy are issued quickly, in contrast to the often lengthy procedures in the United States, where one county scheduled 19 nights of meetings to discuss a single wind farm.

Marked improvements in air quality in China have also helped build public support for renewable energy, although scientists say stricter pollution limits on factories, boilers and vehicles have played a central role in cleaning up the country’s air. . From 2013 to 2021, China reduced particulate pollution by 42 percent, according to an analysis of satellite photographs by the University of Chicago.

Zhu Peng, a fertilizer seller who went fishing on a beach in Weifang on a recent morning, said she was welcomed by the wind turbines rising nearby.

“For us, this is the scenario,” he said. “I don’t think it’s disturbing at all. Otherwise, we will see nothing but water and rocks.”

Li you contributed to the research.

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John C. Johnson

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